Not all courses at Yale College are created equal. While Yale takes pride in the quality of its undergraduate course offerings, most students know that some of the University’s most popular courses are reputed to shell out As and A-minuses in return for minimal work. These classes, commonly known as “guts,” may or may not be interesting or well-taught; they may or may not be worthwhile; and students may or may not care. One factor ties them together: they’re easy.
“Can be very boring, and was probably one of the most boring classes I’ve taken, but it’s not too difficult,” wrote one anonymous student reviewer of PLSC 415, “Religion and Politics,” which has received an average work rating of two out of five over the past five semesters, according to student course evaluation data. The course currently enrolls 126 students — nearly 60 percent more than in spring 2014. “Very very easy to get an A-, much harder to get an A. But this class is almost no work.”
Another reviewer wrote of the same course: “The class is a massive gut but incredibly boring. You can get away with not going to class and still probably get an A. The readings are random and unnecessary so you don’t even need to do that. The final exam was pretty much all opinion questions. Take it as a gut if you need the distributional credit or as an easy PLSC class.”
Based on interviews with more than 30 students, professors and administrators, there is wide disagreement on the value of gut courses and whether they even exist. Some say they are as integral to the fabric of academic life at Yale, similar to shopping period or the option to take a class Credit/D/Fail, while others say they undermine the purpose of distributional requirements. And others still say the very idea of gut courses is dangerous, in that it encourages students to put in little effort before receiving poor grades in classes they expected to excel in easily.
DO GUTS HAVE VALUE?
There’s no simple consensus on whether guts add value to Yale’s curriculum. To some, guts have only positive implications: They enable students to balance their schedules and focus on the subjects they care most about. Olivia Scharfman ’19, who is enrolled in “Fractal Geometry,” a math course geared mainly toward non-STEM majors, said she considers gut classes to be a strength of Yale’s curriculum, rather than a weakness.
“Classes like [‘Fractal Geometry’] might be widely considered by the student population to be ‘gut courses,’” Scharfman said. “But that’s just because they’re the first class of that subject that students find accessible.”
Scharfman added that regardless of whether students take a course because it is easy or because they are genuinely interested in the subject, what matters is that they are being exposed to material they otherwise would not have encountered. Secretary and Vice President for Student Life Kimberly Goff-Crews also noted some benefits to less-demanding courses that enable students to explore academically. From the perspective of student life, she said, part of a liberal arts education entails gaining exposure to a wide variety of subjects.
“You can call them whatever you want to call them, but there are good reasons to have courses that are pitched to people who are trying to be culturally literate in a variety of ways,” Goff-Crews explained. “The ability to look at and understand topics that you know that you want to be exposed to because you’re seeking to be a lifelong learner, to go to a class created with the purpose of giving students exposure to an area that might not be their life’s work — that is a positive thing in a liberal arts environment.”
But University President Peter Salovey was not convinced that gut courses add value to Yale, instead viewing them as unfair to those who enroll in more rigorous classes.
“Although courses can certainly vary in terms of the level of difficulty and challenge, courses in which students receive top grades for very little effort and in which they’re not challenged to do their best work I think are unfair to those students who are motivated to take their studies seriously,” Salovey said.
While Salovey sees guts as unfairly disadvantageous to students who avoid taking them, some students interviewed contended they are more harmful to those who do.
For instance, Lucinda Peng ’18, who is currently taking 6.5 credits, said the popularity of guts is unfortunately driven by student obsession over their GPAs.
“People are cheating themselves if they take a gut for an easy A,” Peng said. “As cheesy as it sounds, one of my favorite classes is also the one I have to put the most work into because it’s so relevant to what I want to do.”
Min Sun Cha ’17 expressed a dissimilar sentiment, stating that part of a liberal arts education is having the option to choose which courses to take. If students want to compromise their learning experience to get good grades with little work, that’s their choice, she said.
However, Saran Morgan ’18, who is currently enrolled in “Science of Science Fiction,” disputed the notion that students are hurting themselves by taking guts. Despite taking the class for a science credit, Morgan said she has found that enrolled students get as much out of the course as they put in. She isn’t required to learn a significant amount, but she can when she wants to.
“Guts don’t undermine distributional requirements; it is the emphasis on GPA — that’s what hurts the liberal arts education,” Morgan said. “Having guts can be a very good thing because if I had to take introductory chemistry to get my science credit, that would go badly. But this way I still learn something I normally would not have.”
Many students choose to take gut courses to fulfill their distributional requirements in fields in which they have only a limited amount of interest. But Claire Grishaw-Jones ’17 said that often, students are afraid to explore options beyond what’s easy in fear of receiving a bad grade.
Grishaw-Jones said she would advocate for more Credit/D/Fail options or being able to take distributional requirements Credit/D/Fail.
“I am really interested in math and would love to take more math classes, but because I know it would bring down my GPA I feel like I can’t,” Grishaw-Jones said. “I feel like I have no room to take anything that’s a risk.”
STUDENTS LOVE THEM
In a way, the popularity of so-called gut courses speaks to their importance in the Yale undergraduate curriculum. The numbers are stark: 102 students in “Fractal Geometry;” 126 students in “Religion and Politics;” and, at the peak of shopping period, 335 students in “Strategy, Technology and War.”
Course demand for “Race & Gender in American Literature,” or ENGL 293 — a course often seen as an easy writing credit for non-humanities majors — peaked during shopping period at 608 students, more than 10 percent of the undergraduate student body. Two years ago, just 49 students took the course.
“The course has minimal reading, so I don’t learn as much as if I were taking a regular class,” said Marc-André Alexandre ’17, who is currently enrolled in ENGL 293.
Alexandre said he and others were likely attracted to ENGL 293 because it supplies an additional credit and gives students time to focus on other courses.
Mohamed Karabatek ’19 characterized ENGL 293 as a gut writing class, but noted that the class was still comprehensive in its subject matter. He added that many students may have flocked to take the course after hearing that it included little work. Indeed, the excessive demand for ENGL 293 created monumental scheduling challenges early in the spring 2016 semester, with some of the course’s 22 discussion sections becoming oversubscribed, canceled or mislabeled.
Andrew Casson, the director of undergraduate studies for the Mathematics Department, noted the popularity that “Fractal Geometry” has achieved, calling it a good option for non-STEM students.
“In a way, I wish we could expand these offerings of interesting, challenging courses that don’t involve a technical sequence like calculus,” Casson said. ”There seems to be a demand for it, and so I think it is valuable for people who are not going to specialize in math or science to learn something mathematical. [“Fractal Geometry”] fulfilled that role very well.”
However, the popularity of some guts may stem not from their educational value, but rather from the flexibility they give students.
Kevin Kim ’18 said he took the course “An Issues Approach to Biology” to fulfill his science credit requirement, saying that the class was a gut. However, he also said it is possible to benefit from such courses without putting significant effort into them, making them a better option than a difficult science class for students who are not wholly interested in the subject.
“We can’t all be taking four-and-a-half credits of classes that are very difficult,” he said. “Having the time to take a class that we take because it’s easier is wholly necessary.”
BUT DO THEY EXIST?
Students commonly complain that the very notion of gut courses is misleading and even dangerous to students’ academic standing. Sometimes undergraduates expect perceived gut courses to be easy As, so they put little time into them and ultimately do poorly. Others find that some gut courses are substantially challenging and poorly taught.
“I think it depends on how you interpret them,” Lauren Modiano ’17 said. “Any class can be a lot of work if you choose to put a lot of work into it.”
Lina Goelzer ’19 agreed, saying that very few classes are automatically guts, although many have the potential to be. She said there are some classes in which students don’t really have to do any of the readings, but those who choose to do so may actually find the class challenging.
Modiano conceded that some classes give out As more easily than others. But even these classes can result in an undesirable grade if not taken seriously enough, she said.
Other times, students in supposed guts find they get little out of class and have to learn course material independently, which some find doable.
“After the midterm, the gap between the level of the work that we learn to do ourselves and the work that [mathematics professor Michael Frame] demonstrates to us in class becomes pretty large — which is not to say that it isn’t fascinating. The class doesn’t teach you how to think, but it’s a fun and often worthwhile way of fulfilling QR,” wrote one reviewer of “Fractal Geometry.”
But students like Ivetty Estepan ’18, who is currently enrolled in two supposedly easy courses— “Fractal Geometry” and “Frontiers and Controversies in Astrophysics” — said they feel tremendously stressful. According to her, the material is challenging and requires significant thinking. To make matters worse, she said, students are expected to learn the material on their own — increasing the courses’ difficulty.
“Guts do not actually exist,” Estepan said. “The only difference is your grade might be a B instead of a C.”
Grishaw-Jones too, felt skeptical about the existence of true gut courses. She took the course “Great Hoaxes and Fantasies in Archaeology,” which she said was “gutty” in the sense that students did not have to do assigned readings and many students only showed up to lecture a fraction of the time. However, Grishaw-Jones said, it’s a myth that you can get an A in the class without doing any work for it.
Nathalya Leite ’19, who said guts are attractive because they are not time-intensive, has struggled to find easy writing courses. In her opinion, all writing classes are rigorous.
“I don’t think writing guts exist,” she said. “They are all difficult and demanding, and teaching assistants grade very hard.”
Rubi Macias ’18, who is currently enrolled in “Science of Science Fiction,” said she decided to take the course to fulfill a distributional requirement. She said the course does not feel like a gut, though, and that she is surprised by how little she knew going into the course and how worried she is about her final grade.
Indeed, Casson said courses like “Fractal Geometry” are not necessarily less rigorous than any other math course at Yale. While the level of mathematical knowledge expected would be significantly less than in a math class for STEM majors, “Fractal Geometry” and its ilk have serious content to them and require significant commitment by participants in order to do well, Casson explained.
“I don’t want to give the impression that they’re sort of an easy option,” Casson added.
Frame, who teaches “Fractal Geometry,” said he thinks the course’s main draw for students is the visual aspect of the subject matter, rather than the workload. While the course is not challenging in pure mathematical terms, it does have significant geometric rigor, he said.
Alexandros Koutsogeorgas ’19, who is taking “Fractal Geometry” this semester, said the course’s difficulty wasn’t really a factor for him during shopping period. Instead, he wanted to learn from Frame, an important scholar in his field, Koutsogeorgas said.
Salovey said it would be inaccurate to label guts as courses that students really enjoy and provide an introduction to a subject area. To him, the types of courses that constitute as guts are those which are easy for the sake of being easy and have top-heavy grading distributions.
FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE, A PART OF YALE
Whether or not they exist, the idea of guts is central to the academic life of many Yale undergraduates. Hundreds of students are drawn to them for a range of reasons — a desire to focus on other subjects, a plan to balance out their schedules, an urge to pad their GPAs.
The question remains over whether students derive greater benefit from these courses than they would from more challenging ones. Students might be succeeding in their short-term objectives by enrolling in supposedly lax courses, but they are also potentially sacrificing the academic exploration central to a liberal arts education.
Still, it may be uncharitable to say that Yale students are motivated solely by these factors — some do find guts worthwhile. In a relaxed academic setting, it is possible to focus on learning for learning’s sake, rather than doing what it takes to score an A. And it is possible to be a student without feeling the pressure that burdens so many at Yale.
For Frame, the draw of his class is more than its workload.
“Mostly it’s just really pretty stuff,” he said.
And it might be best not to drown out the beauty with mountains of homework.