Midterms are usually the most stressful part of the semester. Come October and March, we lock ourselves in the library for hours of studying and essay writing without the flexibility of a reading period that makes final exams bearable. One midterm I took last semester, however, was different. Opening the exam, I spotted 15 multiple choice questions, a brief written response section and … nothing else. Most students finished in under 25 minutes. The median grade was an impressive 92 percent. My classmates and I exited the lecture hall smiling, confident in our performance on the exam –– which counted for 30 percent of our semester grade –– and excited by the certain prospect of a boosted grade point average.
The euphoria I felt from acing my exam did not last. I realized, mid-exam, that a test of everything we had learned in half a semester should cover a substantial amount of material. This particular class, it seemed, had not covered much material at all.
I am sure every Yale student would find my experience familiar. My course was, of course, a “gut,” the famed and desired category of class in which the readings are slim, the exams simple and the A’s plentiful. At the beginning of each semester, humanities-oriented Yalies trade tips on finding “the perfect science gut,” while their pre-med peers search for “writing guts.” We take these courses to round out a heavy course load, to painlessly satisfy distributional requirements or to add a few points to GPAs lowered by “Organic Chemistry” and “Multivariable Calculus.”
Our generation is not unique in our search for easy A’s. A 1989 article in The New York Times entitled “Yale; A Class in Itself? Mastering the Art Of the ‘Gut’ Course” describes cleverly nicknamed classes such as “Mummies for Dummies” and “Rocks for Jocks.” Personally, I wish we had more witty nicknames for contemporary guts.
Silly sobriquets aside, I have come to realize that gut classes are more harmful than they appear. The 150 minutes per week we spend in lecture can be spent learning more substantial material or focusing on meaningful extracurricular activities and important community service work. Spare hours are scare in the lives of busy Yalies, and we must carefully consider how we want to spend them.
The concept of enrolling in gut courses to receive an easy A also strikes me as strange. In my experience, the courses we succeed in are usually the ones we are most passionate about, regardless of difficulty. I would rather take courses in topics I love, even if they require writing long papers, than choose a slate of gut courses that fail to keep me stimulated and leave me feeling intellectually unfulfilled. Some departments offer challenging but manageable courses for non-majors. Yale should expand these offerings so that all students have the opportunity to study topics at their level, no matter where our strengths lie.
Overall, gut courses run contrary to the point of a Yale education. We are here not simply because our grades in high school were high, but because we love learning and want to spend four years doing as much of it as we can. A good Yale course should make us uncomfortable by exposing us to new ideas and ideologies, and by challenging us to study more efficiently, explore a new field and improve our skills in writing and critical thinking. That isn’t to say, of course, that every class must be unbearably difficult. I have taken excellent courses that require a minimal amount of reading. But reliance on meaningless guts prevents us from benefiting from the intellectual challenges and joys of our Yale education.
During shopping period this semester, I remembered the lessons of last year’s gut class. Instead of choosing courses based on their difficulty, I chose classes in topics that excite me. My course load is substantial, but I am confident that I will learn something important in each lecture, that my writing will improve with each essay and that I will become more articulate with each discussion section. Instead of worrying about the grades I will eventually receive, I chose to concern myself with the quality of professors who help me learn. I know I will end the semester a more engaged student for it.
Isaiah Schrader is a sophomore in Benjamin Franklin College. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .