The spring before I matriculated, I took the Amtrak down to New Haven for a funeral. The day before the service, I had dinner in Branford with a then-first year my age that I knew through work who told me about Directed Studies. The pitch: that it’s what the smartest students at Yale do.
Now, it’s my turn to try and convince first-year students to do Directed Studies. Unfortunately this will be published too late to influence anyone in the class of 2027; the deadline to apply for the program was June 2. But I miss my time in the program, so let me try my hand at selling it to the next generation. I promise, it will teach you something far more important than the classics.
Directed Studies is a program exclusively for first-year students. Each semester, three of your classes are picked for you: philosophy, literature, historical and political thought (or H&P, for short). There is an application, but it is not difficult and serves primarily as a guarantee of a certain minimum level of interest. If you find the program is not to your liking, you may drop it for the spring semester. You read, discuss, and write about the Western canon, from the epic of Gilgamesh and Plato to W.E.B. Du Bois and Hannah Arendt. Each week, there will be one hour-long lecture and two 90-minute discussion sections, for each stream. You write one essay per week, five pages, due on Friday, rotating between each of the classes (every fourth week you get off). The first week, you’ll tell yourself that you’ll start the paper on Monday or Tuesday; by the spring, you’ll write every paper on Thursday night. The professors assign you about 400-500 pages of reading per week. (Most people don’t do all of it; I didn’t, and I turned out fine).
The most important thing you learn in Directed Studies isn’t what Kant thought about synthetic a priori truths or what “kleos” means (it’s Greek for “glory”). You might not think you’re getting better at writing a philosophy paper or close-reading a poem, but slowly and surely, you will. I went from submitting five pages of barely legible shlock on the Iliad to writing a short story about young Marcel Proust from Combray and Mrs. Ramsay from To The Lighthouse having supper. You might realize that your own ideas were shared by the thinkers of the past: in the fall, I drunkenly quipped to a classmate that “mediocrity is democratic” before a party. When I read John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” in the spring, I realized that he had beaten me to the punch by a few hundred years.
About 100 students take Directed Studies every year. You won’t be friends with everyone, but by the end you’ll know most of them. If you’re a humanities person or planning on majoring in EP&E, DS will fill a lot of your requirements. But even for a boring old economics major like me, DS was wonderful. I already look back fondly on the days I spent cooped up in Pierson library writing out my papers, reading Nietzsche on the Metro North back from New York, or commiserating outside of HQ L02 before the week’s philosophy lecture. In 30 years, I imagine I still will.
When I went home after the funeral, I talked it over with my boss, who went to Harvard; my aunt and my friend’s mother, who teach there; and my parents. They all said that I should do it. I went to the Directed Studies events at Bulldog Days — a panel and an informal chat at Grey Matter Books — and I liked what I saw and heard, so I applied (late, but I still got in). Last spring, I sat on the panel for the incoming students interested in Directed Studies.
I’ll tell you why you shouldn’t do Directed Studies. If you don’t like reading and writing often, have no use for literature or no interest in wondering what one ought morally to do, or don’t want to dedicate half of your desk to a towering pile of paperbacks, don’t do it.
If you’re on the fence, give it a go. It will teach you how to close-read an epic, reconstruct a philosophical argument, trace the history of political thought, and properly use semicolons. But most importantly, it will teach you how to think — something that will serve you no matter what you do next.