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The urban legend of the Yale gut class, exposed


You got into Yale because you can write. Or maybe because you can draw or paint. Or sing, or dance, or act, or debate. You patiently drudged through four years of boring chemistry and calculus to get to Yale and now that you're almost here, you're looking forward to being able to take only classes that truly interest you.
EE 101 professor Roman Kuc thinks analog data processing is easy. Don't believe him.

But the Administration requires you to take two hard science or math courses in your first two years here. If you're like me, you did fine in science and math in high school but then expelled all traces of calculus and trigonometry from your brain the second you finished taking the SAT II. Thus, you too will come to the startling revelation once you arrive at Yale that you can't add without using your fingers.

A gut class, in its purest form, is a beautiful thing. Often signified by a "for non-science majors" designation in the Blue Book, gut classes allow people like you and me to fulfill requirements and graduate with our GPAs intact. Unfortunately, to find a true gut class, you'll have to do much more than simply browse the course book.

The three introductory courses in the astronomy department (110, 120 and 130) wear the "for non-science majors" label, but aside from that, they bear little resemblance to guts. Still, they often draw crowds of humanities people, as the potential to "study the stars" appeals to romantic impulses lurking in the hearts of almost every liberal arts student. Astronomy as an idea conjures up images of beautiful, starry evenings and constellations named after Greek heroes. Astronomy as a class conjures up concepts of quantum physics and differential equations.

So if the stars are off-limits, what other pleasant, pretty things can you learn about and still get hard science credit? You can learn about forests and oceans in the forestry and environmental science department's introductory course, which is popular among non-science majors. F&ES 199 meets early in the morning, but the concepts are fairly easy to grasp and there aren't any problem sets. The 20-page research paper due at the end of the term is less pleasant. When I took the course, I had to read an entire textbook about dirt for my final paper. If you are smart, you will choose a topic that will not force you to do that.

The most widely-used class for fulfilling the science requirement, hands down, is "The Digital Information Age," popularly referred to as EE 101, the intro course offered by the electrical engineering department. After gaining a reputation as the gut class to end all gut classes when it was first offered a few years ago, it has since been radically overhauled so that it is much, much harder. Still, almost every single non-science major at Yale will enroll in it before graduating, for no other reason than that it has somehow managed to hold on to its easy reputation.

I, like many others, fell for the story about EE 101. The night before the first exam, I decided that the most effective way to study would be an hour-long session at Naples with two friends and a pitcher of beer. The day after the test, we got our scores back. Me: 30/100, Study Partner No. 1: 20/100, Study Partner No. 2, 10/100.

The myth of the gut science course is a widespread one. In fact, Yale has precious few classes that you can get through without doing at least a moderate amount of work. If you hear about a "gut" science course when you arrive, be skeptical. Any course that has such a widespread reputation that it enters your consciousness before you've been here a month is probably too good to be true. After all, as soon as a professor finds out that his or her class is being called a gut by the student body, he or she will take enormous steps to counteract that reputation.

What most established guts usually do have is a safety net to keep all but the biggest slackers from failing the class. They usually feature generous grade curves, bonus-point opportunities, and help sessions. Once I learned that studying in a bar was not a proper pre-exam ritual, I was able to pull my final grade in EE 101 up to a B+. One of my study partners' situation, apparently, was irreparable; he failed the course and ended up being unable to fulfill his Group IV requirement by the end of his sophomore year.

You've been warned. Life, and the distributional requirements that come with it, aren't fair. That's what you get for going to an Ivy League school. So, suck it up and remember to bring your TI-85. You're going to need it.

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