The Ones You Least SuspectA few of my favorite classes
November marks the release of the spring course catalog and this will be the last one for my undergraduate career. This event leads to some hilarious overheard conversations between students every year — “What are the advantages of ‘Greek Death and Burial’,” I suppose, being in Greece at the time.
“Is ‘The Middle Ages’ [class] fun?” Depends on who you were.
“You've taken this class, how did you feel about ‘Touching Books’?” Generally a fan. There is an art and a science to course selection, I think. The science is making sure that you’ve checked off all your distributions and departmental requirements and that you are not also signed up for two overlapping lectures and so on. The art of course selection is something I think I’ve just recently mastered and that is the art of willing, or expecting, to be surprised.
Some classes you know you are going to love. When I saw a class, for example, on ancient historiography in the Mediterranean and East Asia, I jumped to take it because I love philosophy of history and ancient cultures. I also wanted the chance to read East Asian classics that I’ve never before been exposed to. However there is a trap we tend to fall into, which is only taking classes about things we already like. I guess there is something commendable about the physicist who is so single-minded that they take nothing but physics classes. But if it’s motivated out of fear of the unknown instead of unyielding devotion to a particular topic, in that case, all I have to say is that favorite classes are often the ones you least suspect.
When signing up for my first batch of Princeton classes, I noticed a freshman seminar called “Alchemy.” There is a small part of my brain that even to this day hopes my career path might ultimately be transmuting lead into gold, but I admit the primary reason for selecting that class is evident in my reaction: “An entire class on alchemy? No way!” I went into it expecting to be surprised, and I was. In just one class I learned a great deal about science, religion, art, literature and culture in the early modern period. Or sophomore year, when I considered dropping Latin after the grammar-intensive introductory sequence. I took a course on Caesar and Catullus, my first literature course, and was astounded at how beautiful the language could be, putting (for the first time) my Latin homework at the absolute top of my to-do list. By the end of sophomore year I had declared my major in classics—so I’m glad I didn’t end up dropping the class. Junior year, I realized I had never taken a philosophy class, so I threw myself at “Metaphysics and Epistemology.” It could have been terrible—going into the class I certainly didn’t know what epistemology was, and didn’t have the faintest grasp on metaphysics, but it became one of my favorite classes and kindled a deep love of philosophical writings and debate.
Sometimes you know you will love something and you’re right. Sometimes you think you will love something and you’re wrong. What I am suggesting is that there is a third possibility, which is almost the rule in course selection. Sometimes you end up loving something you had no idea you could even like.