Zen and the Art of Course Selection


Nassau Weekly Article (11/21/85)

By Randy Schoenberg

I’ve done it three times now, but I still get anxious about picking courses. There is an art to course selection one must have to be successful. I’m not just talking about fooling your adviser into letting you take four introductory level courses pass/fail, or calling your upperclass friends and prodding them for inside information on the true guts. I’m talking about the distinctly human ability to plan for the future.

I have to plan out the next four months of my life, and I can’t help but think of the multitude of ramifications my choices can have over the long term. . .

Okay, that was enough thinking. After all, it’s only one eighth of my college career. However, there are some insights that I think I can share on the subject of courses to take at Princeton:

For the Hard Science Majors

By “hard” I mean difficult, as opposed to soft, or easy. The most fun I’ve ever had in a course was the first day of ECS 320. (That’s European Culture Studies for those of you who aren’t in Campus or Terrace Club, and that’s Three Hundred Twenty for those of you who are.) The professor went around the table asking what our majors were. After hearing a handful of Comp Lit, three or four French, about five History, an Architecture and a lone Politics major, the entire class stared in disbelief when I said that I hoped to major in Math! This was after, a course on Politics and Culture in France 1920-1940. What was I, a science and math geek, doing in their seminar? It was clear from their expressions that I represented their greatest fears in the entire world.

I cannot, recommend enough the value of really testing yourself among the humanities majors. I don’t mean taking Lit 141, Politics 240, Religion 211, Music 103, or any other huge, introductory, survey-type course. I mean really taking the hard-core humanities. Try out some of the programs, like Creative Writing or Humanistic Studies.

There really will be life outside the Molecular Biology Building next semester. It would be a shame for you to miss it. Besides, think of your adventure into the inner depths of the humanities as a crusade against the stereotypical perceptions of the math/science dweeb. Show them that you can beat them at their own game. Besides, you know that it takes more mental prowess to differentiate than it does to digress.

For the Humanity Majors

Don’t be put off by what I said above. That was just a pep talk for those left-brain-heavy geeks who are afraid to express in words, what can only be suggested by numbers. But you too have an opportunity this semester to expand your horizons.

I don’t mean taking the infamous guts, Astro-gut, Rocks for Jocks, Physics for Poets, Nuts and Sluts, or Volts for Dolts. (I know you all know their course numbers by heart, so I won’t include them.) And you don’t have to take Orgo or DiffeeQues’s to prove yourself in the sciences. There are programs for you as well: Linguistics (There’s a reason why MIT is the best in this field) and Science in Human Affairs. But I suggest something like Comp Sci 119, Geo 310, or maybe a higher level Econ, Psych, or Philosophy of Science course. Next year, you can try out Biology or Chemistry. Who knows? You may even become a Physics major.

Test your ability to handle equations. If not, it’ll come back to haunt you when you have to do your 1040 form for the IRS. Besides, it sure beats reserve reading.

For the Engineers

            We all know you have to take a million more courses than the rest of us mere mortals. If you don’t, put your money where your mouth is and show us what all those problem sets have done in terms of education?

Follow the advice I gave for the hard scientists, but don’t just stop there. Take a course in the sciences to find out where all those goofy equations come from. I really admire the few engineers who take Math 217-218, instead of 203-204, and Physics 105-106 rather than the standard 103-104. They prove that engineers aren’t all wimps.

It also pays to go for those daring combinations. Last year, Steven Dunne turned his EECS/WWS major and sailboat into a Rhodes Scholarship. You’ll have your whole life to design engines and computer chips. Give some thought to those things which last longer than a light bulb or a transistor. Take some time out from that schedule that you’ve followed since you were eight years old and learn what really goes into writing a work of literature or painting a masterpiece.


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