Sunday, September 4, 2011

The 2007 - 2011 Yale class rankings

I might be in the Philippines, but that doesn't mean I can't feel in a Yale mood. Let's have a little fun and rank the 36 classes I took, from worst to first.

There are multiple biases in this list. Seminars have a natural advantage over lectures; because I cared more about academics junior and senior year, those classes are ranked higher. Rankings are not a reflection on a professor's personality, personal life, or research. And all opinions are inevitably biased by my own personal interests, as they should be.

Advice, if I could do it over again? 1. Avoid all gut classes. 2. Forget the Econ major. 3. Prioritize professors, not subject matter. 

Here it is: my Fall 2007 to Spring 2011 Yale Class Rankings.

Group G: "Never, Ever, Under Any Circumstances"

36. Intermediate Microeconomics, Eduardo Faingold
I don't want to be mean here, so I won't be. (Just look at the student evaluations. Lowest ever?)

35. Introductory Microeconomics, Justine Hastings
My first economics class at Yale. Greg Mankiw, she wasn't. The topic is like Defense Against the Dark Arts: cursed, no matter who tries. Here's what the semi-secretive word-of-mouth "gut list" email had to say:
"WHAT To Not Take:
MICROECONOMICS: I cannot with any clear conscience send out a mass email and not remind everyone on the face of the earth not to take MICRO unless you like awful boring classes that you will end up getting a C+ in. Seriously though, utility curves are cool. So are horrible professors, arbitrarily shitty curves, tedious work, and gleaning no greater of economics whatsoever.... but for the 200 of you who take it... I told you so."
34. International Studies: Contemporary Challenges, Paul Kennedy
So rarely does a professor hit that sleep-inducing tonal range perfectly. Other people loved him; I couldn't keep my eyes open, even when I sat in the front row (how embarrassing!).

33. Psychology Statistics, Teresa Treat
This low ranking actually isn't her fault. I took the class Credit/D/Fail and attended lecture 3 times all semester. The Psychology department must have realized how impossible it is to fail the course, because the semester after I took it, they mandated Psych Stats has to be taken for a grade.

32. Chemistry in Popular Novels, Iona Black
The idea was novel (pun intended): read lurid mystery stories where chemistry plays an incisive role. Discuss the books and learn the chemistry concepts. The problem was that the books blew. (Think "Culinary Mystery Series.") The chemistry barely cracked AP levels. The only redeeming factor was that for the final I wrote a 15-page short story about a young UC Berkeley couple that stops an evil conglomerate from poisoning the world's chocolate supply. Holla at me if you want to read the delicious page-turner.

Group F: "Not Filling (Gut)"

31. Intro to Cognitive Science, Brain Scholl
30. English 114, Paula Resch
29. Calculus 115 (Calc BC), Steven Jaslar
28. Introductory Macroeconomics, Anthony Smith, Gerald Jaynes
27. Economics of Natural Resources, Robert Mendelsohn

For the most part, these are not traditional gut classes, but they were too easy for me. This doesn't mean they weren't fun or interesting: I loved the readings in Resch's class, and the frameworks in Econ of Natural Resources were eye-opening. Every professor on this list was also caring and accommodating. But these classes were my easy way out: I took Math 115 instead of 118 or 120; Intro to Cog Sci instead of Intro to the Human Brain; English 114 instead of 120. I fulfilled requirements and had more time for extracurriculars, but if I could, I'd take a do-over.

edit: I'm not changing the ranking, but I have to add: Intro Macro was great. Jaynes wore a seersucker suit every class and used the Davies auditorium projector as his pulpit, preaching instead of lecturing. He reminds me of this song. The last lecture, Smith played a funny economics YouTube video I can't find anymore (Tommy, you remember?) Also, the class was at 1 p.m., so I'd come from lunch toting 3 peaches, and leave the pits on the floor while I took my "I'm-full-of-food" nap. The second best memory from an Economics class, researching Miracle fruit with Duck Ju in Faingold, doesn't even come close.

Group E: "Solid but Antiquated"

26. Epidemics in Global Perspective, William Summers
25. Intermediate Macroeconomics, William Nordhaus

Epidemics was my freshman seminar, which meant I met 14 first-years, took a field trip to Professor Summers' apartment in NY, and spent class time discussing the transition to college. The readings -- The Plague, The Cholera Years -- were interesting enough, but the way the class was set up, everyone realized they could get away without doing them. The discussions decayed, and by the end of the semester, I was frustrated and apathetic.

Nordhaus is famous in economic circles, and knowing this fact made me listen more intently during lecture. I even sat in the second seat in the classroom, so that his shoes would sometime kick against mine. I didn't learn by osmosis, though. The material just never came to life, and the impersonal nature of the lecture worked against any longstanding desire I had to learn more about the NBER.

Group D: "Pleasantly Amusing Psychology Classes"

24. Emotional Intelligence, Marc Brackett
23. Research Methods in Psychology, Woo-Kyoung Ahn
22. Psychology, Biology, and Politics of Food, Kelly Brownell
21. Sex, Evolution, and Human Nature, Laurie Santos

The meat of my psychology major. I gorged myself during lectures, fingers flying over the keyboard typing theories, facts, and research dos-and-don'ts. I can instantly recall details of the facial feedback hypothesis, the warm-cold first impression spectrum, the prevalence of food deserts in US urban areas, and the human tendency to pair-bond (while wanting to be polygamous). Anyone with an interest in psychology should love these classes.

Group C: "Endurance Training"

20. Game Theory, Ben Polak
19. The U.S. Banking System, Nick Perna
18. Directed Research - Psychology, Food Policy and Science, Kelly Brownell, Jennifer Harris
17. Decision Making Welfare and the Brain, Julian Jamison
16-11. Elementary Heritage Chinese, Advanced Heritage Chinese, Duke in China (6), Liang, Li, Kang 

I never had an intrinsic love for these Group C classes, nor was I enamored with the professors. They did, though, give me the an opportunity to create something meaningful in an area I never thought I would have cared about. Whether it was a 30-page final about the fall of Washington Mutual; a senior essay about the effects of advertising on the taste of food; or research on the link between happiness and GDP, I'm proud of the all-nighters and the struggle. The classes taught me resilience and gave me confidence that I could pull off legitimate insights in areas I wasn't naturally enthused about.

Chinese was a different sort of endurance training. Freshman year, I woke up everyday at 8:45 a.m to walk to 212 York Street. How I managed to finish the daily homework during breakfast and do decently well on the quizzes is beyond my comprehension. If L1 and L2 was a marathon, Duke in China -- 8-hour intensive Chinese classes every day -- was the final sprint. I was as good as a native speaker in non-professional conversation by August 2008. I might not haven taken any Chinese for the last 2 years, but the knowledge is still there. 

Group B: "Slip-N-Slide Fun: Fast, With a Little Burn"

10. History of Life, Derek Briggs, Leo Hickey and Nick Longrich
I know what you're thinking: what is a science class doing here? Fossils, the earth's atmosphere, different types of igneous rock: this is boring. Which would have been a true if I took it as a freshman. Instead, I took this class second semester senior year, when I had already begun to miss Yale. I loved Derek Briggs' dry wit; I spent time hanging out at the Peabody; I walked to the Geology building during finals week to study.

The TAs pushed the class over the top. All 5 were passionate first-year geology students (we're one of the best Paleontology departments in the country), and all nerds. Every time I asked a question, they immediately responded with the answer plus a dozen superfluous facts. They met me at odd hours of the day, answered emails well into the night. Their excitement made me excited.

9. Listening to Music, Craig Wright
I shouldn't have taken this Credit/D/Fail. Professor Wright has an infectious enthusiasm for music, and held everyone's hands through musical basics. The textbook and CD box set was money well spent; the assignments were fun. (For example: watch Fantasia.) Unlike Treat's class, I attended every lecture, and left with a renewed appreciation for the music my parents listen to.

8. Behavioral Perspectives on Management, Joe Simmons
Probably the easiest class that I've ever taken at Yale. Let's see: 5 quizzes, 2 minutes each; 4 one-page "reflections"; one 10-page paper final. I didn't take the class because there was no work; that was actually just a happy misunderstanding. I walked to SOM twice a week because Simmons is an amazing lecturer (2nd best I've had). He regularly cracked jokes about his wife, NFL football, other professors, and students in class, and broke down complex phenomena into bite-sized pieces. The readings were also from the New Yorker.

7. Musical Language of Poetry, Dave Johnson
My first, and probably only foray into poetry. I got in only because it was a BK seminar; that's what you call a stroke of luck. On the first day of class, Dave Johnson, a slick Southerner with the requisite accent, played a jazz tune and asked us to "feel the flow of the words." The entire semester, we wrote poetry with our ears, which is much more fun than counting syllables every line. I ended up writing 13 poems, and experienced the poetic evolution from "Poetry is so easy" to "Everything I'm writing is crap." I now read poetry regularly, something I never thought I would do. The class, other than helping me develop a new skill, let me develop a taste for an art form.

6. Introduction to Psychology, Marvin "The Man" Chun
Let's forget for a second that the man was my college Master. Can we just talk about how incredible his first lecture is? The optical illusions, the gorilla walking through the ball game (I didn't see him) -- we gave him a standing ovation when it was over. I had never taken psychology in high school; never even considered it in college, and this class catalyzed my academic path in college.

Group A: "Unforgettable"

5. Social Psychology, John Bargh
The pantheon of lecture classes. Bargh is probably the most famous psychology professor at Yale, top 10 in the world. His lectures were like the "Pleasantly Amusing Psych Classes" on steroids: I have 35 pages of notes from his 13 lectures I still go back and look through because they're just so informative. Golden standard. 

4. Reading and Writing the Modern Essay, Alfred Guy
Most Yalies take this class freshman year. I took it junior year. And only to fulfill the writing requirement. When I walked through the door the first day, I expected to drop the class. I'd heard about the workload and the tough grading curve. I was also a horrible writer. Thankfully, Alfred Guy walked through the door. He had a long ponytail, wore a suit with a crazy tie, and in time, he coaxed me out of my shell and inspired me to write about topics I cared about. He gave me the freedom to explore my own voice, as trite as that sounds. After a semester, he told me something nobody had ever said before: that I was a good writer. 

Plus, the guy's got karma in spades: he won a quarter million dollars in Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

3. Principles of Behavior Therapy, Alan Kazdin
The most practical, hands-on, innovative class I have taken at Yale. Kazdin has been teaching this class for years, and he's honed the syllabus to the essentials. It's a 2 hour class, but we'd regularly leave 30 minutes early because he was so efficient. In a sentence: this class teaches you how to become a better person by giving you a method in which to drive self-improvement. It also teaches you how to change the behavior of others. He only takes senior psychology majors, so good luck getting in. If you do, you'll embark on a semester-long project where you try to change a friend or family member's behavior (going to the gym, cleaning up a room, stop saying "um"). The lectures are precise, short, and full of practical information. If I could say one thing about this class, it's that it has the most real life applicability of any I've ever seen.

And if that wasn't enough, get this: it's the only class where I'm bringing the textbook -- all 560 pages -- with me to the Philippines. Yup.

2. Reading Fiction for Craft, Michael Cunningham
For all of senior year second semester, I was in awe of Michael Cunningham. It didn't start out that way: I had no idea how big a deal he was when I applied. I got into his advanced seminar, but he recommended I check out his intro seminar and take the one I liked better. I ended up taking his intro class -- and good thing I had the backdoor in, because there were 169 applications for 14 13 spots.

Cunningham's greatest contribution to my life was to give me hope I could make fiction writing a profession. I was comfortable writing non-fiction, could decently describe the real world, but I'd never written anything made up before. He led the class through exercises on structure, voice, character development, beginnings and endings, and gave us insider information on the editing process of his own short stories. I asked him too many questions over email, and he answered them all. 

During one of our last classes, he told us, "If you have the talent, you'll make it as a fiction writer, no matter how long it takes." He told me I had the talent. A little positive reinforcement: that's all I need. 

1. Advanced Nonfiction Writing, Anne Fadiman
I said it all here. But one note to add: this is probably the one course that changed the course of my life. It's why I dropped my economics major, it's partly why I'm in the Philippines, it's absolutely why I'm writing this blog. If you ever have a chance to take her class, drop everything for it. It might change your life too.