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How to Choose Your College Courses
Introduction to Computer Animation; Boatbuilding: Design, Making, and Culture; Coming of Age in Postwar Czechoslovakia; Javanese Gamelan.
Like a Spinney’s aisle loaded with forty-seven kinds of energy bars, college course catalogs offer a dizzying array of options for students to explore. For first-year and final-year students alike, the new semester begins with a shopping period: one or two weeks during which students are free to attend whichever courses entice them.
With departmental offerings memorized and schedules printed (or, more realistically, screencapped to camera roll), students spend the early weeks of the semester power walking between far-flung corners of campus, stealing away from the last fifteen minutes of Death in Ancient Greece to secure the syllabus of The Fundamentals of Epidemiology. Some commit immediately to courses squarely within their major, while others sample the widest variety possible before settling on four or five. While shopping period exhausts students and professors alike, there are compelling reasons for students to spend the beginning of their semester bouncing from class to class.
Like their students, the professors that teach these courses come in all types. An impassioned professor can convince otherwise disinterested students of the dynamism of their discipline; an especially talented professor of Medieval History, for example, can engross a Business student in the fourteenth-century Avignon Papacy. Other professors are less engaging. A 9 AM lecture with one of the school's most monotonous orators challenges even the earliest risers. Especially in larger lecture-based courses, a small handful of teaching assistants—generally PhD candidates in the department—will take on teaching roles, as well. It is often teaching assistants who lead discussion sections and hold office hours, so be sure to take note of who they are.
At the end of the first classroom meeting, the professor will generally distribute a syllabus, which details in chronological order the requirements of the course: weekly assignments, reading, labs, quizzes, exams, the end-of-semester twenty-page research paper you claim you’re “going to get a head start on.” When reviewing a syllabus, consider how much it’ll weigh on your weekly workload. Not all courses are created equal: a course requiring a nineteenth-century novel a week or extra lab hours gazing at microbes will be more intensive than an introductory course. Think of how the various syllabi you accumulate over shopping period fit together. Are three of your courses giving a midterm on the same Tuesday before Halloween? How much reading will you have on a weekly basis? Syllabi give students a sense of what to expect from the coming semester, both in terms of content and workload.
As you assess professors and compare syllabi, you’ll likely notice that courses are scattered throughout the day and across campus. At the earliest, it’s 8 AM and your windowless lecture hall is perfumed with notes of bitter dining-hall coffee. Later, as the day draws to a close, evening seminars grumble with hungry students impatient to head home to microwave a cup of noodles. Sometimes, that mandatory biology lecture is at 9 AM, whether you like it or not. In the event that you can choose, think of how you function and the times that work (and don’t work) for you. Beyond the timing of the course, consider exactly where on campus your prospective courses are located. Is your morning lecture a full kilometer away? Does thinking about making that walk in February make your teeth chatter? If you’ve scheduled courses back-to-back, how long will it take you to get from Lecture Hall A to Lecture Hall Z? Setting matters, so consider the when and the where of your courses.
Beyond the practicalities of course selection, shopping period is an opportunity for students to venture out of their comfort zone. For the Chemistry student wondering exactly how the economy works or for the Philosophy student interested in the Physics of Metaphysics, the early weeks of the semester allow for exploration. As the semester progresses and fall temperatures cool, carts empty. Magic and Ritual in Ancient Egypt is shelved in the name of practicality; Introduction to Functions and Calculus is deemed “too number-y” and abandoned for something more qualitative. Maybe the philosopher’s sojourn into Physics only lasted long enough to grab a syllabus and dash; maybe the chemist decided to save Organic Chemistry for a future semester, opting instead to enroll in History of Economic Thought. Just as you’re free to fill your cart, you’re free to empty it as you see fit. A university’s shopping period is like the bread and cheese taste-testing stations at Spinney’s; they both grant you the freedom to try before committing, and at the end of the day, isn’t that the most fun part of the experience?
Nathan Vanelli is an educational consultant and a graduate of Brown University.