Choosing Wisely: Classes at Swat

Alternatively, this blog post could be titled: Why it took me three weeks to pick my final semester’s worth of classes. Three weeks is a long time. But I only have a short time left at Swat, so choosing wisely (and spending a lot of time deciding) seemed like a good thing to do.

In fact, I wasn’t the only one who suddenly put a lot more thought into picking my classes. Many of my senior friends were asking around for people’s favorite classes and professors, likely looking for something that would leave them with a sense of fulfillment in their final semester here. Some notable ones:  Acting I, Intro to Education, Foundation Drawing, and classes in film, music, or dance. In particular, people suggested taking a class that we had always been interested in, but never had the chance. Other folks were agonizing for a different reason: looking for the easiest possible classes, perhaps to get a little sweet revenge on all the hard work that had been piled on over the previous seven semesters? We may never know.

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Maybe, all you need to do to look for an interesting class is to climb up a tree and look at things from a new angle!

Regardless, choosing classes was difficult for me. As renowned psychology professor Barry Schwartz would say, I’m a maximizer, meaning that I wanted to get the best balance in classes and the best combination of professors in my last semester. Maximizers don’t sit too well with settling for good; we want the best, and we’re willing to go through an exhausting search to find it. For example, the first draft of my schedule would have been totally fine. Satisficers  would have been happy with it (and for the record, satisficers often end up living happier lives, probably because less of their time is consumed in the process of toiling away at finding the absolute best, which doesn’t actually exist). However, Swarthmore tends to attract students who are maximizers, which explains why many of my senior friends were actively seeking out the best possible options given that they could only take four or five more classes during their undergraduate years.

First, I wavered between taking four classes (the usual course load) or five (which would call for extra workload). This decision was a tug of war between wanting to challenge myself by maximizing the number of different subject areas I could still learn versus letting myself settle into a comfortable four-credit routine. I chose the discomfort. Next, once I knew three of the classes that I was certain I wanted to take (physics, poetry, and creative writing), I still had two possible class slots to fill. I was weighing options in Art History, Statistics, Studio Art, Environmental Science, Anthropology, and Linguistics  – basically, anything that interested me and that would further my limited knowledge in that field. With the help of some scheduling conflicts and recommendations of professors from friends, I was able to narrow down my choices to Topics in Applied Statistics: Quantitative Paleobiology and Intro to Environmental Studies. Coincidentally, both of these classes are borderline related to my main interests in biology, health, and nature. The main impetus behind choosing the first one is that Prof Steve Wang, who I had sophomore spring, is teaching the class. A genuinely dedicated teacher, Steve strikes the balance of someone who is both good at explaining complicated concepts and keeping class energized. Plus, paleobiology is his special area of research!

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Prof Steve Wang drawing graphs (and a snake?!) on the right.

On the other hand, I had to dig a little about Environmental Studies before finally deciding to take it. I emailed the professors who are co-teaching the class, Betsy Bolton and Chris Graves, to ask how the course would be organized, what readings we would be doing, and what topics we would likely be covering. I was happy to know that we’d be learning about the environment in a more macroscopic way, unlike the more microscopic approaches I’ve been accustomed to in biology. The other classes I’ve chosen for next semester include: Contemporary Irish Poetry taught by Nathalie Anderson, who is one of my all-time favorite professors; Physics II; and a creative writing workshop where students have the opportunity to write and read each others’ poetry. It should be an interesting mix and a semester I’m really looking forward to!

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The brilliant Nat Anderson with some of her summer reading.

At the end of the day, everyone chooses classes differently. Maybe you’re a maximizer like me who won’t be content until your schedule looks perfectly balanced. But, maybe you’re not like me at all. No matter what kind of decision-maker you are, it’s important to keep in mind that even though the content might be interesting, your experience in the class can be drastically changed by the friends you make along the way and what you want to make out of it.

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