My 5 Favorite Classes at Swarthmore

While the college experience is defined by so much more than its academics, our classes, at the end of the day, are one of the most integral components of going to Swarthmore. Students can spend anywhere from around 12 to 20 hours in class a week, depending on how many laboratory courses they are taking. This is a large step down from the 35-40 hours of class that students have during high school, so Swarthmore professors and students always make sure that the time spent in the classroom counts. With the twenty classes I have taken at Swarthmore so far, I think I could probably spend a few hours coming up with a list that ranks them all. However, I’ll spare you from reading that. Instead, I’ll just talk about my top five favorite classes and how taking them at Swarthmore, in my opinion, has made them even better. 

Number 5 – Psyc 035: Social Psychology

Taught by one of my favorite Professors, Andrew Ward, Social Psychology took place from 7:00 pm – 10:00 pm on Tuesday nights. While this was by far the most inconvenient time I have ever taken a class, Social Psychology was an excellent example of how lectures at Swarthmore don’t really feel like lectures. Professor Ward took full advantage of the three hour time slot he had by consistently engaging with students in his class (there were about 60 of us, which is larger than the majority of classes at Swat). By about halfway through the semester, Professor Ward had learned all of our names and even had some running gags with students. For example, with me, Professor Ward and I kept running into each other in the Matchbox, our campus gym. This was brought up sometimes when I asked questions in class.

The material of the course was obviously fascinating, but I think that Professor Ward really sold the class for me: he was funny, kind, and knowledgeable. He also seemed to know literally every social psychologist we talked about, constantly mentioning them by their first name and how he had met them. For someone so accomplished and exceptional, Professor Ward was modest, willing to listen to everyone’s opinions, and an overall fantastic human. He also wrote me a letter of recommendation, so one of his classes had to make this list. 

Number 4 – ENGL 052: Tolkien and Pullman: Literary Roots 

What a class this was. Another class at an odd time (2:00 pm – 5:00 pm on a Friday afternoon), “Tolkien”, as my friends and I called it, was one of the most enjoyable courses I have taken at Swarthmore. I took this class with several of my friends and we actually looked forward to the three hours spent together on Friday listening to and talking with Professor Craig Williamson about hobbits, goblins, and ghouls. As someone who grew up loving Harry Potter and fantasy literature in general, examining similar texts from an academic lens was a very cool experience. Professor Williamson is an expert on J.R.R. Tolkien and Old English. He has translated 31,000 lines of Old English Poetry in his book The Complete Set of Old English Poems and was an all-around pleasant person to listen to. He would bring heaps of snacks to class, from cookies to candies, for his 40 students and required that all of us attend an event called “Charms, Riddles, and Elegies from the Medieval Northlands” instead of class one Friday evening.

For the event, Professor Williamson invited the world-renowned Old English music group Benjamin Bagby and Sequentia to sing songs, read riddles, and belt out poetry to an audience of Swarthmore students, professors, and community members. The event was free, of course, and was a very interesting way to spend a Friday night. Because of Swarthmore’s encouragement of studying outside your major, I felt no pressure in taking this course as a pre-med student. I was also able to take advantage of Swarthmore’s pass/fail policy by taking this class Credit/No Credit in my sophomore spring. This allowed me to just enjoy the class, as opposed to worrying about the grade at the end. The class was capped off with me writing a Golden CompassHarry Potter crossover short story as my final paper, something that Professor Williamson told me he immensely enjoyed! 

Number 3 – Organic Chemistry II 

Ah yes, the quintessential challenging pre-med class. Orgo II was a class that met three times a week for an hour each time along with a three hour weekly lab component. This was the most difficult class I have taken at Swarthmore. Organic chemistry is simply a different language, and as someone who has always struggled with the foreign languages (but managed to avoid them at Swarthmore thanks to the College’s relatively light foreign language requirement), learning a new one in the form of molecules and reaction was difficult. However, while this class definitely exemplifies professors at Swarthmore not holding back when it comes to giving their students difficult assignments and exams, it also exemplifies how Swarthmore’s method of teaching works.

Professor Paley’s lectures were fast-paced but he explained organic chemistry II in a way that made everything click. There were student TAs at our disposal and our lab component fit neatly into the course materials, as we would run the same reactions in the lab that we were learning to draw the mechanisms for in lecture. Looking back at the course’s webpage, Professor Paley and our lab instructors (for me this was the wonderful Dr. Maria Gallagher) provided us with so many learning resources. Professor Paley gave us heaps of problem sets and drill questions, so much so that some days I actually woke up in the morning thinking about organic chemistry. While none of these assignments were graded, students knew that neglecting them surely meant poor preparation for the exams, so no one dared to do so. There were practice exams, exams from previous years, and answer keys posted physically outside Paley’s office so that students could not simply look at the answers online while they worked through questions. All in all, it was very hard, but organic chemistry II was the most rewarding class I have gone through at Swarthmore. It even inspired me to pick up a last second chemistry minor!

Number 2 – Bio 022: Neurobiology

When it comes to the actual content of a course, neurobiology took the cake for me. As a neuroscience major on the pre-med track, I absolutely loved the biological component of analyzing how organisms think and act. However, it was the lab component that made the class as great as it was for me. First, I performed “microsurgeries” on drosophila larvae in order to clearly view the neuromuscular junctions. This process included dissecting the larvae under a microscope, preserving their outer pelts, staining those pelts with fluorescent proteins, and then searching for the stained neuromuscular junctions under a confocal microscope. As a person who is interested in becoming a surgeon one day, this was one of my favorite things I have ever done in a Swarthmore lab.

I also had the opportunity to dissect a sheep brain, perform an experiment on the stretch receptors of crayfish, and use optogenetics to modify the behavior of drosophila. Each lab was fascinating and having the opportunity to do this kind of research as an undergraduate was something I was very grateful for. Additionally, I, as a sophomore who was just introduced to neurobiology, was able to work one-on-one with Professor Kathy Siwicki, whose work in 1988 contributed to research that won a Nobel Prize in physiology in 2017. I know that opportunities for undergraduates to work closely with professors can be few and far between at larger universities, so knowing that I could have an experience like this definitely solidified my decision to go to Swarthmore.

Number 1 – PHIL 052: Bioethics

Bioethics is not a class that is required of pre-med students. However, after taking it, I don’t think there is a more valuable class at Swarthmore for students who want to become doctors one day. While the class did not just focus on some of the atrocities of the medical field, there were a lot of readings on the history of gynecology, eugenics, and medical experiments. The professor (one of my personal favorites), Krista Thomason, brought challenging questions to the forefront of discussion, encouraged all viewpoints, and made sure everyone had the opportunity to have their voices heard. Bioethics is technically a philosophy course, but the students in the class were from all different academic disciplines. The diverse array of perspectives in the class made each day we met fulfilling, as I was constantly hearing views on different issues that I had never considered before.

Professor Thomason would begin each class with a brief recap of each reading, but then would turn over the discussion to the 15-20 students in the class to lead. Sometimes, she would split us up into two groups that found themselves on two different sides of debate. However, my favorite days in class were “Ethics Review Committee” days. On these days, Professor Thomason would split up the students into groups of three and four, hand each group a prompt on the same bioethical issue, and ask the group to come to a conclusion of what the company, hospital, or person can ethically do. The groups would have to agree on a position by the end of class and then meet again outside of class to co-author a paper detailing why the position they chose is the correct one. In my opinion, this class was the perfect combination of professor, students, and content that embodied all of the best aspects of a Swarthmore education. 

The future of this list

Thanks to an abbreviated study abroad period in London and a global pandemic that you may have heard about by now, I have been away from Swarthmore for quite some time. When I hopefully return to campus in September for my final year, I will finally enter a Swarthmore classroom again for the first time in 20 months. While there are so many things I am looking forward to doing when I get back to campus after this leave of absence, I think being a student again is up there with the best of them. I have missed collaborating with students on projects, missed listening to professors lecture on their respective subjects, missed the simple action of wearily pulling out my notebook at the beginning of a morning class. If there is one silver lining I have found during this past year and half, it’s that I will never take another moment at Swarthmore for granted, whether that be during early hours of a morning chemistry lab or during the late nights poring over a reading in McCabe library. I am sure with eight more classes left to take before I depart Swarthmore for good, this list will need revision. I have heard many times that your final year at Swarthmore is your most strenuous but most academically fulfilling. I wholeheartedly hope that is the case for me.

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