Current Issue
Web Exclusives
YFP Store
Contact Us

A Coarse Critique
The Editors • Courses to take, courses to avoid.
Freshman 2003

Unless you were a child prodigy in high school, much of your first year at Yale will be spent taking overviews, surveys, or intro classes. Some of these offerings at Yale are downright awful. Some are spectacular, and all are available to freshmen.

Word of mouth is the best bet for selecting courses, but the YFP would like to add a few rules of thumb and information about popular freshman fodder.

If Credit/D/Fail is an option for a class, always take it. You can change back at midterm with no penalty. (Hint: don’t mention to Profs or TA’s that you are taking the class CR/D/F, they are often unaware, and what they don’t know can’t hurt you.)

The official course critique is useless and out of date; don’t trust it.

You can talk your way into almost anything. If you really want to get into a class with prerequisites, and you think you’re qualified, ask to speak with the professor. Sometimes you can get away with just signing up for the class, especially in Groups I, II and III, but even in Group IV, a conversation with the Prof will usually get you what you want.

In big lecture classes, check to see whether there is a required section. Your schedule may appear easy at the beginning of shopping period, but if you add several sections, your life can become unpleasant quickly. Sections are also taught by TA’s, which makes most of them a waste of time.

Here is a brief review of some courses open to freshmen:


EE&B 122b, Principles of Evolution, Ecology, and Behavior. Stephen Stearns.
In this class full of pre-meds, it’s easy to feel like a slacker when your fellow classmates spend hours every night doing the huge amounts of assigned reading. Fortunately, you will probably do just as well without the reading since most of the subject matter tends to be vague and ambiguous. Expect this class to be much more challenging than your typical introductory science class with long, difficult exams and useless sections whose only purpose is to prepare you for the papers you will write throughout the semester.


CHEM 114, Comprehensive General Chemistry.
Full of premeds, boring as hell (actually, I expect you wouldn’t fall asleep in hell). If you take this class and read the book, you’ll do all right. If you wait until five days before the final to read it (like I did) you won’t do all right. Weekly problem sets.

CHEM 116L, General Chemistry Laboratory. N. Ganapathi.
An easy introduction to basic lab techniques, don’t expect to work too hard to get a decent grade in this class. Dr. Ganapathi, affectionately known as “Dr. G,” is what really makes this class worthwhile. His sense of humor and enthusiasm for chemistry will keep you motivated to make the weekly trek up science hill for this lab.

CHEM 125, Freshman Organic Chemistry.
This course is recommended to all students interested in science, not only to those who intend to major in it. Elucidating the complexities and beauty of chemistry, it forces students to move beyond mere rote memorization, though substantial memory work is required. Be prepared for hard work – the class is used to weed out pre-med students and involves challenging tests and assignments. However, the generous curve makes up for it.

CHEM 135Lb, Advanced General Chemistry Laboratory. Iona Black.
Quite possibly one of the most annoying courses at Yale, this course will suck you dry. Besides spending four hours per week in the disgusting labs of SCL, you will also be spending an average of 10 hours per week writing up annoying lab reports all for a measly half credit. To make matters worse, there is a lab quiz before each lab. Iona Black is very demanding and often nasty about details, for no reason. She will force you to write up your lab reports in Microsoft Excel, no matter how annoying it may be. Avoid this class like the plague.

CHEM 332, Physical Chemistry with Applications in the Physical Sciences.
If you really enjoy Chem, then this is the course is for you. The material is often difficult to grasp. However, most of the math is pretty basic calculus. Unfortunately, this course gives one the impression that no one in the chemistry department knows any math. You may come to realize that the rule against dividing by zero is just a social construct.

Computer Science CPSC 112 a or b, Introduction to Programming.
No prior programming experience is needed. Although the lecture notes on the website are a luxury, that luxury destroys your motivation to attend class. Weekly problem sets take some time, because you have to go over and over the program you have written to figure out where you left out that stupid parenthesis. The problem sets also compose a large percentage of your grade. You will get a good grade if you do the work, but it’s not easy.


Yale has a fairly prestigious economics department with lots of famous economists on its faculty. However, one can usually get a better econ. lesson from reading the Wall Street Journal than taking a course in this department.

ECON 115 a or b, Intro to Microeconomics.
You can either read the book or go to class; no need to do both. Weekly problem sets are generally easy for students with good mathematic and economic intuitions; others find it significantly harder. Quite possibly a waste of time; every example in this class seems to take place in the Land of Make Believe.

ECON 116 a or b, Introduction to Macroeconomics.
Much like Micro, you can choose to read or go to class. William Nordhaus is an excellent lecturer. He was, however, Jimmy Carter’s chief economic advisor during Carter’s administration. Do you trust a guy who oversaw 12% interest rates and 8% unemployment to teach you economics? If you’re not going to be an econ major, you should read The Wall Street Journal instead of wasting a credit. Avoiding academic economists is also generally good advice.


Yale’s English department is superb, particularly once you get past the introductory level. There are lecture courses in the upper levels that are open to freshmen – take advantage of them if you’re up to the challenge.

ENGL 114a/115a.
These courses are designed to teach you how to write, but they don’t do much serious literary work. They’re worth taking if you want to work on your writing, but if you can pass into a higher-level English class, it’s probably a better idea. (Even if your SAT or AP scores are not stellar, you can get into the 120- level classes by submitting a good writing sample.)

ENGL 120, Modern Prose: Advanced Writing.
This course offers what might be the only chance a Yale student has to focus exclusively on writing skills. Students learn a variety of methods by which they can express their ideas and thoughts throughout the rest of their career. Don’t take this class unless you’re really interested in improving your writing – you will only get out of the class as much as you put in, and those with little desire find the class tedious and dull.

ENGL 125, Major English Poets.
This class is a requirement for the English major, so it’s taught by actual-size professors (no TA’s). The pace is much more leisurely than in 129, so you get many more class discussions and have time to read more carefully. Traugott Lawler is a particularly fine professor.

ENGL 129a, The European Literary Tradition.
“Greatest Hits of Western Civ.” The material is terrific—Homer, Joyce, Shakespeare, Dante and similar stars. The class focuses on drama. The downside is the massive reading list, which makes in-depth analysis difficult. (Hamlet is taught in just three classes.) This is not a lecture course—you have to pre-register for sections as in 125, but here your section may be taught by a TA. The class will only be enjoyable if the instructor is talented, enthusiastic, and somewhat wellbalanced. (All three in one package is rare for an English TA.) Unfortunately, you are completely blind in pre-registration, so a good TA (or, rarely, professor) requires some luck. George Fayen’s section is by far the best. This is not a lecture course—you have to pre-register or talk your way in. Read the Iliad before you start if possible.

Film Studies

FILM 150a, Introduction to Film Studies.
The only way this course will not seem like a dreadful season in purgatory is if you truly, madly, deeply love film. Frankly, Musser’s lectures are like Faulkner meets Freud—streamof- consciousness psychobabble. The approach to film criticism in this course is tedious and unproductive. There are some fantastic films on the syllabus, but Blockbuster Video is a less painful way to experience the movies.


Fortunately, there are no prerequisites for history, so any of the dozens of classes is fair game. Yale has the best history department in the country, so it’s worth taking some before you graduate. But watch out for the TA’s. Most of them are GESO sympathizers and there are a handful who won’t hesitate to screw you if you’re on the Right.

HIST 202b, European Civilization 1648-1945. John Merriman.
A classic in the history department, this class always attracts a fair number of students. The class provides you with a decent overview of a large period of history. Professor Merriman is mostly entertaining, but lectures are of varying relevance. He often drifts off into insignificant details, which can make him hard to follow. Members of the vast right-wing conspiracy will have to put up with some lefty remarks and socialist books such as Zola‘s Germinal, as well as Prof. Merriman‘s long-time love relationship with France and its culture. Do the textbook reading to the midterm and then stop: you‘ll be given the possible questions for the final, so it will be early enough to look at the necessary parts in the textbook during reading period. It’s almost impossible to read all the additional books, but you most likely won’t be asked much about them on exams. Also, you get to write the final paper about anything you want that happened between 1648 and 1945.

HIST 205a, Introduction to Ancient Greek History. Donald Kagan.
Donald Kagan makes this class. From his sweeping introductory lecture on why we should care about the Greeks to his demonstrations of hoplite fighting patterns, he’s a fascinating lecturer with years of practice. The reading list is excellent, but the course is very demanding as far as workload goes. Watch out — TA’s make a huge difference here. Sections are optional, but you really should take one. Be sure you don’t get one of those guys who fails half the class just to be ornery.


If you’re looking to fulfill your language requirement, you should have placed out on the AP test in high school, and now you’re screwed. For most courses, the placement exam is nearly impossible for non-native speakers. Watch out for taking intro classes. Often, people take the classes if they already speak well, in order to raise their GPA’s. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

CHNS 115, Elementary Modern Chinese.
Expect hours of study, daily quizzes, and a lingering fear that you are tone-deaf. However, William Zhou is energetic, driven, and very demanding, and there is a good chance you’ll leave this class being able to say more than just “ni hao.” If Congress persists in its appeasement policy, you’ll be glad you took this class.

JAPN 115, Elementary Japanese.
For those anime-lovers who think that Japanese would be a fun way to fill one’s language requirement, be warned: the class is no cup of green tea. Nightly homework assignments can become time-consuming, especially when combined with frequent quizzes. The fact that the earliest section of this class begins at 9:30 is yet another strike against it. However, for those who truly love the language and culture of Japan, the class is well worth your time.

LATN 110a, Beginning Latin: The Elements of Latin Grammar.
If you’re looking to fulfill that language requirement with the least amount of pain, Latin is the language for you. It only meets three times a week, requires no time at the language lab, and is conducted entirely in English. If you stick around for two years (thus fulfilling the language requirement), you’ll get to read Virgil. And also, if you travel back in time and end up in Europe 500 years ago, you’ll be able to converse with any priest of any nationality.

SPAN 115, Elementary Spanish.
A chore. It requires daily attendance, which, as any real college student can tell you, is sinful. The work is reminiscent of the second grade, with corny videos, boring labs, and an “activity book." If you are at all familiar with Spanish, it is an easy class, but do not expect any kind of a fiesta.

SPAN 138, Advanced Conversational Spanish.
This course is easy and very flexible. There are almost no assignments. The few that there are go by like a breeze. There is one short book by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Attendance is mandatory, as is class participation, which usually involves being involved in and leading discussions on some current events.


MATH 112 a or b, Calculus of Functions of One Variable I.
This class is roughly equivalent to a first secondary school course in calculus. One thing that this class proves: just because you’re at Yale doesn’t mean the instructors are any better than in high school. Most TA’s speak broken English, if any. Michael Frame is a particularly good lecturer, so try to get his section.

MATH 115 a or b, Calculus of Functions of One Variable II.
If calculus was a breeze in high school, don’t necessarily expect the same thing at Yale. This course is an intermediary for those who took Calculus AB but are not yet ready for Multivariable Calculus. Most likely you will be teaching yourself the information in this class unless you find the rare TA who is capable of teaching a course and speaking English.

MATH 120 a or b, Calculus of Functions of Several Variables.
This class does not deal with proofs; instead, students work on difficult computations. A lot of time is spent working on calculators and using formulas that you don’t understand. Definitely shop around for different sections. Peter Jones is a phenomenal lecturer and often teaches a section or two of this course.

MATH 190 a or b, Fractal Geometry. Michael Frame.
This is a basic introduction to “fractals” (those cool pictures that introduce a scene in Jurassic park) and “chaos” (a word used by many Yale pseudo-intellectuals) intended for non-science majors. Unlike other math courses, it satisfies the natural science requirement. Requiring no knowledge of high school geometry, the course is quite easy and Michael Frame is a phenomenal teacher. It is at 9 am, so that might be a deterrent. However, the material is an interesting introduction to a relatively new branch of mathematics.

MATH 230, Vector Calculus and Linear Algebra. Greg Friedman.
This course is a rigorous full-year introduction to abstract mathematics. Covering three semesters of material in just two, it gives any potential math or physics major a solid foundation for further study of mathematics. The book usually used is hard to read, so one might want to go to the Bookstore to buy a supplementary text. However, Greg Friedman is a terrific lecturer and explains things very well. Problem sets are time-consuming and the tests are quite hard. There is a curve, so grades aren’t too terrible in the end.


PHIL 116a, Introduction: Ancient Philosophy.
A good introduction to ancient philosophical thought. It is also useful for beginning to develop your own philosophical reasoning. Sections are required, and some of the budding philosophers in the class can be quite annoying.

PHIL 117a, Modern Philosophy from Descartes to Kant.
The merit of this course depends largely on who teaches it, but on the whole it is a poor introduction to modern philosophy. Such survey courses are unable to present philosophy in its proper context and therefore provide reading without understanding and lectures without relevance. The workload, however, is light —a reflection of the course content. If you are a philosophy major and are required to take this course, we pity you.

PHIL 204a, Logical Theory 1. Sun-Joo Shin.
The professor is reason enough to take this class. If you want to skip PHIL 130 – as you should – you can take this more advanced course in logic. It assumes that you can already reason logically and instead of forcing you to work through stupid tautologies, it derives the validity of logic. Sun-Joo Shin is a phenomenal lecturer and one should definitely take this course with her. The grading is based on biweekly problem sets and a take-home final. The grading is fair and most people do decently.

Political Science

Yale has one of the best political science departments in the country. Courses offered in PoliSci, however, vary in quality and are often a bunch of utilitarian propaganda. The courses in political theory can be particularly good. Sometimes, freshmen can even get into seminars. Steven Smith and Norma Thompson are especially gifted teachers. If you want to get into one of their seminars, however, you might have to wait till junior year.

PLSC 114a, Introduction to Political Philosophy.
Steven Smith is not the only professor who teaches this class, but he is the best, so those interested in basic political philosophy should take the class this year. The course spans political ideas presented by philosophers from Plato to Marx. It is an interesting course that fortunately does not overload students with reading.

PLSC 118a, Moral Foundations of Politics. Ian Shapiro.
Shapiro is an engaging lecturer, and covers a lot of ground. The course readings and theories studied are varied, but conservatism is blatantly ignored. It is possible to get a lot out of this class, but the class is not designed to help stimulate further thinking— you’ve got to be motivated.

PLSC 205a, The American Presidency.
One word sums up this course: boring. A deep analysis of how the presidency works could be interesting, if the lectures were not so dry and scientific and the reading not so dense.

Psychology PSYC 110 a or b, Introduction to Psychology.
The only prerequisite for the psychology major, this class is always popular among Freshmen. It will provide you with a strong overview of the field and provide you with insights about the most entertaining experiments and theories of psychology. Several different professors teach the class each year and the quality of the course can, as always, vary according to the instructor. Nonetheless, students consistently enjoy lectures and find most of the reading material palatable. Beware, though, about evil tongues that claim this class is a gut. Most students spend a lot of time doing the reading and studying for exams.

PSYC 160b, Social Psychology.
After this class, you may wonder what kind of world you live in. Besides all your new ideas about human nature, you will also have memorized tons of more or less plausible theories about the functioning of groups. Most students enjoy the class, though some of the reading can be tedious and TAs tend to be picky on exams.

PSYC 180a, Abnormal Psychology.
This is a fantastic class for anyone even remotely interested in mental health. Professor Lockhart is a kind and entertaining lecturer with a sense of humor. Not many other courses will encourage you to dress up as a mental illness on Halloween. The workload and the exams were fair, and while section was not particularly useful, TAs made efforts to help students as much as possible. Most of the reading was interesting and provided balance between the scientific and experiential aspects of psychopathology.


STAT 104a, Introduction to Statistics: Psychology.
The big bonus involved in taking this class instead of the easier Psychology 200b is that it fulfills the group four requirement. Tuesday lectures are with Joseph Chang, who does his best to make statistics entertaining, unfortunately not very successfully. Tom Brown, the psychology section leader, makes you wish you were back in Chang’s classroom. The class is mathematically not very difficult. The weekly problem sets can be tedious. Section leaders realize psychology majors aren‘t all good at math, so you get to pick among the problems you want to do on the midterm and the final. Hint: go to the review sessions, especially before the midterm.

STAT 102a/PLSC 452a/ EP&E 203a Introduction to Statistics: Political Science.
This class has some of the worst characteristics of a gut: easy but boring. Doing even the small amount of necessary learning is a drag. Mathematical equations or problems are presented apologetically, as if math is an evil to be endured. For those who are looking for a class that satisfies their requirement for a group IV and their desire for a group III, don’t look here.


Return to Top