Unofficial Orientation Series ’14: First-Year Classes

Good afternoon, froshlings. Or morning, or evening, or whenever it is that you’re reading this. By now you’re tenderly stroking the PDF-images of your plane tickets to Bradley Airport on your computer screen, brimming with excitement to head off to college to start the rest of your life. You’ve got loads of wonderful and exciting things very shortly ahead of you: orientation (which at Wesleyan happens to be awesome), meeting your wonderful classmates, and (safe, careful, responsible) partying. If you’re interested in a place like Wesleyan, it’s very likely that classes factor in at a high-priority level on your list of things to look forward to, and choosing your first year classes takes some thought.  In that regard, perhaps I, Real Student at Wesleyan University, can be of service.

First things first, or at least required things first.  You’ve already chosen (by ranking choices) and been assigned your First Year Seminar, or FYS, as well as a second course.  First Year Seminars are small (15 people maximum) discussion-based classes on a variety of topics, ranging this semester from “Medicine in Ancient Greece & Rome” to “Music and Downtown New York, 1950-1970.”  You can find the full FYS list here.  These classes are meant to raise the level of your thought from the dank depths of high school drudgery to the glorious, shining majesty of the ivory tower.  Ok, not that dramatic, but you get the idea.  They will all make you think; they will all make you write.  Like I said, you’ve been assigned them already, so you know what they are.  If you don’t like what you got, you can always talk to your advisor about changing it when you get to campus, but keep in mind that not liking a subject is, in fact, a perfectly fine justification for taking a class.  Expand your horizons.  Do something you wouldn’t ordinarily do.  Have an academic adventure.  It’s no accident that you’ll be hearing things along those lines well into and beyond your freshman year.

In any given semester, you’ll want to have some semblance of balance and diversity among your classes.  First and foremost, that means don’t take four math or memorization-heavy classes, and don’t take four reading-heavy classes.  Just take my word for it.  By the time midterms roll around and you have four papers or four exams to contend with, you’ll wish you had.  It’s always good to mix things up a little.  This principle lends itself quite well to a different kind of diversity, diversity of subject matter.  It’s a similar principle: you’ll want to take classes in a variety of subjects so that you’re not constantly thinking about the same thing all the time.  This has the added bonus of doing that horizon-expanding I was talking about earlier.  If you know you want to double-major in bio and neuro and become a world-renowned brain surgeon, good for you.  Just know that there are history and philosophy and computer science courses out there that are going to change your life and make you see the world in ways you’ve never thought possible.  Taking those courses doesn’t preclude you from being a world-renowned brain surgeon, you’ll just be a world-renowned brain surgeon who took cool classes in college.  So live a little.  (An addendum: if you’re feeling pressure to only take such-and-such a type of course, talk to your advisor or someone else at school knowledgable in such things.)

Many of you believe you are sure of what you want to study.  Know this: you’re not.  As I mentioned above, there may be a class out there that will change your life.  There may also be classes that will change your major.  I’ve been at Wesleyan one year and this has happened to me twice.  I don’t count out the possibility of it happening again.  My story is a common one.  Plenty of you readers are thinking something along the lines of “Well I’m not going to change my major.  Your advice is for other people, silly Wesleying writer,” to which I say this: maybe you aren’t going to change your major, and maybe you are.  The worst thing that happens is you take a class you don’t like and you’re more sure of your decision of what to study.  Keep an open mind.

On the flip side, many of you have no idea what you want to study.  Relax; this is perfectly normal.  Just take a wide variety of classes.  I’m not saying to dive headfirst into whatever tickles your fancy, but think about classes and subjects that interest you on a deeper level than just “hey, that sounds cool!”  Of course, there’s often no way to know what interests you on a deeper level until you’ve tried it, so for this I simply say good luck.

If you’re like me, you’ll start looking into things and suddenly want to double major and triple major and do something silly like get five certificates.  You can’t do that.  Begin to acquaint yourself with the idea that you won’t be able to study in-depth everything that you’re interested in.  That’s ok.  In fact, it’s good.  Deciding the subject you’re most interested in is an important part of finding out who you are both academically and in general.

Following on this, know that here won’t be time to take all of the classes you want. For me, the most upsetting part of signing up for classes is casting a woeful eye over all of the ones I’ll probably never get around to taking.  It doesn’t really hit you until you have to decide, but you’ll only ever take around 32 classes in your entire college career.  But honestly, in the grand scheme of problems that people have, this one’s not so bad.  Some people decide that the solution to this problem is to overload, that is, to take more than the recommended four classes per semester.  This is high-level shit, not usually to be trifled with by a freshman, and absolutely not by a first-semester one.  For now, the only advice on this I’ll give you is that you shouldn’t take five classes, and for the love of god don’t take six.  Unless, that is, you’re planning on never going out, never getting sleep, never getting involved in extracurriculars (which can often be much more edifying than your classes themselves), and never having a waking minute unclouded by unbearable agony.  Obviously there are those who can handle it, and they eventually will, but you have absolutely no way of knowing whether you’re one of those people until you’ve had experience with taking college-level classes in a college environment.

Now comes the question of sorting the good classes from the bad.  The answer: there are no bad classes.  One student’s nightmare class is another’s dream semester.  There are a few resources to help you pick the classes that are right for you.

The first way is looking at wesmaps.  If you don’t know, this is a comprehensive list of every class that you could possibly take this year, and some that you can’t.  They’re organized mostly by department, but if you click on one of the certificates, course clusters, or interdisciplinary programs, they’ll bring you to classes that are relevant to those programs (often classes already listed under standard majors and departments).  Anyway, following any of the myriad of links on the main page of wesmaps will bring you to the page of that particular department or certificate or what-have-you.  This page includes links to the description and website of whatever you’ve clicked on, all the courses and tutorials (which are something you’ll learn about later on) available from or related to that department for the academic year, those same courses sorted by which gen-ed requirements they satisfy, courses that are deemed “appropriate for first-year students” (which you should definitely check out), and “courses not offered,” which you don’t have to worry about because they’re not offered.  Then there’s a horizontal line.  Below that line are mostly those same courses, but sorted in a way that the department has chosen and that makes sense in light of the structuring of each particular major.  It’s good to look at those also, particularly if you’re making longer-term plans.

When you click on a class in wesmaps, it will bring you to that class’s page, complete (usually) with a blurb describing the class, basic information (How many credits is it?  What gen-ed and major requirements does it fulfill?  What are the prerequisites?), a list of books you’ll need and readings you’ll do, assignments you’ll have throughout the course, and the times of each section.

There is also a nice little website called  Many of you are aware of it.  For those who aren’t, it’s a place where students, well, rate their professors.  You can type the name of a professor into the search bar on the site’s homepage and, provided you click on the correct result, it will bring you to that professor’s page, where she or he is rated by helpfulness, clarity, easiness, and overall quality.  There are also comments, which I feel are more helpful than numerical ratings for the same reason that none of these numbers or comments should be taken at face value: they are all primary sources.  Different students like different things from a teacher.  One student may be overwhelmed by the rapid-fire speed and quantity of information thrown at you in the lectures of a particular professor, while another may say the same professor goes too slowly for them.  From the comments, you can (ideally) sample a wide range of views on each professor and come up with some semblance of an idea of what a class with that professor would be like.  Of course, there’s no substitute for going to the class during drop-add and trying it out for yourself, but every bit of information helps.

As for the actual decision of which classes to choose, that’s up to you in the end.  I’ve given you my advice on breadth and variety, but ultimately it comes down to your personal choice.  Anything I’ve said here can (and has often) been overridden by the sentiment of “but I reeeeeally want to take this!”  So basically, do whatever you want.  Take risks, do cool stuff, succeed, fail, learn.  Go to college.

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