Detailing Directed Studies

My first semester philosophy class (feat. John Hare) at our last class gathering/study session.

Directed Studies (DS) is “an intense interdisciplinary introduction to some of the seminal texts of Western civilization,” or, as I like to think of it, as much of the Western canon as can be crammed into one year of study. The program consists of three concurrent year-long courses taken during a Yalie’s first year. Students enroll in all three classes: Philosophy, Literature, and Historical and Political Thought. You’re expected to remain in the program for both semesters, but you are technically allowed to drop the program after the first semester. DS covers material from as long ago as the 8th century BCE (Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey) and as recent as 1990 (Walcott’s Omeros). Admission to the program is granted either upon admission to Yale College or through an application process that takes place over the summer, before the Fall term. The program is reinforced with frequent colloquia, at which a guest speaker mixes their own perspective and field with the DS syllabus, and visits to the Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, the Yale University Art Gallery, and the Yale Center for British Art, which allow students to personally see artistic representations of the works they read, as well as rare illuminated versions of the texts.

The first printed copy of Homer’s Iliad from a DS trip to the Beinecke.

Each week, DS’s approximately 100 students attend three lectures - one for each of the three classes - and six discussion sections - two for each class. The fifty-minute lectures each feature a faculty member with deep knowledge of the reading for that particular week, sharing the reading’s context, background information about the author, and insightful interpretations of different aspects of the text. The DS faculty’s knowledge, experience, and expertise never cease to amaze me. Just last week, the Philosophy reading was from Berkeley’s Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, and our lecturer’s name (Kenneth Winkler) was on the cover of our edition of the text - he had edited the text and written the introduction and commentary. And we don’t just hear from these professors in lecture; each subject has a team of seven faculty members who each lead a discussion section.

In my opinion, the heart of DS is in these discussion sections, which allow you to work closely with a group of 8-12 incredible students and your professor. These sections are always interesting, but on the best days they can shake the foundations of your worldview. My courses last semester led me to think of the world in new ways, to reevaluate some of my core beliefs, and to question my own process of thinking. The small group environment allows you to build close relationships with your peers and your professors. My Philosophy class last semester has been the highlight of my academic experience at Yale so far. My professor, John Hare, is a legend; not only is he a brilliant professor, but he is also an incredibly kind and sweet man. His love for philosophy was so clear - often, he would get so excited about a topic that he would burst into laughter and have to pause to collect himself. His joy was infectious, and our class quickly became a little family, and William L. Harkness Hall Room 201 was our home. We developed inside jokes, pitched in to buy eclairs for section during the last week of classes, and had combined study sessions/Rick and Morty viewing parties with our professor. During paper weeks, almost the entire class would show up to Professor Hare’s office hours, crowding into his tiny office to ask him questions and seek guidance on where to take our papers.

My first semester philosophy class (feat. John Hare) at our last class gathering/study session.

I started the semester fearing philosophy because I, like most of the other DS students, had never taken a philosophy course. I ended the semester with a newfound love for the subject. I could not have had a better, more engaging introduction to philosophy. In fact, the same is true for all three DS courses. I expected to struggle through my first college courses, wary of the adjustment from high school to college level coursework, but instead I thrived. This doesn’t mean I got straight As and did amazingly on every single paper; rather, it means that I was pushed to do my best and was able to improve noticeably in my ability to think, read, and write. It means that I’ve discovered within myself an abiding love for Jay, Madison, and Hamilton’s The Federalist, for Aristotle’s Metaphysics and Nicomachean Ethics, for Homer’s Iliad, and so many others. It means that while no DS student starts out the year writing A-papers, the culture of DS and the resources provided by our professors and by Yale give us the confidence and support we need to get to where we want to be.

My Philosophy section enjoying some delicious éclairs on the last day of class.

People in the Yale community know what it means to have done DS; the program is respected and celebrated for its broad course content. However, there are several aspects of the program that I’m not completely satisfied with. I think there are often times when the program sacrifices depth for breadth. For example, we spent half a class period last semester on Seneca; this semester we learned Shakespeare’s King Lear in just one week. In this way, one of the strengths of the program, its ability to introduce dozens of important works in just one year, is also one of its greatest weaknesses. A common and enduring complaint about DS is its focus on purely Western ideas and texts; the stock response to this complaint is that DS emphasizes the importance of the Western canon without taking away from or devaluing other canons. However, I find this response unsatisfying because, while DS is excellent at putting its works in conversation with each other, the program does not make any discernible effort to put the texts of the Western canon in conversation with any other canon or culture. I think the students’ experience and understanding of the material would benefit greatly from greater contextualization within the world rather than just within the West. This change would also better reflect Yale’s mission of helping its students to become citizens of the world. This said, I have absolutely no regrets about participating in Directed Studies.

Taking Directed Studies is kind of like choosing to be forced into academic exploration; the heavy workload comes with legendary and accessible professors, a smaller community of first years within Yale, and a crash course in reading-and writing-heavy college courses. I can think of no better way to prepare myself for the rest of my Yale education than by participating in a program that requires hundreds of pages of reading and weekly essays; I can go into my sophomore year feeling confident about where I am as a student and with the tools I need to handle future challenges. Plus, DS students build a pretty impressive library by the end of the year. For all its failings, I would not trade my time in DS for anything; I think I have become a stronger thinker, a clearer writer, a more intellectually curious student, and a better person.

Me and (some of) my Historical and Political Thought books just before the final exam.