Drain the Gutter: A Look at Gut Classes

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Gut. The word itself has an ugly sound. It refers to the gross, unflattering portions of the body, it serves as the first half of the word gutter — a gut class, it would seem, should not be a label to aspire to. Yet every semester, a good portion of Yale’s student body scours the Bluebook for courses like “Listening to Music,” “Ancient Ships,” “Buddhist Art and Architecture, 900–1600,” and “Plants and People,” which promise credits at a minimal cost to GPA and precious time. Do guts simply squander real educational opportunities on checking off graduation requirements? Or are they a reasonable response to the dangers of being overburdened and a responsible way to manage time? While we can continue to debate the ethics of taking guts, there are ways that the administration and faculty can change the requirements to help students better navigate college.

Gut classes are first and foremost defined by light coursework and easy exams or papers, often coupled with low levels of intellectual stimulation. Not limited to any single department or area of study, guts can be found in every corner of campus, and Yalies enroll in them for a myriad of reasons, whether it is for a distributional requirement, an easy fifth class, or that last credit needed to be promoted to junior status. Because of so many practical reasons to take them, students flock to these guts every semester.

This doesn’t have to be the case. More often than not, students feel pressured by graduation requirements and institutional demands to take on unmanageable course loads. Guts are one of the ways students avoid being overstressed while still completing all the necessary classes. In these situations, slight reform to how the university structures its requirements could make all the difference in reducing the need for guts.

The option of being able to credit/D/fail one or two distributional requirements would allow students to feel more confident in tackling substantive and rigorous material that lies outside their usual interests. Distributional requirements are meant to broaden horizons and take students outside of their comfort zone; therefore, this change should encourage students to take a risk and actually enroll in courses that don’t sacrifice educational value for an easy passing grade. A greater level of understanding and leeway on the part of the university’s administration would help resolve students’ dilemmas about having to choose between a safe class and an interesting one.

Of course, no institutional reform can change the fact that some students will always want to be in classes they don’t have to take seriously. Oftentimes, guts are more a matter of attitude rather than course material. Many students want to direct their focus on just one or two courses, or perhaps concentrate on extracurricular activities. On the other hand, some students in STEM may just have no interest in the humanities, and vice versa, so fulfilling the requirements in those areas involves finding the easiest class to just endure for a semester. In these cases, there seems to be little that can be done to discourage taking guts.

All of this, however, leans on the common assumption that guts are intrinsically bad classes that do no good for students. This can be a harmful supposition. Easy classes do not have to be boring and devoid of substance. This negative perception may discourage students from taking classes that they might genuinely find interesting, not wanting to undergo the embarrassment of taking a gut class.

Nonetheless, many at Yale have found classes that contain manageable workloads without sacrificing content. For example, “Origins & Search for Life in the Universe,” while catering to those with less background in science, has been described in student evaluations as “literally life changing,” “perfect for non-science majors,” and with “a vast amount of interesting material.” Also the fact that a student described the class as being “not the gut that it could appear to be” suggests that science classes that target non-majors and are not conventionally “science-y” have to be either boring or lacking in intellectual rigor.

This semester’s record-breaking “Psychology and the Good Life” may be another good example of such a class. By most accounts (not withstanding a couple of YDN op-eds), Laurie Santos’ course promises to be rich but not burdensome, and other classes could aspire to it by addressing topics that students care deeply about in their everyday lives. While some of the more niche guts at Yale should definitely stay for the sake of those adventurous souls seeking a specialized topic to explore, these past two classes that I’ve mentioned tackle broad themes in a way that is relatable, profound, and reasonable.

In the end, the school administration can change their policies to put students in a better position to challenge themselves without being overworked. Faculty members, too, can work to structure their classes to be more sympathetic to students who have a strong desire to learn without wanting to compromise their physical and mental health. But ultimately, it’s still up to us and what we want to get out of our four years of college. From time to time, we have to make difficult choices, and sometimes that takes guts.

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