January 29, 2003: On the Campus

A tantalizing array

So much to choose from, so little time

By John Lurz ’03

Illustration by Ron Barrett

Of everything we are given to read at Princeton, there is nothing more comforting yet simultaneously distressing as each semester’s Course Offerings booklet.

Leafing through those newsprint pages the summer before my freshman year, I remember my excitement: All that knowledge literally at my fingertips. Milton, Shakespeare, Chaucer; Kant, Hegel, and Hume; the history of the American West, the political economy of Latin America, constitutional interpretation; science courses in chemistry, physics, biology. I had eight semesters ahead of me, and the fear of missing some of those classes never occurred to me.

But now that fear is here, and it’s real. As I pick my final two classes before I walk through FitzRandolph Gate, I realize I’ve missed so many! The Bible in Western Cultural Tradition with Michael Sugrue, Dante with Robert Hollander, and H. Vincent Poor’s The Wireless Revolution: Telecommunications for the 21st Century, to name just three.

I ended up choosing two I’m really very excited about: Joanna Picciotto on John Milton and a creative writing course with novelist Edmund White. Yet, as happy as I am about them, I lament not having time to take any others. I’m at the end of the road.

Other students feel the same. “I’ve taken so many good classes, and there are still so many that I want to take,” says Felice Aarons ’03, an art history major. “Although art history has made up a large part of my studies, I’ve missed out on a couple of periods and topics that really interest me. Not to mention the English and comparative literature courses I haven’t had the chance to take.”

Hugh Lippincott ’03, who is majoring in physics, which requires eight courses, pushed the academic envelope and often took five courses a semester rather than the normal four. “I’ve been able to take a wide variety,” he says, listing courses on Nietzsche, Greek tragedy, and Tolstoy’s War and Peace. “And when I was thinking about majoring in economics or history, I took a couple of courses in those departments.”

For students like Emma Taylor ’05, an engineer focusing on operations and research finance, having lots of required classes limits her choice of electives. “For the most part,” she says, “everything works out, and I’ve been able to take all the humanities classes that I’m interested in.” She says timing can be a problem: Everything she wants to take next semester meets at the same time. A sophomore, Taylor still has five more semesters, but she might have a hard time taking all the visual arts and performance classes that interest her, since they consume large blocks of time that might conflict with her engineering labs and projects. “I keep on hoping to take them the next semester. It could be I’ll end up taking all of them in the same semester, and I doubt my engineering adviser would be fine with that.”

Taylor’s optimism about being able to take the dream course “next semester” is common. Eventually, however, everyone gets to my position: One semester left and a list of 15 courses that I am “definitely going to take.”

When choosing courses, students can turn to the online Student Course Guide published by the Undergraduate Student Government; classes are listed with evaluation statistics and student reviews. Courses also have reputations, and other students’ advice and experience play a large role in selection. Those aids, along with a two-week “shopping period,” ensure that we find ourselves in interesting and worthwhile courses.

But finding an interesting course is not really the problem. Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Professor Enoch J. Durbin has compiled a list of faculty members that he feels students should not miss while at Princeton. The list is extensive, but by no means exhaustive, and herein lies the problem. Since there are 45-plus professors on his list, there is no way to take a course with all of them. With the six hundred courses offered each semester, and with the opportunity to take only four of them, it’s a wonder that I can decide at all.

Maybe Lippincott has it right. Rather than focusing on the classes he’s missed, he focuses on those he has had the opportunity to take. Though I might have missed a few classes that interested me, there aren’t many gaping holes in my education. I think, now, of something my mother used to tell me: “You can do anything you want, but you can’t do everything you want.”

And as I look back at the last seven semesters and look forward to my final one, I realize that learning isn’t limited to the university. Though we don’t get to take everything we want, we certainly have gotten to take some stimulating and enlightening courses, courses that have sparked our interest in a variety of subjects, courses that have trained us in critical thinking and purposeful investigation, courses that serve as a solid base for a lifetime of learning.

John Lurz ’03 is an English major from Baltimore. E-mail him at johnlurz@princeton.edu.



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