As preregistration descends upon us, wreaking panic and excitement in equal measures, students across Vassar interrogate friends and pore over catalogues to get a good idea of what classes might be like. Another good way to get a sense for classes, especially intro classes in a field that’s new to you, is to peruse their required reading. “But Elizabeth,” you say, “professors won’t send out reading lists until like August!” Fear not, friends, because I have taken a number of intro classes outside my major (because I’m indecisive/like to explore) and can recommend a few easy-to-skim and fun-to-sample books off the required reading for some intro classes. While these books may not be assigned in every section or even every time by the same professor, they touch on a lot of the basic concepts of the class while keeping things interesting.
Intro Cognitive Science (COGS100)
I took it with: Gwen Broude
Favorite assigned reading: A Portrait of the Brain by Adam Zeman. In Portrait, Zeman, a neurologist, summarizes some of his most mysterious and shocking cases. It’s like watching House M.D., if House were a good and responsible doctor. The point of reading this in class was to talk about the connection between the physical anatomy of the brain, and the more abstract thing we think of as the “mind” (interrogating this idea of the mind is really the whole point of COGS 100). Like, if a bizarre Australian cannibal disease is boring holes through a person’s brain, how does that affect their personality? We tend to think of personality as a part of a person’s abstract “mind” or “soul,” so what does it mean when it seems that a parasite can eat it away? (Does the parasite somehow POSSESS your personality if personality lives in your brain and it eats your brain??!?) This book does a great job of introducing the conceptual gymnastics that cognitive science demands when using your brain to think about your brain, but makes them engaging and approachable. If these questions and issues of brain/mind fascinate you, consider trying cognitive science.
Intro Sociology (SOCI150)
I took it with: Eileen Leonard
Favorite assigned reading: The Pursuit of Attention by Charles Derber. Derber is a sociologist who studies people like you and me interacting, and finds fascinating and humbling patterns in out behavior. In Attention, Derber explores his conversational research and shows the way that Americans demand, hold, and give attention in conversation. He gives a great introduction to the sort of research methodology that you will encounter in a lot of contemporary sociology, and his examples are familiar and clear–you’ll start wanting to point out the attention dynamics of your friends’ conversations (this may make you “annoying” so think before you analyze). Derber also does a decent job of introducing the subtle power dynamics of gender identity, race, and class in America that are so important to modern sociology, especially when studied from a social justice approach. It leans a little to the psychological side of sociology when talking about ego and self-confidence in relation to the need for attention, as well. Also a great book if you want to be really self-conscious about how you talk for a couple of weeks. But what’s sociology if it isn’t heightening your consciousness of your role in society? At under 200 pages, it’s an easy choice to skim or actually read if you think you have even a passing interest in sociology.
Chinese and Japanese Literature (CHJA 120)
I took it with: Bryan VanNorden. I don’t believe anybody else teaches this.
Favorite assigned reading: The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Basho (Penguin translation). This class focuses on what it says in the title, except for almost all of the literature will be from before the 20th century–although to be fair, most of history so far is from before then, too. Narrow Road is a collection of poetry, mostly haiku, focussing on travel and the natural world. Even in translation, the beauty of his poems and the clarity lent by his zen-buddhism aesthetic will blow you away. VanNorden can explain for you how the haiku form and Basho’s preoccupations reflect a particular Japanese moment, but even without historicizing, this literature can be appreciated. In this class you will read Chinese epics of unbelievable length, Japanese romances, buddhist sutras, and about 100 pages more Chinese philosophy than is humane. I enjoyed all of it, and it was hard for me to pick a favorite, but the enigmatic but poignant haikus were the most fun–and are certainly the most perusable by the student shopping for classes.
Having breadth in your studies at Vassar is an important part of the liberal arts curriculum, and intro-level classes in subjects that intrigue you is a great way to sample learning without gambling your GPA! Even if you feel you don’t have credits to spend, sprinkling some assigned reading into your summer relaxation time can broaden your horizons, and make you feel like you’re smarter than the rest of us. Go you.