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“Classic” Yale Classes

As hundreds of Yalies step inside Sudler Hall in WLH lugging their first-ever law casebooks, they join a generation of Yalies who have come before them. The chattering dies down and Professor Akhil Amar solemnly walks towards the center of the stage. Opening to the first case study, he dives into the weeds of McCulloch v. Maryland, line by line. Students sit silently, attentively absorbing every detailed commentary that Professor Amar has to offer. 

With over 170 students enrolled in the course, Constitutional Law is one of the most popular and well-discussed courses currently offered for Yale undergraduates. Dating as far back as the 1970s, when Professor Charles Black and his successor Professor Roger Smith taught it, students from all backgrounds and academic interests converge as they sit in on Constitutional Law. Since the class was handed over to Professor Amar in the early 2000s, students were exposed to the stance of liberal originalism by Professor Amar, who is not paid to teach this class. “It is a way for me to give back to Yale College,” Professor Amar remarked. 

For many students, Constitutional Law is the epitome of a “classic” Yale class. 

According to Anaheed Mobaraki ’21, a student currently taking the class, “Constitutional Law is unique in how famous it is, and how rare it is to find a class of that professional standard at an undergraduate level.” Similar to an introductory course to the main themes of the American Constitution, this class places “special emphasis on the interplay of constitutional text, judicial doctrine, and constitutional decision-making outside the judiciary,” according to the Fall 2019 Syllabus.

Soren Schmidt, one of the two head TAs for the class, contends that Constitutional Law is critically important for future leaders, no matter what field they plan to pursue. He believes that  the course is uniquely positioned in that it stresses the necessity of both liberal arts and civic education. According to Schmidt, Constitutional Law provides a “panoramic view of American history through the lense of the cases and controversies that have defined us as a nation, which I think gives powerful insight into the world in which we live.” 

Yet the standards by which we determine which Yale classes are “classics” are changing. For Emiliano Gomez ’22, it’s about familiarity, reputation, impact, and history. He defined a “classic” Yale class as a course that is well-known among students, often because of the reputation that it carries through the student body. It is a class that leaves a strong impact on the way a student views a certain discipline, a course that a generation of students have taken and serves as a litmus test to see if the student is genuinely interested in the field of study. 

Reilly Johnson ’22, a Political Science major, echoed Emiliano’s view of history and longevity, pointing out that a “classic” Yale course requires a “generational memory” and a long-standing reputation. Empirically speaking, the course must be offered at least four years, long enough for students in every class to have taken it. Otherwise, it would lack the “generational memory.” 

Professor of constitutional law at Cornell Law School, Josh Chafetz ’01, served as a TA for Constitutional Law back in 2004-2005 during the earliest years of Professor Amar teaching the class. He recalls having about 300 students enrolled routinely, already gaining the positive reputation among the students. In terms of being a “classic” Yale class, he believes that it has already met the criteria in terms of enrollment size. 

In many cases, “classic” Yale classes are “staple courses in their respective fields,” according to Joseph Cho ’22, a prospective political science and psychology double major. However, to Cho, “classic” Yale classes transcend majors, enriching the liberal arts experience beyond the classroom. This liberal arts education is about “application, a lifestyle,” having the desire to open one’s mind and learn. 

While popularity undoubtedly contributes to the mythos of “classic” Yale classes, that alone is not a sufficient metric. Psychology and the Good Life, taught by Professor Laurie Santos, was offered for the first time in Spring 2018. It had close to 1,200 undergraduates enrolled when it was featured in a New York Times story. Although this class was near-unparalleled in terms of popularity among the student body, it would not be considered a “classic” Yale class due to its lack of a historical legacy at the college. 

Moreover, not all students believe that classes need to have a high number of students enrolled in order to be a quintessential part of students’ education. Alex Martin ’23 believes that the first-year seminars encapsulate this idea of a “classic” Yale class because of their diversity, breadth, and access to renowned professors. 

Although many students shop famous lectures every semester, it is also true that every “classic” course was once a new class on campus. The creation of new classes reflects students’ evolving academic desires and the questions most salient in the minds of the student body.  

This semester, Professor Daniel HoSang’s Race, Politics, and the Law garnered the attention of students around campus, peaking at 346 students during shopping period, according to Course Demand Statistics. Started in Fall 2017 as a seminar with only 20 students, Race, Politics, and the Law, considers law as the site of racial formation, according to Professor HoSang. He tries to bring “conventions of seminars in larger lecture class format” by allowing students to discuss questions in small groups during class. 

Jessica Kong ’21 believes Race, Politics, and the Law should be a “classic” Yale course that every Yalie should take, as “critical race theory is crucial for everyone in the workplace to be cognizant of.” She adds that critical race theory is relevant to America today because in a society where systemic racism is prevalent, critical race theory provides a toolbox of framework and vocabulary to view our society more critically. She feels that before she took the class, she did not have the “academic toolkit to be able to talk about and substantiate these intuitions.” 

Alex Martin ’23, who shopped the class but couldn’t enroll in it because it filled up before he could secure a seat, believes that if this class continues to be that popular, it would be considered a “classic” Yale class. 

Anaheed Mobaraki ’21 explained that Yale is not ready as a college for a class as radical as Race, Politics, and the Law, one that “is shooting down a lot of the existing traditions, practices and beliefs on legal theory.” She added, “with Yale Law School being [the] number one [law school] in the country, I understand why the school would not want to promote this class.” In her view, “Constitutional Law is a class that embraces originalist thought and historical thinking, more on the liberal end of things, but definitely not as intense[ly] as Race, Politics, and the Law.” 

The long-term success of Yale courses is heavily dependent on the funding from the university itself. According to Jessica Kong ’21, only the courses that are constantly funded and have institutional support are the ones that have the potential to be a “classic” Yale courses. She explained, “Ultimately, even if there is strong interest by students, if there is no funding for TAs or professors, the class won’t leave a legacy because it doesn’t have the bandwidth to do so.” 

Thus, underlying all the criteria for “classic” Yale classes are familiarity, reputation, impact,  history, and institutional support. And as students, we must let the institution know where our interests lie.

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