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Savello '18: Redefining the 'usefulness' of courses at Brown

You’re only a few days into shopping period, and you’re already tired. Your bag is overflowing with crumpled syllabi, your Banner course scheduler is an unnerving shade of red for almost every day of the week, and you can’t keep track of how many override codes you’ve requested. Clearly, you need to start making decisions about your schedule — but how?

In order to make the most of our Ivy League educations, as Brown students we tend to take courses that are pertinent to our majors or interests, striving to learn material that is intellectually stimulating and practical for the future. In short, we want classes that are useful. But what happens when the courses don’t seem as stereotypically “useful” as we want them to be?

No one wants to get stuck in a class that they view as useless in the long run. Considering what a privilege it is to attend Brown, it seems silly to waste time taking a class that won’t benefit your future goals. As a result, students often feel stressed and pressured to choose classes that are directly applicable to their futures, whether that means taking a concentration requirement that brings them one step closer to graduation or enrolling in an economics class that teaches finance skills. In this sense, a class is useful because it leads to subsequent advancements in life. But this logic also brings to light an important question: What exactly does it mean for a course to be “useful?”

According to the Oxford Dictionary, the standard definition of useful is: “able to be used for a practical purpose or in several ways,” which doesn’t necessarily speak to a specific application. From this more general perspective, a useful class is any course that helps you build and acquire skills.

While the commonly defined “hard skills” (math, economics, finance, etc.) that often come to mind when thinking of practicality are relevant, they are certainly not the only useful skills out there. Humanities courses that focus on critical thinking and analytical inquiry help students develop versatile skills that are applicable to a variety of occupations and areas of interest, rather than providing a straightforward skill bank directed at a specific field.

Nonetheless, some students tend to shy away from courses in the humanities and often overlook them — even if they seem interesting — because the content of the courses seems less relevant. Truthfully, some of the course titles in the English department have scared me away at times. (What tangible skills do I get out of a class entitled “How poems see?”) But looking at the bigger picture, you actually gain useful skills regardless of course content because of the rigorous research, writing and critical thought that goes into the class.

That’s not to say you should ditch classes that focus on so-called “hard skills” or courses that fulfill your concentration requirements in order to focus on the liberal arts. (You definitely need to fulfill your major requirements in order to graduate…) Those classes are extremely necessary and “useful” in regard to your future plans. But if you avoid taking anything that doesn’t fit under the typical definition of “usefulness,” it’s important to reconsider what that word really means to you. After all, every course can be useful in its own way, whether it offers a direct application to your career or enhances your analysis and problem-solving skills.

Brown’s open curriculum offers academic freedom and mobility, giving us the opportunity to explore new areas of interest whenever we please rather than forcing dreaded “gen ed” requirements down our throats. It’s important that we don’t let a rigid concept of “usefulness” impede upon this chance to explore and gain adaptable, multifaceted skills.

Samantha Savello ’18 can be reached at

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