NB: This panel was conducted on Zoom, and participants made use of the chat feature throughout. The chat has been incorporated into this written version in the form of endnotes.
YHR: DS begins before students even arrive at Yale, with three summer reading assignments. How did DS shape your transition to college? Did The Iliad, Euthyphro, and Herodotus resonate with you at all during this time of transition?
Galia Newberger: I had so little data about anything coming into Yale. We didn’t find out about our residential colleges until the week before we moved in. It was certainly stressful for me, I imagine that it was for everyone else. But DS provided such needed structure in that time. The only people I could rely on consistently for some sense of ties to Yale, for some sense of community, were DS students. We had these Q&A panels over the summer that I found really helpful just for helping me choose my classes, which I didn’t know how to do. It also allowed me to connect with other people in Chicago who happened to be doing DS. I would sit outside with my friends Alex and Lydia in a socially distanced way and talk about The Iliad over the summer, which was amazing, and was great foreshadowing to how DS inherently brings together a vibrant community of like-minded people. So, I would say, thank God for the DS summer readings! Because I was afloat without them.
Lisbette Acosta: I definitely second the importance of the structure and how much I relied on it. Having three seminars beginning this odd, remote semester was really beneficial for me; it eased the way I interacted with people and gained close friendships. It was great to not feel like a little fish in such a large pond over the summer. Being in DS this year felt like a very good thing to do.
Gamze Kazakoglu: In my case, I came to Yale very late in the semester, so all the orientation activities had passed, everyone had their friendship groups, and I was like this weird latecomer. But the DS community is so warm that I eventually made friends very easily. We really shared the same interests and similar taste in readings.
Maria Papademetris: More than just the fact that we had summer reading and we had that structure, I loved that my very first introduction to college was spending 12 hours trying not to cry over The Iliad. It seemed like one of the best ways that you could get an introduction to a college education, and I really appreciated that. It seemed like a very good omen for the rest of the semester, which it was.
Edward Kuperman: On top of all of the very practical help and the structure of having a paper due every week, there’s also kind of a spiritual directedness that comes with knowing that I’m with amazing students that I see all the time in a small setting, that I’m with great professors, that I’m part of a generational history for this amazing program. There were times during the semester when my other class was basically asynchronous, and there were some things that were missing from a normal college experience. But being able to always remember “No, I’m part of something that is crucial to higher liberal arts education” was spiritually helpful.
Awuor Onguru: As some who spent the first semester at home and remote, DS made me feel a lot more like I was in college. I really struggled with feeling like this was just the summer break that started in March of my senior year.1 Falling into that pattern of paper, edit, send, paper, edit, send just gave me a sense that I was doing something that my other classes didn’t. My other classes still felt a lot like a summer camp, but DS was the only place where I could come and meet intellectuals and have high-brow discussions, and I’d be like, “Yes, this is your college.”2 So I’m really grateful to DS for that.
YHR: I love the conversation going on in the chat; we’re going to have to include it in the final version.3
Judah Millen: I agree! And I would add that I think the way that these texts specifically allowed me to interact with people was very important. Oftentimes when we’re meeting other students or young people, the conversation that you have — “where are you from,” “what type of music do you listen to” — can be very superficial. Right off the bat, having these deep, thought-provoking texts that you could discuss really helped me make friends and make connections. And I think that’s part of the reason why a lot of my friends are from DS, because right away you can ask “What did you think about the Euthyphro question?” or “What did you think about the depictions of violence in The Iliad?” That just kind of flings you into these wonderful conversations.
Laurel Turner: I didn’t originally matriculate in the class of 2024 — I was in the class of 2023 — and I spent the fall doing Directed Studies in person, so I’ve had the chance to be exposed to both forms of DS, the online version and the in-person version. Obviously, the in-person version was great, you get to attend physical lectures and go to meals with people. But it’s nice to see that the energy is maintained in coming back, that the energy people have for reaching out to other people, editing papers, talking about resources — it’s nice to see that that’s not so tied to the medium and it’s more about the spirit of the program. Coming back here, I definitely do feel like I’m coming in a bit of a weird time, everyone kind of has their people, so having a lot of readings and having people to talk to about papers and texts has been really helpful in just getting through this quarantine period.
Ananya Asthana: I agree, and I just want to add — like Edward, Awuor, and Judah were saying — that DS gives a really distinct sense of purpose in a lot of different ways, whether it’s your academic career at Yale, individual conversations with people you meet for the first time, or just your purpose in that seminar. I think that’s because it’s so tangible, we get to interact with other students. I think Edward mentioned that his fourth class was entirely asynchronous — so was mine. I really enjoyed transitioning to college with three classes that were as in-person as you could be during COVID, because Yale can feel very surreal. I imagine that’s similar for classes at all times and all years, but I think that our period of when Yale felt surreal was a little bit longer than most people’s, just because we didn’t fully immerse ourselves in the way that others may have in the past. I think that DS was a way of having this tangible connection to Yale, where we understood our purpose in class, we understood the purpose of these texts.
Professor Garsten had an incredible introductory speech prepared for us; we really understood the purpose of DS and the grander scheme of who we are and what we’re going to be at Yale. That was probably how the summer readings before coming to Yale mattered to me, because Yale would have felt very surreal otherwise. This gave me that new-Yale-student validation, like, “Wow, I’m really here at Yale College.” I think that’s a special freshman year experience that I’m not sure everyone got to have, but I’m pretty sure everyone in DS got to have.
Edward: I’m so glad that Ananya reminded me of Professor Garsten’s lecture, because that was the opening address that I think we all needed. I’m pretty sure that I skipped President Salovey’s or Dean Chun’s speech;4 there was something during orientation week that was on Canvas and I’m not sure if I watched it. But I remember Professor Garsten saying that all of the authors possess us, as the students. As we’re reading them, we kind of get their spirits. It makes it a lot easier to meet another student and become friends if you’re both possessed by the same fourth-century Greek philosopher.
Justice Harasha: Ananya and I were both in Hopper College, and I think that reading philosophical texts like this, you get to have really intimate conversations, and you form deep, meaningful connections immediately in ways that aren’t very natural if you’re not reading the same text. So I felt DS was incredible in the sense that you were able to have what would otherwise be kind of awkward, value-oriented conversations naturally. I was able to form meaningful, deep connections and learn about people’s values.
Craig Birckhead-Morton: Just to wrap up, we really see DS everywhere. Not only the community at unrelated Yale events, but also the texts. I see the texts everywhere, even when I’m not studying — just out and about in my life, or in the media. You’re always seeing the classics and hearing the quotes — it’s everywhere, and it feels very valuable to be prepared for it. In terms of the transition, I think DS has put us on a really solid foundation.
YHR: The first semester covers more than 2,000 years, from Homer to Dante, in just three months. What did you enjoy about reading all of these works, written in such different contexts and over such a long period of time, and what did you find challenging?
Craig: Coming from a rural, public school background, I had not been exposed to these texts at all. DS was great, because there are things I wanted to engage with and I finally had the chance to do so. It was great personally to see all of the connections. You kind of think that Plato is unrelated to the later writers in the Middle Ages, but that’s not the case at all. They’re very connected. They’re very rooted in each other with a very coherent ideology.5 In terms of concerns, I think that the texts represent a somewhat colonial ideology. I know that later in the spring semester, we’re going to be engaging with Marx or Du Bois, or some of these authors who are more diverse ideologically, racially, and in terms of gender. I think the spring semester does a better job of that, curriculum-wise.
Gamze: In my case, I’m from Istanbul, Turkey, and my first language is Turkish, so reading academically all the time in English and also being exposed to these texts that I definitely did not read in high school was very challenging, but also mind-blowing and eye-opening for me. I believe that this is not only about acquiring foundational knowledge of the Western intellectual tradition, but it also opens perspectives into your country’s cultural context as well. Revisiting Turkish authors over the break, I realized that I’m looking at things very differently, and I’m making these connections across cultures.
Laurel: I want to build on something that Craig brought up. Especially in H&P in the first semester, you’re getting one thing. And the one thing is kind of scary when you try to draw it to the present, because you look at the ideas that are going on in those texts, and you look at the violence that they’ve caused in the future. But what I’m hoping, in H&P going forward, is that it’s easier to respond to and address dangerous ideas if you understand them from their source. We’ve just been reading Machiavelli, and it’s such a cool text.6 But it’s so alarming.
I think in the first semester the professors did a good job of presenting these works — these great works, these complicated works that need criticism — in this light where you could actually approach them, and you could cut them down to size if you disagree with them. Just sitting there in the distance thinking, “Oh, Plato’s very smart, I can’t possibly understand or address him,” is very different from saying “Okay, I’m going to read this, I’m going to go to seminar and say that I really disagree with this idea.” It’s really important to be able to do that in this day and age.
Awuor: I came into DS as, sort of, an assassin. I thought that I had no interest in Western canon, and I thought that the world cares too much about The Odyssey, so let’s jump in and see what everybody thinks is so interesting. And then my mind was blown! I thought, “Wait, this is actually very important content.” I think all DS students do a great job, as Laurel said, of dismantling the ideas. Every time I would enter a DS section, people would ask hard questions and give difficult analysis, and then we would talk about what that meant. I entered DS thinking, “Haha, it’s going to be so funny to read these white people and laugh about their ideas.” But I left DS last semester thinking, “Woah” — I could understand how and why the Western canon has the reach that it does. And I can begin to make the connections to what I’m interested in, and I can still see the Western canon even inside that.
YHR: That connects nicely to the next question we had — has DS changed the way you think about the Western canon, or about any of the fields you study in DS?
Edward: I was kind of the opposite of Awuor.7 I thought, “Plato, Aristotle, wow, we’re going to read the coolest texts.” I want to be honest, I didn’t understand before I started DS that we were only reading and talking about the texts. I thought that there were going to be classes where the professors explained what happened between the texts and gave history lectures.
But we had so much freedom just to have debates with other students on these texts that are often placed on a pedestal — to write philosophy papers where you’re expected to point out a flaw with Socrates’ reasoning or argue how you think that he might better explain the argument. I think this was a really good way for us to engage with the texts, and the only way that covering such a large amount of material would have been possible without it being an information overload. You’re actually able to decide, in this 2000-year period, these are the areas that really speak to me, that I’m going to insert myself into. I thought that was wonderful.
Lisbette: I think an important part of the idea of canon is that it is malleable. I don’t think that I’ve yet come away with an idea, or a conglomeration of ideas, about the Western canon, because I truly think that it’s a very flexible thing, and there’s an ever-present wrestling with these ideas. Even down to the translation, we get a very distinct form of ideas that can vary, even between translations.8 So I think that revisiting these texts even after DS will give me a clearer sense of what we’re reading. Not to say that I’m not completely engaging with these texts, but rather that the fast pace of DS sometimes leaves out that deep thinking that does take more than an hourlong seminar. I think that revisiting these texts will be very crucial to my future, and I hope that other students can feel like that as well.
Judah: I really agree with a lot of what was said. When people said “You’re going to engage with these texts,” I don’t know if I really understood what that meant. I thought, “Oh, maybe I’ll read them, write a couple notes in the margins, write a paper.” But I think that the way that professors encourage people to really criticize and question facets of these texts is really important.9 Reading the Bible and asking “What are the literary implications of these words?” was really powerful to me. The fact that there is really a space to be super critical, and to be negative about these texts that, as people have said, are placed on a pedestal, is very powerful. I really enjoyed it, and I think that it has given me a much more nuanced perspective on the Western canon. Even if some of these things are influential, they’re also super flawed, or problematic, or have a lot of offensive notions that can be challenged. Especially in the philosophy section, I loved writing counter-arguments, and pointing out what they missed and what are the logical flaws. I think it’s fun, but it’s also super useful.
Laurel: Something I noticed from the first semester is that in most of my DS classes, there is this healthy criticism. But something that I was a little frustrated with was that the reason why the criticism is so effective is that it’s coming from the students. I did sometimes get the impression that a lot of the faculty, while not exactly discouraging this critical attitude, they’re not exactly pushing it. But I did admire that consistently, across the board, there were students taking the initiative to try to recenter discussions from an alternative perspective.
Maria: I really appreciated the opportunity in seminar to take these texts out of their display cases, not only to criticize them, but also to be able to see them come alive. Because it’s not just that this the foundation on which Western civilization is built — which it is, of course, and we can talk about the problems with that — but it’s also that these are real people in very alien times having real problems and writing them down. We can, as Professor Garsten said, we can be possessed by them, we can communicate with them in that way. They become friends in a way. You don’t have to agree with them on everything, but they do come alive. A lot of the very early texts, the ancient Greek ones, were personally, for me, very culturally familiar, so I felt like I knew them in a different sense than that they were just part of the Western canon. It was really beautiful to see all of my classmates get to know these people as well. The characters in The Iliad and The Odyssey, and the tragedies especially, I feel, have become very real.
Ananya: I think it’s interesting that Maria brings up cultural familiarity, because, as a person who was really involved in racial justice work in high school, I was interested in what it meant that I was actively choosing that three of my four classes would primarily focus on white men. I don’t think that takes away any of the validity of the work that we’ve read — in a lot of my classes, the professors really discouraged blind reverence or blind faith in any of the authors. But I wrestled with the question of why I wasn’t reading more diverse texts in my first year at Yale.
I wonder — and this is more a question that I have yet to ask any DS professors, and I wonder if any of you know the answer — why we don’t run the DS curriculum situating it with Eastern thought as well. So, what Maria was talking about — what’s culturally familiar to her is not what’s culturally familiar to me. Growing up with two parents who were raised in India, I remember I was talking about Machiavelli at home, and they started talking about this ancient Indian mathematician who drew a lot of his thought from Machiavelli. I would love to know what the interaction between Western thought and Eastern religion/philosophy was. I’d be interested to know why a global version in DS hasn’t emerged, because I do think that participation in that would be quite high. That’s not to say anything’s wrong with the current curriculum, or that I haven’t enjoyed my experience thus far — it’s been an incredible three, four months going through it. But if we’re talking about really engaging with these texts, what I’ve found especially helpful is putting authors in conversation with each other, and I would love to situate the Western canon with any Eastern religion or thought and bring in more diversity.
Galia: I think that once in a while they run something called “ReDirected Studies” that seeks to do a sort of mini version of that. It’s an interesting question, and I definitely don’t know the answer. What is the value of a survey class anymore, especially as academia becomes less and less Western-centric, and we understand more and more that the intellectual pillars of academia aren’t only old white men from Europe? I know that Yale’s art history department has moved away from its focus on Europe, and our survey courses are more diverse. When you’re crafting a pedagogy, you’re inherently making an intellectual statement that these are the things that people need to know, but at the same time you need to have some level of practicality, in terms of creating a curriculum that fits in a certain amount of time. I don’t think any of us disagree about the weirdness of enrolling in a program that is so focused on a very specific group of people that have probably had a disproportionate impact because our culture over-values the voices of white men. But also, is it fixable, or should it be fixed? Because we’ve also all opted into doing it.
Craig: I just wanted to bounce off of what Ananya and Galia talked about. I’m actually a part of the ReDirected Studies program,10 and the idea is really that these ideas that we call “Western” don’t belong just to what we think of as “the West.” You can find the kind of same intellectual tradition all over the world, whether it be Asia or Africa or Latin America or Indigenous people. I think the idea is not that we erase DS or erase what we think of as Western, but that we spread it out. I can relate this back to transitions, because we live in a world where we have these rising non-Western countries and the so-called decline of the West, of Europe and America. We live in a globalized world. In the future, it will be really interesting to see how DS will change. I think DS was originally created when the US was the dominant country in a Cold War context, but now we live in a new multi-polar world. I’m really interested to see how DS will reflect that going forward.
Gamze: To the best of my knowledge, the few Eastern authors that we’ve read, like Maimonides11 and a couple others, have just been added quite recently, so it’s actually being worked on. Although we obviously have so much way to go, echoing what Galia said, I think the focus is now being shifted, or at least, is working on being shifted.
Justice: I think it’s important, and it’s been a challenge for me, to just read these texts with the understanding that they’re not necessarily foundational. I feel like there’s an idea, when we read DS, that this is the foundation for all human thought. I think we should be engaging with them as sets of really important texts, but not necessarily foundational to at least half of the world’s belief systems and views. I think that’s an important thing to be cognizant of as we engage with them. We’ll probably see that this doesn’t make them any less worthy of study, but I think that a mindset of it being foundational is a little damaging and perpetuates everything that we’ve pointed out is wrong with DS. When we view it as foundational, I think that a lot of the flaws become magnified, but if we don’t, I think we can kind of mitigate those negative consequences.
Judah: One of the things about the first semester for me was that I was surprised about how much of the popular rhetoric about the Western is just very ahistorical, in the sense that there are so many components of this thought that, as Craig was saying, don't belong to white people. The fact that so much of our modern understanding of Aristotle goes right through the Islamic world, the fact that Augustine was from Africa, Herodotus is from modern-day Syria — there’s this conception that the Western canon is a bunch of white people, and I think it’s just untrue to a certain degree. As Ananya said, it’s still a narrow cultural context, and obviously it’s valuable to go farther to the east. But I just wasn’t aware at all that even these ideas that we think of as “Western,” or as “white,” are actually dependent on a more diverse set of thinkers and cultures.
Edward: There’s definitely a sense of whiteness that we’re reading back into the DS canon that isn’t necessarily there. Race is probably a relatively recent construct in the history of civilization, and it’s so interesting to go back and pinpoint in the texts where there are areas that are problematic. And then with Aristotle and Plato, these are foundational texts. That was probably the biggest moment of enlightenment that I got from the DS curriculum, reading Maimonides and Al-Farabi and Aquinas, and these three authors from the three Abrahamic religions all reflecting what our philosophy professor called “Abrahamic Aristotelianism.” Looking at how the West is this much broader sphere of intellectual interflow was just hugely interesting for me.
To the point about the different canons, I definitely think there should be a similar program for Eastern thought. Speaking from my personal experience, if my parents hadn’t told me that I needed to stay in the US for college, I was ready to go to university in China, because I’m so passionate about Chinese history and philosophy. I know for a fact that most of Chinese intellectual development occurred without interaction with Western authors like Aristotle or Plato. I think it would be so interesting to have that option for other students who are not going to be as engaged in the Western canon, which is definitely falling in importance as our world globalizes and becomes more equitable. Having other tracks and other canons would be amazing, but that’s not to knock the importance of the ideas that we’re discussing. Even if all the texts aren’t foundational or representative, I think that the ideas that we get to discuss really are.12
Awuor: How many non-white authors do you need in the canon for the canon to stop being all white? Because I think we know the number. And I think we know that DS is not reaching that threshold. For example, I was really excited to talk about Al-Farabi, because I spent the past two years of my high school studying the Middle East, the Islamic caliphates, and Islamic history. And then none of the conversion we had was about that and about how the philosophy of Islam interacted within that huge empire that spanned all the way from Turkey down to South Africa. It was more about how does this fit into Aristotle, how does this fit into Plato. So, I think that even though there was some effort and I applaud the effort — and I was really excited to talk about everything I know — I still don’t think it was enough.13 I also have a very radical idea that I don’t think it’s the job of DS. I think we have to ask, should DS be aiming to hit every corner? Or should there just be other programs that exist that do what DS does for other sections of study? I feel like if we try to encompass everything in the world, we won’t be able to get as in-depth, because we’ll be reading two pages of the Quran, and then six pages of Journey to the West, and then ten pages of Sundiata. It won’t be as meaningful as we think it will be. So, the question is, do we want Yale to do what DS does for other philosophies and other civilizations, or do we want DS to become this catch-all?14
Gamze: I also really felt like the Middle East definitely, definitely got shafted in the curriculum. For example, we read Maimonides, and I guess he could be considered a precursor to Jewish mysticism, but we haven’t read, for example, Omar Khayyam, or any Sufi poetry, or Islamic mysticism. We have to continue considering our curriculum and how it is divided.
Laurel: I think that the way that Maimonides and Al-Farabi were treated, like Awuor said, they’re not being treated in their proper cultural context; they’re being treated only in their relation to the Western canon.15 I think it would be difficult to have a cohesive curriculum that’s able to really treat multiple cultural narratives and put them in context. I think you need two different programs, and maybe a third to synthesize them.
But I think that what is lacking with DS is that it doesn’t develop the possibility for a counter-narrative. It kind of gestures to thought from other cultures but fundamentally ties into the same intellectual strains. In the second semester, it’s going to get a bit better, we’re going to read Du Bois — but we’re not going to read Fanon, we’re not going to be reading a lot of profoundly anti-colonial literature. I don’t think that DS is necessarily supposed to do all of these texts, I think DS is supposed to focus on the Western canon. But what could be done better is developing a critical awareness that counter-canons, counter-narratives exist. And that’s not just that there are writers of other races who have the same ideas, it’s that genuine counter-canons with really different thought exist. I don’t think that idea is brought up enough.
YHR: You’re leaping across almost 1,000 years for some the DS classes between the first and the second semesters.16 What did you make of this transition from antiquity to modernity? Did you see a lot of continuity there, or did thematic and stylistic differences stand out to you?
Edward: I’m really fortunate to have Jan Hagans as my literature professor, because he started off class this spring by saying, “Here are all of the things we could have done in the middle of the two semesters.” There was a good job done in literature of tying it together. But, also it’s easy because Petrarch is falling so close after Dante, and there’s a clear revolution — thesis, antithesis — there between the two. But for H&P, and for a greater extent, philosophy, there’s a sense that we’re going from people analyzing the world and giving different theories for living in the world, and then all of a sudden we’re with Decartes and we’re in our own minds, and we’re with Machiavelli and there’s no ethical or moral system limiting us. That jump, to me, was a little bit jarring. Suddenly, it was kind of like the Enlightenment man was just in a bubble in space.17
Judah: I guess I think that the more jarring jump actually took place in the first semester. I think that the winter readings — Machiavelli, Cervantes, and Descartes — were all excellent transitions and represented breaks from antiquity and the authors all grappled with those differences. In that sense, I think that going from Dante to Don Quixote or Hamlet was a lot easier than going from Paul’s Letter to the Romans to Dante. It got really messy at the end and I think we stopped reading H&P texts in H&P for some reason, and we covered 1,000 years in a couple weeks. And then things got a little smoother. I’m not sure, maybe I just loved Don Quixote so much and just want to talk about it.18
Galia: I think the timing question is perhaps less important but as pertinent a question as the one about distribution of authors. You could easily do a canonical class that spends the entire year on Greek theater. And that would be a survey class in its own way. DS is inherently reductive, and I think that’s where some of the criticism of DS is oversimplified sometimes. DS students are the only ones who really get it; we’re aware of that. I don’t think any DS student walks around preaching and saying they know everything about the entire lead up to today because we have read two instances of Greek tragedy. We know it’s reductive, and we are doing our best, which I think is okay. There is value in the merit of the attempt. And DS certainly does attempt. You could do an entire sociology class about when a monotheistic God gets injected into literature and philosophical thought, how does that change — how does the injection of morality motivated by an afterlife change things. That is a massive question. That’s huge. We can’t do all of that all the time. The best we can do, and especially acknowledging the fact that we are first years and actually know nothing, is to read a lot and listen to our professors.
This brings me to a slightly different point. I was nervous coming into DS that there would be a lot of kids who were like “Let me tell you about my takes on Aristotle” and I would be like, “You don’t know anything about Aristotle.” But that wasn’t the case at all. More than any of my other classes, DS students are willing to learn and be sponges and listen to one another. And you all are the least pretentious people for the most pretentious curriculum, and it is frankly incredible. The way we are able to have serious and cool, but also humble, discussions about these things where we don’t attempt to make sweeping claims or pretend we have conclusive answers is really great. This really plays into the idea of “Yeah, we know it isn’t a perfect curriculum, we know that the timing is really whack, we’re doing this on Zoom, but, hey, we tried.”
Craig: One quick thing that is slightly related to the time gap between first and second semesters is to consider the growing time gaps between the last authors we read in DS and now. Potentially there is room for growth in that perspective. There are a lot of new ideas that went on in the 20th century that could have great potential and could add a lot of value to the DS curriculum.
Ananya: I think this relates to Craig’s point, but we fundamentally can understand why DS exists the way it does. I don’t think that we’re the first people to think that DS isn’t inclusive enough and DS has a lot of problems with the way it segments time and the way we jump from text to text. All of the professors have had conversations about this. I think it is less about, at least for me, a list of recommendations to give to Professor Lindskog or any of the professors, but moreso, and I think Justice brought this up earlier, students acknowledging that these aren’t foundational texts and DS is a reductive experience and has a fair number of shortcomings given the scope of things it attempts to cover.19 It is less about recommendations facing the DS organization and more about perspectives facing the current students and their attitudes towards the texts. So, I think that’s a more person-focused approach, and it goes back to what Galia was saying about us never wanting to make or assert general, sweeping claims because there is an inherent humility that we have reading geniuses every single week. I would just bring that humility that we bring to our texts to the DS curriculum and understand that it exists the way it does for a reason, but there are attitudes that we can have and we can challenge them the way we challenge Machaivelli, Descartes, etc.20
YHR: Between the reading load, the small seminar discussions, and — of course — the infamous weekly papers, DS is an intense experience. Has DS changed the way you study, think, or live? Has a DS text ever changed the way you thought about a particular issue or phenomenon?
Awuor: DS did change the way I study. It made a much more efficient studier. Here’s a secret: I didn’t read a single page of The Iliad. But I watched every single Course Hero video. So, I basically watched a movie, and I saved so much time, and I was still able to have a wonderful conversation with my peers. So, yes, DS taught me hacks like that.
But on a more serious note, I’m a lot better at close reading. That’s thanks to my literature professor, David Quint. I like literature, I want to be an English major, but, before, I would read books and say, “I know what this is about.” Professor Quint had a way of asking questions like “Do you actually know what this is about?” and “What does this word mean?” and “Why is this word here?” Everything happens for a reason in literature. And I translated that to my other DS classes. I stopped reading to have a conversation in class and started reading to understand and to come away with my own personal engagement with the text, which I really enjoyed and is a great way to study. That’s what we’re at college for — to learn more for ourselves, not for other people or for a grade. Writing papers is fun. Now I know how to write a five-page paper in about five hours. DS teaches you a lot of things that I think will be very useful for the rest of college.
Laurel: You learn how to selectively read. I’m reading Machiavelli, and if the book is about to give five pages of historical examples, I might move on and come back to that later.21 You learn how to really efficiently get the ideas out of a text. But also, one of the things that has been really great for learning how to write well is that DS exposes you to the idea that all texts — all literature, philosophy, history — was written by people. And they were finite people, and they made a lot of mistakes in their writing. We haven’t been talking so much about craft, but just being exposed to books that are put up to be these amazing texts and viewing them as actual things that a person wrote down is a nice perspective.
Ananya: A more personal application of the texts we’ve read is getting different interpretations of the self. Not necessarily every text goes into this, but a lot of the narratives that explore this topic help with different self-interpretations. Don Quixote is very much about faking it until you make it — we want to see ourselves in Don Quixote because he creates a self-image and he forces the world to look at him the way that he looks at himself.22 I think that’s very admirable, and it’s just one of many, many interpretations of how we can be ourselves, and how we can push others to be their best selves, which is a very applicable and very wonderful thing to promulgate in one’s whole life, not just in the time that we’re in DS. Getting different narratives of what people are like and exposure to many different kinds of things is very relevant. Especially now, it helps us get away from ourselves — our physical selves. It’s been a wonderful, wonderful time.
Edward: It’s hard to quantify, but the degree of being more introspective and thoughtful. And not just things about God, and why am I here. Reading the Nicomachean Ethics, I realized that every action we do has something to with who we are, our identity. Our philosophy professor would ask us every class how we’re doing, and asked us a couple of times “What are you doing to make yourself a more ethical and virtuous person?”23 That definitely had an impact on how I live my life.
Gamze: Even though philosophy was my least favorite section, I felt like it contributed a lot to me in terms of how I’m building arguments. We think in a structure that is sequential, but we don’t think about how we reach a conclusion. In terms of self-reflection, the things that we have learned from philosophy are really interesting — to understand thinking about how we are thinking. Also, for literature, which was definitely my favorite section, I felt like I improved a lot in close reading. Not only noticing a recurring theme or motif, but as you go inside the text more and more, and you notice the layers of interpretation, and how the author seems like he means this, but actually it could be interpreted like this — it goes on and on. You sort of enter into this magical world.
Ananya: I just want to call Justice out, because we were in the same residential college, and right around the time that we were reading Plato’s Republic — very early in the semester — we had a conversation that I will remember, at least for the rest of my time at Yale, if not after that. We talked about if we were to craft our own republic. There was something called the “justice republic,”24 and there were edits and objections, and this was a three- or four-hour conversation that carried over the span of multiple days. Justice and I didn’t know each other very well by then, and I think this is a true testament to what Judah was saying about how you get past small talk very quickly. Knowing Justice’s views about equality and justice within three weeks of knowing him, and understanding that level of thought of people at Yale — and especially in DS — of being able to construct a whole world view, or even just assert that these are some fundamental principles that I see, I think that was a formative experience for me at Yale. It changed the way I saw DS as a curriculum. I was pretty anti-core curriculum when I was seeking colleges, and then I realized that this is what the joy of it is — you can have such high-level conversations about what you think justice, honor, and equality are. That was a moment when I realized that DS has changed the way I see things — I see the value of forming my own worldview across all sections, philosophy, H&P and literature.
YHR: How did your knowledge of first semester DS texts impact your perspective on or reaction to the recent transition of power in the United States? Do you think the historical, political, and philosophical insights you gleaned are still applicable in the age of the internet?
Craig: In my H&P class, we were always relating things back to the US transition of power; in every seminar, we were talking about either recent US history or current events.25 That was fantastic — I can already see this in the chat, but we could kind of draw these parallels between historical figures we’ve seen and people we’ve seen today, especially in relation to populism — that phenomenon we’re seeing all over the world. There’s plenty of examples of that. It’s important, because we always come back to Polybius, and the cycles of government — aristocracy and democracy. I think that DS has been a phenomenal tool for me to analyze current events.
Maria: I would agree with what Craig was saying. I think it was interesting to analyze how those parallels were applicable not only in terms of historical figures and movements, but also in terms of how people looked at the world in general. So, in our H&P section, right at the beginning of the semester, we a conversation about how it seemed like the way that people interacted with the Delphic oracle was similar to how people talk about data and statistics today — here is truth there, but it’s so difficult to find it. Looking at all of these events — and fictional events, too — and then looking at what we’re going through right now, you get a sense that it’s not always a repeat, but there’s always something familiar. There’s a precedent to the situation. It doesn’t necessarily give you a completely new way to look at things, but it gives you a perspective on what’s happening in real life.26
Edward: I’ve been sitting on this for a long time, but I’ve been thinking a lot about DS in the Internet age, on the machine. And I just have to say that DS is like the ghost in the machine, like in Cartesian mind-body dualism. Other things can be just two-dimensionally carried over to technology, but I just feel that there has been a real spirit here with DS.
1. Edward: never ending corona-cation :(
2. Lisbette: hot take: all of yale is a gut minus DS
3. Edward: including chat in footnotes is a very zoom-era innovation haha
4. Ananya: skipping the yale opening assembly for a random on-campus event is also a very zoom-era innovation
5. Edward: I came to Yale from the most preppy (in Florida) Episcopalian high school and I realized I knew virtually nothing about the intellectual impact of Aristotle and Plato before DS.
6. Judah: it is appropriate that this panel is on valentine's day because everyone is just swooning over machiavelli
7. Laurel: Did everything just freeze for like 20 seconds for everyone?
8. Awuor: let’s talk about how every DS professor has extreme opinions about translations
9. Craig: shoutout to the professors
10. Galia: I didn’t even know they were running it!!
11. Edward: Maimonides <3
12. Ananya: I’d be really interested to see the application numbers for a “global thought” version of DS as opposed to the current “foundational western canon” version
13. Edward: The middle east definitely got shafted in the curriculum and should be included as an equal part of the west :(
14. Galia: THATS THE QUESTION
15. Edward: I think we could definitely move dante and all the post roman people to second semester and fill them with the contemporary middle eastern authors that are more integrated in the pre-modern time period
16. Edward: who was the last H&P author I can't remember?
17. Galia: Enlightenment man <3
18. Edward: I totally think post-roman authors should be second semester
19. Laurel: Super super SUPER reductive
20. Edward: what is DS going to do in the year 3000 when there's 1000 more years of scholarship to consider
21. Edward: when don Quixote lists out the names of twenty chivalric protagonists :p
22. Awour: Don Quixote would have aced DS section
23. Maria: How was your day? Now defend why you had a good day
24. Edward: I like the sound of living in the "Justice Republic" haha
25. Edward: Donald Trump = Nero (Tacitus)
26. Edward: This has been exactly a DS section length!!!