Before this semester, I had never experienced the social buzz surrounding “gut classes” (a code word for courses that lack academic rigor and have astoundingly low workloads). As someone who arrived at Yale determined to take those challenging classes that my high school didn’t offer, I usually tried to sidestep the conversations about which classes had the easiest grading, the least work, or frequently showed movies in class. This semester, though, they were unavoidable. By allowing students to efficiently rank courses by workload, professor ratings, and overall class ratings, CourseTable, a.k.a. Yale Bluebook+, made identifying guts easier than ever before.
Faced with a post-graduation world where GPA is the first metric with which employers weed out job candidates, students flocked to and discussed these classes in droves. Archaeoastronomy, a course described by one of its many evaluations as “basically a humanities credit that somehow got hijacked into a science credit,” and The Structure of Networks, a class (and I use that word loosely) whose evaluations contain the word “easy” six times, with “gut” coming in a close second at three mentions, overflowed with students eager for a low-effort GPA boost. But while rampant careerism is partially responsible for these issues, Yale is itself somewhat culpable for this distortion of higher education. Other honorable mentions — which I include only to emphasize the sheer ridiculousness of the current gut situation — go to Exploring the Nature of Genius, a writing credit described by one evaluation as having “not a lot of writing or reading,” and History of Life, a class described as having “almost no work.”
Yale’s Information Technology Services blocked CourseTable halfway through shopping period after demanding its creators, Peter Xu and Harry Yu, take it down (and, by some accounts, threatening them with disciplinary action if they did not.) The brief statement that replaced the webpage on Yale’s networks cited “malicious activity” as the basis for the administration’s action, and there are plenty of good reasons to be disappointed by the use of such duplicitous language—if you’re going to censor something, at least be honest about it! Yale also warned the website’s creators that the site was using private, copyrighted data, as well as Yale’s name and logo, and I’ll grant that if these claims are true, Yale was justified in protecting its property. But given that the original Yale Bluebook was also student-run application before Yale purchased it last year, it strains credulity to think that copyright claims were the only issue in this case.
Rather, it seems that hundreds of students showed up to the easiest classes leaving professors that either had terrible teaching evaluations or had simply chosen to teach more challenging classes with empty classrooms. And because Yale didn’t like that at all, it did what any business would do to protect its assets (in this case, its esteemed faculty): blocking the website responsible for such a disruption. It appears that Yale wants its course evaluations to be available to students, but not too available, and definitely not so prominently and in such a way that the ratings are aggregated and averaged together. This entire debacle is nothing more than an exercise in dodging accountability, because Yale’s administrators — positioned as they are at an institution with a tri-partite mission statement: “to create, preserve, and disseminate knowledge” — know, perhaps best of all, that the gut classes CourseTable so clearly displayed should not exist.
To be clear, the website and its creators were not in the wrong here. In fact, in the sense that they revealed Yale’s tacit acceptance of these classes, they did a great deal of good. There is simply no place for guts in a university that is truly dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. Their presence is a direct affront to any claim of excellence in education, to Yale’s position among the best institutions of the world, and most of all to the students that came to Yale to learn, to acquire real knowledge, and to walk away with the value that can be found only through challenging oneself.