The Core Conundrum

Both students and the University must work to make the Core Curriculum a better experience.

By Sylvia Ebenbach

As students pre-register for classes this week, the stress around choosing and getting into core classes rises to the surface for many. For being one of the most advertised features of academic life at UChicago, it’s surprising how heavily students criticize UChicago’s Core classes once they arrive on campus. Rather than being embraced, Core classes provoke anxiety, especially those classes that fall outside one’s main field of interest. Students worry that one physical sciences topic class will wreck their GPA, or that if they choose the wrong humanities course, they’ll actually have reading assignments (god forbid). First-years nervously ask their R.A.s during O-week, “Which section has the easiest professor?”

As students, we worked hard in high school, tried to excel in as many areas as possible, and got admitted to a college that is esteemed for its commitment to knowledge—a commitment propagated through its Core Curriculum. Yet once we arrive, we want to skate through these requirements with the easiest classes? This makes no sense to me. While the admissions reps and College administration like to tout “the life of the mind,” this pursuit of knowledge is not a top-down phenomenon, but rather comes from the student body. We always push ourselves to be successful professionally, academically and socially, but what about improvement of our character? We should not abandon the curiosity and desire to be challenged that brought us to this university.

Students should push themselves out of their comfort zones. I’m certainly familiar with the fear of taking a class in a field with which I’m not comfortable. But I have the rest of my college career to study topics that fulfill my major. The Core offers students a chance to be curious and study topics that interest them without taking classes in another department that are too difficult. These classes can serve as gateways into departments to which students would not otherwise be exposed, perhaps sparking an interest for taking more electives in the future.

One of the best classes I’ve taken so far at UChicago is Natural History of North American Deserts for the biological topic requirement because it has taught me how to view common bodily and environmental processes through a scientific lens. This is never something I would have learned in a humanities class. The class is taught by Professor Eric Larsen, whose passion for the material is reflected in his anecdotal and interactive teaching style. He supplements information about deserts with personal stories about his time doing fieldwork, and finds endless ways to connect what we are learning back to non-desert scenarios. When asked about why he chooses to include so many anecdotes in his lectures, he said, “I think humans evolved hearing stories all of our lives, and I think that stories are easier to remember. So, if you didn’t remember to write all the details down, if you remember the story you might remember some of those details.” His lectures are meant to be accessible and interesting to everyone.

Core classes also give students the opportunity to learn how to think differently, which ultimately improves students’ abilities to solve problems and make arguments. There is often anxiety when it comes to learning to think differently and approach problems from a new perspective, but this can also help students grow as prepared individuals. Remembering what he learned as an undergraduate student and how it is reflected in his teaching style, Larsen noted, “When I was an undergraduate, the class that I remember learning the most in is where a guy would ask a question and if no one answered, he’d pick someone…. I decided that if he picks me, I don’t want to be embarrassed by having no idea. So, I have to do two things: I have to pay attention, listening for the content while I’m taking notes so that if he should ever ask a question, I’ll be able to answer…. [Those] sorts of things make you think while you’re in class—you’re more engaged, or at least I was, and I assume that there are students like me.”

Another often forgotten benefit of taking Core classes is that they give us the freedom to learn about fields outside of our profession. Once we graduate, we won’t have the chance to study with highly-respected professors and learn about deserts, astrophysics, or in-depth poetry analysis just because we are curious. Many would argue that in terms of this opportunity, it’s not worth risking their professional track on a class or professor that could be hard and mess up their GPA. But we came to this school to be challenged.

However, to make Core classes truly exciting for students, the University must make an effort to standardize the Core so there are not some that are significantly harder or easier than others. That does not mean they should all be extremely challenging, like many people say their experience is in the social sciences Core class Power, Identity, Resistance. However, they should also not be dulled down to the level of the physical science class Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast, a flipped class where most students never interact with the professor in person. Each professor brings a unique specialty and approach to the material and this should be maintained, but it should not create a huge discrepancy in difficulty between sections of the same class. Deserts is a great example of a Core class that is exciting and accessible to people of different academic strengths. The University should pay more attention to the syllabi of different classes, and make sure that only professors who are interested in teaching the material to all students (even those not in their field) teach the Core classes. The University also needs to work harder to gauge student interest in different topics and make sure that there are enough sections open, so that students can get into their first-choice Core sections.

The Core should not induce stress and it shouldn’t be a fight to take the easiest class, but it should be celebrated for the opportunity to learn. If we want to improve the Core, both the University and the student body must work towards it.


Sylvia Ebenbach is a first-year in the College.