Introduction to Gatekeeping

UChicago’s Core and introductory classes should welcome, not deter.

By Tejas Narayan

If you told me you’d heard only good things about UChicago’s Core and introductory classes, I’d have a very hard time believing you. As well-taught and interesting as I find the computer science (CS) electives I take now, the introductory sequence doesn’t share that polish. The Honors Physics sequence felt like an anchor chained to both my GPA and my mental health, quickly driving me to switch majors. Horror stories about the Econ 200s, Gen Chem, and Core Bio echo across campus, and I once heard that most of the Calc 150s sections are taught by “grad students who could not care less” about the class. For a school like UChicago that prides itself on offering a comprehensive liberal arts education, this pattern seems a little strange—intro sequences that spark interest in a subject are one of the clearest ways to encourage interdisciplinary study. Yet in spite of this, it feels like these courses are instead designed to filter out casual and inexperienced students, ensuring that only those with a background in the relevant field, an existing commitment to it, or a natural affinity for it choose to pursue it further. If we want to be free to properly experience the treasure trove of incredible advanced electives our school has to offer, intro sequences can’t be treated as disposable; on the contrary, they’re the most crucial part of any student’s educational journey, and UChicago must give their design a level of care and investment reflecting that.

Given that more than a third of our course load is dedicated to satisfying Core requirements, it’s difficult to imagine that UChicago wants to lock students into their majors. The entire concept of liberal arts revolves around the idea that learning different subjects teaches us to think in different ways, providing us with the tools to approach problems from a variety of angles. To that end, it makes sense to equip every student with a foundational understanding of subjects that they might never touch again. What doesn’t make sense is the perceived reluctance to build interest in a department beyond what the Core demands of it. It’s almost as though the average student’s mindset about general education has filtered into the way the Core itself is structured: as a necessary hurdle to get out of the way before we can get into what we’re really supposed to be learning.

The Introduction to Computer Science courses demonstrate this pattern incredibly well. I was lucky enough to take them with a background in coding, and I can say without reservation that my prior experience single-handedly carried me to a passing grade. For reasons that I will never understand, CS 151 teaches “functional programming,” a way of structuring code that doesn’t translate well to most real-world applications. While functional programming is an extremely helpful asset for specific uses like machine learning, it’s a much less intuitive introduction to computer science than the alternative, termed “imperative programming.” Most of the programming languages you’ve probably heard of—C, Java, or Python, to name a few—are built around imperative programming. CS 152, on the other hand, does nothing to build on the concepts established in its predecessor—it’s taught in a completely different language, and the basic way in which programs are organized is fundamentally distinct. None of the ideas introduced in the first course contribute to one’s understanding of the second, and to make matters worse, CS 152 assumes an unreasonable degree of familiarity with the material. Students are expected to complete their work in the powerful yet arcane text editor Vim but are never taught to use it effectively enough to justify its use over more convenient alternatives such as VS Code. I even spoke to someone who hadn’t learned how to output their program’s results to the screen in class, which should intuitively be recognizable as one of the most basic and universal skills in computer science. Without a solid foundation from CS 151, students in CS 152 are rushed through the class’s first principles, making it dramatically more challenging for an inexperienced programmer to grasp its core material properly.

So to recap: CS 151 doesn’t prepare students for the rest of its sequence, can’t be applied to general-purpose programming, and is unnecessarily difficult for most newcomers. What, then, is its purpose? If anything, it seems to be specifically intended as a deterrent to those who aren’t fully committed to a degree in computer science. Whatever damage this may deal to CS 152’s quality of instruction is just the cost of achieving that goal. But while the other two computer science classes I’ve taken so far—CS 154 and Introduction to Computer Security—have been similarly demanding, they have yet to prove unfair. The content is riveting, and as much as I may struggle with it, the course design has been refreshingly thoughtful. It’s just a shame that it took until my second year to encounter it.

It’s harder to criticize the Physics 140s in the same amount of detail since I was too overwhelmed by the sheer complexity of the information being thrown at me to have a clear sense of whether it was being presented in a productive way. But that is problematic in and of itself—even if these courses were perfectly structured, the stark gap in difficulty between the honors and standard sequences would still force many physics lovers to choose between a semester of high school review and a flood of material well beyond their ability. And the truth is that their structure is far from ideal. Despite the fact that Honors Physics—especially Electricity and Magnetism—relies heavily on advanced applied math, the concurrent Math 180s courses are almost comically timely in how they cover a technique or theorem that would probably have been useful on the physics P-set due a week earlier. That’s as far as my own experience goes, but don’t worry: There’s no shortage of students who have either been pushed away from a subject by their first taste of it or been left scarred by the first two or three courses they had to endure for their majors. Chances are that you’ve suffered through your share of shoddy intro sequences too.

You might be picking up on another key point—most of the departments I’ve mentioned are STEM fields, with the exception of economics. One theory to explain this is simply that UChicago anticipates a large number of students seeking out these majors as “right” choices for their careers and wants to ensure that no one has to discover that their field of study isn’t a good fit after they’ve already sunk years into that commitment. Or maybe it isn’t by design at all, and the only thing to blame is a lack of investment in early classes in favor of later ones. But the idea that we should devote our lives to what we’re good at regardless of what we enjoy is ultimately antithetical to what college claims to offer: an opportunity to discover and pursue our passions. For every pre-med student who realizes too late that they’re in over their head, there are three more political science students who never got the chance to find their calling as doctors. When exploring new subjects comes at the cost of enjoyable, well-designed intro sequences and a consistent GPA, our ability to make full use of our time in college will inevitably be hindered. So if UChicago hopes to rebuild the education it offers into the wealth of inquiry and opportunity that it’s touted as offering, the beginning seems like a good place to start.


Tejas Narayan is a second-year in the College.