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The CONFI, The CUE, AND GUTS

Professors of Harvard's famed easy classes defend their courses against the gut label.

By Courtney A. Coursey

Students flock to easy classes and speak of them in revered tones.

But what is it like for a professor to teach a class that the entire student population, it seems, has labelled a "gut?"

Do professors believe their classes involve ridiculously little work and award absurdly high grades?

The responses of professors interviewed for this article ran the gamut, from one professor who had never heard of the term "gut" to a few who say they have fought against having their classes characterized as such.

Jones Professor of Classical Greek Literature Gregory Nagy, who teaches Literature and Arts C-14: "The Concept of the Hero in Greek Civilization," also known as "Heroes for Zeros," says the term "gut" reflects a "strictly materialistic and cynical way of thinking about something that is much more important."

Many professors dispute the accuracy of the Confidential Guide, a Crimson publication in which selected classes are reviewed by students who have taken them in previous years. The reviews are often biting in nature.

Professor of Music Robert D. Levin '68 says he was angry when he read the 1995-1996 Confi review of his class, Literature and Arts B-54: "Chamber Music from Mozart to Ravel."

Levin says that he was "a bit offended" by the review's comment, "to do well on the tests, all you need to say is something that passes for deep."

"At the very least, that's not very respectful to the TFs or the course head," Levin says.

On the first day of lecture, Levin warned students shopping his class that it would not be an "A for no effort" as the Confi claimed.

Levin says some students may have been motivated to take his class because of the Confi review, citing the drastic increase in interest: 375 students attended Levin's first lecture last year, whereas 850 appeared at his second lecture this year.

Assistant Professor of Economics Andrew P. Metrick disagrees with the Confi's characterization of his Economics 1011a: "Microeconomic Theory" as a grade gut. "Metrick has no bones about giving half the class some kind of A," the 1995-1996 Confi says.

Metrick says the most common grade in last fall's Economics 1011a was a B+.

The grades he gave were very close to the average grades his students received in other classes according to information given to him by the Office for Instructional Evaluation, he says.

Metrick says he doesn't think the Confi guide was not the primary cause of his course's doubling in size because there were no grade grubbers this year.

"If people took my class because they thought that it was a grade gut and were surprised, none complained," he says.

CUE Guide

All the professors interviewed for this story say they read their CUE reviews, which provide more objective information than the Confi.

Associate Professor of Economics Aaron Tornell says the CUE Guide is important because it is a good source of information for students and tells teachers whether their classes are too boring, too difficult or too fast.

Metrick says that as economics head tutor he reads all of the CUE Guide articles for the department.

"The CUE Guide goes out of its way to make sure that it has representative comments," Metrick says. "The CUE Guide is a good way to get critical feedback."

But some professors say the CUE Guide is misleading.

"I don't think that a consumer's guide approach to courses is empirical," Nagy says. "Crack categories are not as empirical as they seem."

Levin says that the 1995-1996 CUE Guide review for "Chamber Music" does not accurately reflect his class in terms of difficulty or workload.

"Chamber Music" has a workload rating of 2.3 and a difficulty rating of 2.5, which are classic gut numbers. But Levin says these numbers do not tell the whole story.

"Listening to a piece of music is a highly elastic assignment," Levin explains, saying those who think the workload was light probably did not do the work.

Cooper Professor of Geology Paul Hoffman, who teaches Science A-37, "The Changing Surface of the Earth," says students should not interpret his classes' CUE ratings--a 3.2 difficulty and 3.1 workload--as indicators his class is easy.

"Anyone who thinks that they should take A-37 because it is an easy course would be in for a shock," Hoffman says, noting that students should not rely on old CUE reviews, as he has changed the class--known as "Rocks for Jocks"--significantly.

Toughening Up

Some students suspect that professors are inclined to make their classes harder if they learn that students are calling them guts.

Students say Literature and Arts C-14 was more difficult this year than last.

Wayne G. Marshall '98 says many students grumbled that the class was harder than they thought it would be.

"I heard that it was a lot harder this year," says Benjamin J. Sommers '99, who found the class more difficult than he had expected. "They were trying to make it seem less of a gut."

Calling the title "Heroes for Zeros" a misnomer, Nagy says that any increase in difficulty was not intentional.

Professors of some courses say the material covered by their classes often alters from year to year.

"I change [the class] very much from year to year to reflect my research interests," Nagy says.

He says he was surprised some students said that the class was more difficult this year.

"It's not me who makes the class difficult," Nagy says. "It's the literature itself that's difficult."

Some professors say there is no stigma attached to teaching a class that is considered a gut.

"I can make it difficult if I want," says Tornell, who teaches Economics 1470: "Privatization."

"I think that the trick is to make people interested," Tornell says. "You want them to enjoy the class. I think that he purpose is to get people interested and remember a few of the concepts after they leave college."

Tornell says that certain questions on his exams are good indicators of the amount of work that students have done.

"If you didn't read, you won't get those questions right," Tornell says. "You can get a B without reading."

Tornell says the grade distribution for his course is not set beforehand, but that the distribution tends to be the same each year.

"Very few students are extremely good," he says. "The majority is good but not extremely good. It's always easy to tell."

Others agree that classes are as hard as students want them to be.

Though he disagrees with the title "Heroes for Zeroes," Nagy says he makes jokes about the name in class.

"The course is very challenging to profound thinkers but easy for 'superficial' thinkers," Nagy says. "It's what you bring into it and get out of it that matters."

Nagy admits there might not be as much reading in his course as in other classes but that it demands careful attention.

"Even if the reading may not be quite as voluminous as in some other courses it requires very careful and slow reading," Nagy says, "and some of the characters in the literature go from zero to hero like in the Odyssey."

Becoming a Gut

Students say they rely on the CUE and Confidential Guides, word-of-mouth and syllabi with few requirements to identify easy classes.

Boris Alvarado '96 says he took "Rocks for Jocks" in part because "it seemed like the easiest Core [course] in the CUE Guide in terms of work and difficulty."

Thong Q. Le '98 says he identified "Heroes" as a gut by reading the CUE Guide review and talking to juniors and seniors who had taken the class.

"It was probably one of the first classes that I heard of that was supposed to be a gut," Le said. "I was kind of interested in that aspect of it."

A first-year in Thayer who asked for anonymity says that she thought "The Changing Surface of the Earth" was a gut because of what upperclass students told her as well as a low difficulty rating in the CUE Guide.

She says she took the class because she is not a good science student and thought that it was a gut.

"I thought that it would be an easy way to fulfill my science requirement," she says. "I'm not into geology or anything."

Alison C. May '96 says she took "Rocks for Jocks" in part because of its CUE Guide ratings which she says revealed it was "a combination of good professor and easy class."

Both students say the class turned out not to be a gut.

"I think that it was really hard," the Thayer first-year says. "The tests were impossible."

Professors say students who takes classes because they are supposedly easy may be in for a surprise.

Levin says students who thought his class would be a "real breeze" were in for "what the Germans call a cold bath."

He denies rumors, however, that he lowered the average grade in "Chamber Music" because of the influx of students.

Levin says his grades were not curved at all.

"With as many TFs and sections, it would take an extraordinarily intrusive professor to control the scale of grades to that degree," Levin says.

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