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Historical Studies A

How to Succeed at Cocktail Parties Without Really Trying

Your mission: 1) Look like less of an idiot in snobby political discussions. 2) Prep you for those awkward moments when you fumble around for the date of D-Day (it’s June 6, 1944, you fool!). 3) Help you make that witty, bantering, sophisticated small talk that the seasoned Harvardian is expected to make.

While the proclaimed purpose of the Historical Study A Core maybe be to train the uncouth species known as the Harvard science concentrator to grasp the “background and development of major issues of the contemporary world,” just remember that its dull slogan is code for empowering the socially awkward to achieve their maximum well-rounded socialite potential.

Math concentrators accustomed to focusing on less than sixty pages of reading a week will bemoan the prospect of having hundreds of pages of historical texts shoved down their lexically-deficient throats. Remember, though, there were good reasons for choosing Harvard over its gawky, bumbling, and socially inadequate twin down the road—one being to benefit from the sparkling raillery of fellow Harvard students en route to becoming the self-possessed, articulate Harvard graduate, able to rattle off the names of African heads of state as quickly as she runs through the proof that the trisection of an angle is inconstructible. Yeah, that’s right, the hypothetical math concentrator is a female—eat that, Larry Summers.

For those precious few among us who value beauty and youth, professor Caroline Elkins and her course, Historical Study A-21 “Africa and Africans,” offer a satisfying dose of both. Students describe the Pulitzer-prize-possessing professor as funny, provocative, and opinionated. The dynamic lecturer who teaches by condensing a gargantuan subject into manageable themes and case studies also wows students with her sophisticated fashion sense. Aesthetics aside, Cosmo readers and African history enthusiasts alike appreciate this class’s reasonable course load.

Asian fetishists, head on over to Historical Study A-14 “Japan: Traditions and Transformations.” The class is difficult, and readings are extensive, but individual TFs are good and lecture on their areas of expertise. One enthusiastic TF, who had just gotten back from spending a year in Tokyo, delighted students with her appreciation for one of the assigned movies, “Tanpopo,” which is about searching for the perfect bowl of Ramen.

Some students couldn’t quite shake their impression that Professor Andrew Gordon was having a young friend help him dress in the morning—some of his sweaters were just a bit too cool for him, and his down North Face jacket looked like it belonged on a twenty-year-old. But you’ll appreciate Gordon’s personalized teaching style—he sat in on a couple sections, told personal stories about the princess who was his research assistant, and even sent letters to students who excelled suggesting that they take more courses in Japanese history.

But do you secretly desire to beef up your knowledge of constitutional history so you can jump straight into the crossfire of your government concentrator roommate’s next dinner discussion? Look no further than Historical Study A-84, “American Constitutional History from the Framing to the Present.” While Law School professor Morton Horwitz’s voice may wear you out almost as much as that last sentence did, lectures on the Supreme Court and insights on individual judges are intriguing. Many students will agree with Horwitz’s slight political biases (left-leaning, where else?) and enjoy his jabs at justices Scalia and Thomas.

Past students recall Horwitz asking them to “be like Princeton students and actually do the reading”—there’s a lot of it but it is very useful, and will enable you to chime into abortion debates with enlightened comments like, “Actually, the privacy language in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) is not as novel as one has been led to believe—in fact, the discussion of a constitutional ‘right to privacy’ dates back to an 1890 Harvard Law Review article by Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis.” Notice in particular the use of explicit dates and the indefinite fourth-person referent “one” to get the full pompous effect that you’re going for.

Not only will you be able to kick it with your lab partner while you two calculate relativistic momentum, spend long enough in the Hist A core and you may find yourself feigning the role of a humanities buff without realizing it. It helps to think of the tedious reading as a slightly more intellectual Harry Potter book you read as background so that you won’t be awkwardly left out of conversations on whether or not Professor Snipe is really on Harry Potter’s side. Clearly, this demonstrates the unsurpassed level of diligence, integrity, and work ethic of the typical Harvard student in any academic setting.

Just kidding. What it’s really a reflection of is the fact that classes like A-84 and Historical Study A-12, “International Conflict and Cooperation, in the Modern World” are packed with government, history, and social studies concentrators who use the class to fulfill concentration requirements.

Math and science concentrators might groan that the anthropology and psychology students are frolicking in the land of core favorite “Cosmic Connections” while they’re teeing off in Historical Study A classes with seasoned government concentrators. The upside is that while no math concentrator would be caught dead in “The Magic of Numbers,” Historical Study A classes are challenging enough to interest even the savviest of Government majors. And just remember that while that kid in your section is railing off Supreme Court cases at 500 words a minute, you can calculate eigenvectors and still hold your own among political science heavyweights.

Don’t be too worried if you’re not really into that whole “paper-writing” thing. Most Historical Study A classes have pretty reasonable requirements for papers, often in the manageable five-to-ten page range. And do not be intimidated by government concentrators’ color-coordinated tagging and highlighting, or the “notes” and “ideas” that they have been preparing—after all, you did your fair share of underlining with your old pal No. 2, but more importantly, you’re a problem set whiz!
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