An Unexpected Adventure

When Class Scheduling Woes Resulted in One of My Favorite Semesters at UC Berkeley

By Amanda K. Gee

Final weeks of the semester: professors send out their final assignments, graduate student instructors hold their final office hours, and students buckle down for the final homestretch while also figuring out their class schedule for the next semester. This will be my final semester registering for classes, but already most of my classes are locked into place. My thesis seminar is a yearlong commitment. There’s also the college philosophy requirement I pushed back until now, plus two bucket-list classes. All in all, a full academic schedule.

Choosing classes for second semester senior year couldn’t be more different than second semester freshman year. At Berkeley, all students sign up for classes in two phases. For the first phase, I did what any strategic student would do: signed up all the smaller size or popular classes that filled up quickly. My perfectly planned schedule maximized my weekend to five days and minimized my finals. Right after I got my schedule, the unexpected happened: I realized that I a) wanted to be an English major and b) would need to take an English prerequisite.

Entire schedule scraped.

I barely secured my seat in an introductory English class. Now I faced another problem: I was only enrolled in one class. What classes should I choose now? Word around Wheeler Hall was that one should never take more than one English class per semester. (By junior year, I had the guts to break that rule, but wide-eyed-freshmen-Amanda didn’t dare be that rebellious.) Instead, I dove straight into overwhelmingly large course catalogue to figure out my schedule.

I signed up for two classes outside of my major. Three years in retrospect, those two classes are still among my favorite at Berkeley.

The first class was perhaps not far outside of my comfort zone: Scandinavian Studies 106: The Works of Hans Christian Andersen. It was still a literature course and, I figured, an easy A since I had read Andersen’s original fairy tales and watched the Disney adaptations. Professor Karin Sanders quickly showed me how little I understood about fairy tales. Enthusiastic and knowledgeable, Professor Sanders wove lessons on Danish culture and history into lectures on The Little Mermaid. Andersen’s fairy tales and novels, she explained, often followed the structure of bildungsroman, a story which dealing with a person’s psychological and moral development. Seeing how the bildungsroman worked in Andersen’s work helped me also to see how it worked in my Shakespeare plays and Anglo-American novels. The Ugly Duckling struggles to understand the cruel world he lives in, just like Frankenstein’s monster, except the Ugly Duckling transforms into a swan and Frankenstein’s monster spirals off into an elaborate revenge plot. During times of reading one intensively philosophical British novel after another, it was nice to just have an excuse to read fairy tales for a change. Professor Sanders also had interesting words to say about Hollywood interpretations of Andersen and his fairy tales. Danny Kaye, the American actor who played Andersen in the 1952 film, apparently caused a mini-scandal when he jumped into Andersen’s bed during his visit to Denmark. By the time Professor Sanders visited the bed, a glass case had been put in place preventing her, Professor Sanders joked, from following the American example. Long story short, Hollywood’s portrayals of Andersen are good in their own way.

Unfortunately, my anxiety of “will-I-ever-get-a-job-as-a-humanities-major” got the best of me when it came down to picking my other class. Fortunately, I found the most technical class that still fit my interest with language: Linguistics 5. “Linguistics is the the math behind words,” explained one techie friend. Not to mention, Linguistics 5 would fulfill one of my graduation requirements, and that was all that freshman Amanda wanted to hear. That semester found me doing what I never expected to do in college: problem sets and data analysis. But they were the most fun problem sets to solve and data to analyze. It was all based around words, breaking down words into sounds, building up words into sentences. Basically, my type of math as an English nerd. Linguistics also made me love my in-depth literary analysis assignments for English. For my essay on Moby Dick, I obsessively honed on the conversations between the self-declared Ishmael and his cannibal companion Queequeg, flagging passages, tracking breaks in syntax structure, and noting the affixed vowels in Queequeg’s broken pidgin English. My mom laughed when I gushed about drawing up sentence trees. She knew her daughter had stubbornly refused to sound out letters when learning how to read in first grade. Now, that same daughter was excitedly memorizing the International Phonetic Alphabet and sounding out “puh-puh-puh” versus “buh-buh-buh” in her dorm room.

Second semester of freshman year still is one of my favorite semesters in college. It ended with me writing my own fairy tale following Andersen’s own fantasy/reality model and resolving to double in Linguistics. Emboldened, I signed up for even more classes in sophomore year, dabbling in Chinese, German folklore, and education. As I proceeded in my upper-division English classes, I started focusing more on my major requirements and my thesis. All too quickly, the time to try classes outside of my major narrowed. For every literature course that interests me outside of the English department, I need to weigh the reading load (five fat Russian novels) with the reading load for my major electives (eight English novels that, in total, equal the width of five fat Russian novels). I continued taking Linguistic classes but eventually realized the major wasn’t for me once we started on recursion, basic tech talk that my computer science friend regarded as child’s play.

Looking back, I realized that classes outside of my major rounded out my academic experience.

Once, when asking my faculty advisor for help on a scholarship application, I mentioned that I had studied pragmatics in a Linguistics class. His head immediately perked up. “Put that in your application!” he said. The scholarship board, he explained, would be used to seeing literature majors with strong literary background. But an English major with some linguistics skills under her belt… that might just give me a leg up! I also learned that sometimes I just needed to take a mental break and study something that wasn’t English literature. My literary analysis muscle could rest while another part of my mind sharpened.

To reappropriate Shakespeare, “The course of class scheduling never did run smooth.” Given that reality, a class outside of your major, or even just outside of your ideal schedule, won’t kill you. When I first opened that full course catalogue to salvage a second semester schedule, the sheer amount of choices overwhelmed me. Four years later, I realize that the breadth of academic possibilities is a blessing. High school leads you through the common core of math, English, history, and science. College invites you to dive into academic conversation in which one professor’s lecture overlaps with another professor’s assignment.

That time to take classes outside of your major is short. Embrace it. Who knows what might happen?

Perhaps you could be like my friend, who jumped around different departments and classes in the College of Natural Resources before landing on her geography major. Perhaps you could be like my roommate, who picked up a Computer Science minor after taking some coding classes as electives for her Cognitive Science major. Or perhaps you could be like me: no major change or minor addition, but with a realization that my college experience was better because I took the chance with classes outside my major. So take that leap, open up the class catalogue (not nearly five Russian novels in size, but close) and step outside of your comfort zone. Who knows what kind of adventure you may find in an unexpected class choice.