Guest Column by Chase Harrow | What's obvious in your courses

Choosing courses is always a challenge that each of faces every semester

I f y ou’re a Penn undergraduate right now, then you’ve chosen courses before and you’ll be fine choosing them again when fall courses are released Friday. It’s likely that picking courses isn’t something that you get better at with time: you just have a new set of restrictions to work against.

Given that, it’s still not easy to connect the courses on the screen with the courses you picked last semester. Did you expect this cinema class to have so much reading? Did you realize how nice it was going to be to walk to the classroom next door for your back-to-back classes?

And even more importantly, what did you learn this semester? Did your history class change how you view the past? Did your physics class give you a new way to think about the world? Did you pick your classes so that you could learn big truths? Is that what you want your education to be? If so, did that really happen?

I’ve heard a lot of people say that Rebecca Stein’s opportunity cost lecture in Economics 001 opened their eyes to something meaningful and important. I can say I am one of those people. But the idea of opportunity cost is that when you make a choice, you aren’t making a different choice. Written out like that, it seems trivial and obvious.

Take this as an exercise. What were the big ideas you learned in your favorite classes? Can they too be written out as something that seems trivial and obvious? If so, then what exactly happened in those other classes that aren’t your favorites? Did they fail to teach you something trivial and obvious?

There’s something wrong in this. Did I oversimplify a nuanced idea about opportunity cost into sounding trivial? Or is that closer to what all the math does when you apply it in class?

The challenge here is probably what we mean by trivial and obvious, and I’ve certainly seen those words called into question in classes. Professors who have spent decades on a subject throw it around like their material is the most intuitive thing in the world.

We do it to ourselves studying. Who hasn’t spent an evening reviewing notes that seem so easy, only to be confounded on the test the next day?

I think the solution lies in understanding the difference between what’s easy and what’s obvious. They don’t have to be the same thing. A lot of the humanities have to do with how important it is to understand and love other people, and while that’s something so obvious that Barney the Dinosaur knows it, that doesn’t make it easy.

So if you’re dismissing a class because it feels like everything you’ve learned is really obvious, maybe it’s good to be reminded of those obvious facts every once in a while. And if you’re upset that a great class feels able to be reduced to a more obvious statement, don’t be. It’s likely there is a lot of work and effort you and others put in to making it obvious.

Likewise, if it’s obvious to pick classes that have good professors, that fulfill your requirements efficiently, that don’t stress you out too much, that have students you like in it, that aren’t too far away, that let you use your skills in new ways, then just remember these obvious things when you log in to start looking at courses.

Chase Harrow is a College junior from Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. studying mathematics, economics, and English. Email him at or follow him @ChaseH108.

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