“What are you taking this term?” is a staple of
small-talk exchanges at Dartmouth. You hear in the library, on the green, in
basements. I could keep naming campus locations, but I think you get the idea.
No matter who you are, this conversation has been a part of your life here.
Ingrained in the fabric of this simple exchange is the concept of “the third class” or, as some call it, “the layup:” a class that is assumed to require less time and effort than others. A carefree flick of the wrist to tip the ball into the basket, rather than a concentrated three-point shot.
If someone gives an atypical response to the class question—maybe they are taking multiple classes that are considered layups; maybe they are not taking any—they are met with envy and scoff or pity and condolences.
Like all social conventions, the concept of the layup is layered in implications that extend far beyond its initial simplicity as just a class. How does the categorization of layup classes define entire departments—and, by extension, anyone who chooses a major in that department? Is taking a layup class an act of arrogance; wasting your educational opportunities? Or, is it arrogant to assume that these classes are a waste; to assume they have less intrinsic value than other classes? How does this play into the larger question of the oddities of the liberal arts education?
I can’t answer these questions, so I searched for help*.
“I wouldn’t say layups are useful or useless—it depends on what you’re using Dartmouth for,” said Alexis, who is a Comp Lit major. “If you aren’t interested in Dartmouth for academics; if you’re just using it as a stepping stone for career goals and want a higher GPA, take as many layups as you want.”
The idea of a class as means to boost your GPA is not a new one, but the question remains of whether it is ultimately worth it. It seems contradictory to the notion of college as “higher education”—isn’t it strange to seek a classroom without focusing on a goal of getting education inside it?
“I think, when you start sacrificing content for layups, that’s when it becomes an issue,” said Isaac, who is a Government major. “Like if it’s a horrible class with a bad Prof and nonsensical content—that’s when it becomes a waste of time.”
Alexis added that the idea of what constitutes a layup can range. “When I took Physics 1, that was the highest level of science class I could possibly take,” she said. “For some people, like Chem or Bio majors, it was a layup for them—but for me, I was dying.”
In that regard, the name ‘layup’ can be deceptive. One man’s layup is another man’s three-pointer (is that not how the expression goes...?) A pre-med student commented that she rarely does well in layups. “My layup classes are often sociology or religion classes, “ she said. “So I learn a lot of things I wouldn’t otherwise, which is nice. But they always end up being hard for me.” As she proves (and, as my experience in sophomore summer Astro proved), the notion that a layup class is “easy” can have a contradictory effect. Psychologically, it places you in a mindset to devote less focus to the class, and the end result is not necessarily a painless ride.
The lack of a clear consensus on what a layup is can thus lead to frustration. We’ve all experienced a class in which half the students are seriously engaged and half are more lackadaisical. Whichever category you fall into, it’s frustrating on both ends of the spectrum—whether its “Damn it, I want to learn; why is my group project partner that guy who rarely shows up, and, when he does, he always sits next to me surfing distractingly odd Wikipedia pages?” or “Damn it, I just want to have a mellow class, why are they taking it too seriously and interrupting my Wikipedia-surfing to make ‘points’ that restate exactly what the professor just said?” (I naturally assume this is how everyone’s inner monologues sound).
So, if the same class is a layup for some and a struggle for others, is there a general consensus on what a layup actually is? Or, like most ubiquitous cultural ideas, does everyone have their own particular definition—and assume that everyone else shares it?
“How I define a layup is, you need a third class,” said Dave, who is an Environmental Studies major. Erik, an engineering major, agreed. “Friends from other schools have said to me, ‘you guys only take three classes, how hard can that be?’” he said. “Pretty fucking hard.”
Dave added, “A layup is a flexible class; a class where you can put off the work. You’re killing yourself with your other two classes, so you need that.”
As many students said, layups can also have value for the sole reason that they are outside the area of study you normally focus on. “I think there’s something to be said for not having to do a ton of work; just sitting and listening and absorbing. Learning without having to worry about a grade,” said Emily, who is also an engineer.
“My freshman year, I was in an engineering class that I wasn’t ready for at the time, and I switched from that into an oceanography class,” Erik added. “And it was easy— technically a layup, I guess— but I still learned a lot.”
“I think it’s kind of a false choice, though,” Isaac countered. “It’s a class with assessments that are, on the whole, less rigorous. But I’ve never really had great experiences with layups.” Alexis added that many people want to take “easy” classes but they can end up being excruciating. Many agreed with Isaac and Alexis—including a large portion of my Astro class this past summer. Not that I’m bitter, or anything.
Tyler, who is geography major, described the departments that are commonly thought of as having the most layup classes as “anything with ‘studies’ in the name.”
“That’s one thing that does bother me—when people think humanities will be easy,” Alexis said. Alexis’s point illuminates a problematic aspect of layup classes: when students use the “what are you taking” conversation as a means of assessing intelligence. If somebody is taking two lab classes and somebody else is taking two women and gender studie
s classes, which person might you automatically assume to be more intelligent? A few people said they would automatically consider the first person to be. “I wouldn’t assume intelligence one way or another,” said Tyler. “But would say the first person is taking a more academically serious term.”
Erik is currently taking an ecology class, a high-level engineering class, and a writing class.
“Honestly, I’m probably spending the most time on the writing class right now,” he said.
Ultimately, are there any grand conclusions to be drawn about the liberal arts education? Are layup classes an aspect that represents the beauty of it, or the absurdity of it? Do they undermine the purpose of a higher education, or is the opportunity to take them an integral part of it?
Is ending this with more questions a cop-out move?
Only insofar as taking a layup class is.
* Searched for help = interrogated whoever happened to be near me, at various times**
** 96% of these interviews were consensual.