What was your most useful class?

College often claim to develop you as a person. It’s a claim that usually gets a cynical response from me. Nonetheless, a few of the classes that took definitely changed the way that I look at the world. Some of them taught me skills that I use every day. So fellow Dopers, what was your most useful class? Which one do you think most helped form you into the person that you are today? I you didn’t go to college, what highschool class was it?

A classmate at the time had a father who worked for IBM. He came in to give a “career talk” to our class on how to become a programmer. I was very interested as I was mostly interested in computers at the time. Somebody asked him what the most important class that he’d taken in highschool had been. His response blew me away. Typing. Next semester I signed up for typing and suffered through a class that had the same makeup as your average home ec class. He was right though, I couldn’t have gotten through college without it and use it every day in my job.

I started out as a first year psych major. One of the classes that I had to take was called Research Methods and was taught by a guy named John Shaughnessy. I’d never have picked the class on my own as the subjet seemed too dry and boring to interest me. He started the first class by saying, “If I succeed in teaching you what I want to teach you in this class, you’re going to be a pain in the neck. Your friends or family are going to talk about some poll or study or report and you’re going to start asking a lot of awkward questions.” He taught us about empiricism, scientific (falsifiable) questions, sampling, confounded data, statistical signifigance and the difference between correlation and causation. He spent a fair amount of time on examples of bad science, pseudoscience and out and out statistical lies. Sixteen years later I can still clearly remember his class. It genuinely changed me. It taught me how to sift through the mountain of bullshit that the media dumps on me every week. It taught me how to be skeptical without being cynical. It taught me that the questions that you ask shape the answer that you get.

So what were yours?

Mine was an Early American History survey course, a 1492-1877 type of class. I was an engineering major, and took it as a genreal education requirement. I was kind of interested in history at the time, but not really seriously. I took this course (with an awesome teacher) and it really opened my eyes as to how interesting/relevant some of this stuff could be. SInce then I graduated with a BS in Mechanical Engineering and decided that’s not what I want to do, so I am back in school getting a BA in History, working toward a Ph.D.

Would you say that it was a “show me a topic that I never knew was interesting” or more of a “change the way I see the world” kind of thing?

My college Psych courses made everything snap into place. You know how people talk about a religious epiphany? It was kinda like that. A sudden flash of enlightenment. “Oh, so that’s why <this happened>, and that’s why <that happened>.” Boom, it knocked the world into order. I kinda regret changing majors back to English, but I don’t want to spend more time in school than I have to. I’m ready for it to be over.

My Intro. to Pop Culture class, especially the weeks we spent on Hip Hop and Rap was amazing. You take these Sociology classes cause they sound like a cakewalk and they turn out to be a really good class.

The Intro to Cinema class I’m in now is really, really interesting and has made me watch movies in a whole new light. It’s also helped some of the screenplays I’m writing/written immensely. I think everyone should have to take it.

A writing class. We spent all semester learning how to write well by picking apart examples of bad writing.

Great responses!

I liked my psych courses as well. I particularly liked being shown the “lenses” through which I viewed the world. Was there a particular course that was more responsible for your epiphany than others? Do you think that your cinema course interfered with your enjoyment of movies? ie. picking apart the techniques rather that being sorta “in the moment”.

Is the ability to write well something that you often need in your work/home life?

I can’t imagine any profession where being able to write well isn’t an advantage.

I’ll give an example.
I work for a computer and AV rental company in Las Vegas. My job to maintain an accurate inventory, find and cover equipment shortages, liase with the company that wrote our software, find missing or stolen gear and occasionally take orders from customers. Other than writing a memo or policy about once every other month, my writing skills don’t get used. There are people who work for me that use them even less. So I guess what I’m asking is whether your job requires them more than mine.


Intro to Psychology helped, of course, but I found Psychology of Personal Adjustment to be tremendously useful. I even suggested some of the books/writers mentioned in there (Seligmann especially) to some friends of mine, who found them immensely helpful. I also found my Social Psych class very interesting, it was more individual focused than a Sociology class would have been. Abnormal Psychology was a treat and, like everyone else, I was convinced I had everything we were reading about. Damn DSM IV! shakes fist What made it VERY cool was the teacher, who worked in a mental hospital for years, so he had stories/patients for every condition. Behavior Modification was a great course, it was like “Intro to Warping People’s Fragile Little Minds”…like I needed the help.

Cinema-It’s the exact opposite. For me, half the fun of the movie is seeing how they do it. The craft interests me as much as the film. For example, I just saw Kill Bill and the story was really good, but I loved watching the way Tarantino would set up a shot. Learning some of the vocabulary just adds to my enjoyment. And learning some of the history of cinema has actually helped me enjoy movies more. In addition, I’ve seen quite a few clips from films I’d probably never run into otherwise, like Battleship Potemkin and some other Soviet films. Having a sense of history helps me enjoy the movies now, I’ve found.

Ah I’d forgotten about Abnormal Psych! It helped that I had a prof who kept emphasizing that the difference between normal and abnormal was in the frequency and severity of the symptoms. Still… Damn you DSM-IIIR!! Social Psych was good too. It helped explain some of the more distressing aspects human behavior.

Are the observations that you make about movies something that you do while watching or something you think about later?

There were several in college that were great, but the first one that comes to mind is my seventh grade U.S. History course. Our instructor taught us how to take notes in outline form, and it’s served me well to this day.

I’m a software engineer, so a large part of my job is writing design documents, writing emails that communicate technical ideas, and explaining things to people who aren’t quite as technical. I spend more time writing than coding.

As you get more into the “professional” careers (doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc.), writing skills become more and more important.

As for pure usefulness, I certainly got a lot out of my Typing I class from high school. All these years later, I still use the home row and apply everything else I learned from this class.

Advanced Composition, 11th grade. Taught me how to write, so that in college nearly every single one of my evals included the phrase “Kyla’s papers were excellent.” (Okay, sometimes the phrase was “Kyla’s papers were excellent, although…”) Great teacher. I had him again in 12th grade, for AP Lit, which was also a wonderful class, althought not quite as useful.

Typing. Hands down (so to speak). I didn’t learn to do anything other than hunt-n-peck until several years after high school, and now I wish that I’d known how to do it back in elementary.

It’s the one class I recommend to every kid I meet. I’ll often just hang around playgrounds and malls, and when I see a child, I run up to 'em and ask, “Hey, kid- have you taken typing yet?”

I think they really take my words to heart- they always run screaming to their mothers… I assume to have mom sign 'em up for a typing class right away.


Okay, writing seems to be a theme here. Even though I don’t use it as much as Ultrafilter, I’d easily give you spelling and grammar as crucial skills. Nothing convinces me that I’m dealing with a moron faster than bad grammar or poor spelling. I’ve worked for people who couldn’t even punctuate a sentence.

Odd coincidence. My Research Methods Prof. used to use outlines as well. It stayed my note taking style until I took a chem class in which the Prof. never prepared a lesson plan. Try outlining that.

Usually while I’m watching. One part is going “WHOA! COOL!” while the other sips its brandy, adjusts its smoking jacket, and goes, “Mmm, I really like the way the lighting was used to heighten the intensity of that shot…”

What have I ever used since?

French: use in casual conversation, slightly on holiday.
History: I know the basics of WWII
Dynamics, trigonometry: How long would it take to fall? How high is the flagpole?
Measure theory: I can laugh at people who use Pascal’s wager

…so nothing really useful…

The Sociology class I took in 1982. I took it for the hours and treated it like a joke. I walked away from it with two concepts:

  1. Anything that you can conceive and believe, you can achieve.
    It was taught in a very off-hand manner and I didn’t take it seriously. When I was brain-damaged in an automobile accident in 1995 and I could only achieve anything by believing that I could do anything, I understood.

  2. As the result of a classroom exercise it was concluded that if people are given the opportunity to live freely in paradise with everything they need, they will create problems just to have them. I have seen this pattern repeated in my personal and professional life over and over again.

I wish that I knew where this professor was, I had made some derogatory remarks about him at the time and I was wrong.

So, so true.