The 15 college classes that stuck with me 15 years later
I took more than 40 courses at Cornell. These are the 15 that stuck with me 15 years later.
From freshman to senior year:
Freshman Writing Seminar: Theatre of the Absurd
Taught me to see the meaning beyond the plot. I used to think “why do I have to read all these books from a long time ago that have nothing to do with me”, and now I see that all literature is just shining a little light on what it means to be alive.
Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs (CS 312)
CS 312 is when computer science became part of my identity. Every new data structure or algorithm we learned felt like leveling up in a video game: giving me more tools to solve puzzles. I became a TA for the class and found an incredible group of friends who inspired me in my career. One of them became my husband. Also where I learned Emacs.
Introduction to Meditation
I’d been fascinated with meditation ever since reading The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar by Roald Dahl. It took me till half way through the semester to actually meditate in class instead of using the quiet time to think about my homework. We learned a new style each week, which helped me find what works for me: my favorite is third eye meditation. I still meditate regularly today.
Cognitive Psychology was the parent of Behavioral Economics. We saw example after example to show that we can’t always trust what our brains tells us. I also got to earn extra credit by being a guinea pig for various psychology experiments —now when I hear about studies I have a perspective on what it’s like to be on the other side. This exercise was one of my favorites: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJG698U2Mvo
Computer Organization (CS 314)
Starting at the physical/electrical description of how logic gates work with transistors and step by step working our way up to a CPU, Machine Code, and Assembly Language. I learned top to bottom how computers actually work, especially once I added on Operating Systems (CS 414). These courses have given me so much confidence in working with software —it’s not magic anymore.
Just a 1 credit course, but being comfortable at the command line has actually been a huge asset in my career.
There were no courses on how to be a PM, but this was the closest. In a group of 5 we got a real customer (a local school) and built real software for them (online quiz software). We learned about the waterfall model and writing test cases. And I got to learn about working with a team and scoping a project to hit a deadline.
Intro to Ancient Judaism
We learned that there were two sects of Judaism that had a big conflict. One of their disagreements was about what happens when you pour water from a pure vessel to an impure vessel. Is the upper vessel still pure? One group believed yes — impurity is like germs. The other group believed no since the vessels were connected by an unbroken stream — impurity is like electricity. I think about this all the time.
Computer Games (my Independent Research)
CS, Art, and Music students came together to create our own video games. I loved seeing the creativity of all my classmates, and it was so much fun to design a game. My claims to fame: a game where you’re a sperm navigating a maze to the egg, and one where you’re raising dragons.
“Everything that can be tried in economic policy has been tried in agriculture”. We learned all about tariffs, quotas, subsidies, and how just about every intervention backfires. No matter how you try to get money to farmers, the landowners will raise rents and take it all. The helped me realize that good intentions aren’t enough — unintended consequences are often the biggest consequences.
Really deepened my appreciation for Pixar movies. I now ooh and ahh over realistic skin and blonde hair, which are particularly difficult to portray. Did you know in a ray traced image each pixel is calculated independently by following the ray of light as it bounces?
Nothing beats the S&P 500 reliably over time.
My absolute favorite course in college. Human Bonding covers all the ways that people connect with each other, from babies with their parents (carry your baby belly to belly) to romantic partners (belly to belly also works here). This monkey experiment showed babies love their mothers for comfort, not sustenance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_O60TYAIgC4
Intro to Econometrics
Econometrics is all about analyzing Big Data — there’s a mathematical tool called regression analysis that lets you extract meaningful correlations as long as you correctly identify all the confounding factors to hold constant. Many people share faulty analyses because they missed a confounding factor: is it the diet, or the kind of person who can stick to a tough diet? Is it the school program or just that only wealthy kids are in that program?
Before this course I had no idea how government programs like Social Security or Disability Insurance worked. Regular insurance isn’t a scam — the profits come from people’s risk aversion. Disability Insurance is a disaster — if you try to work just a little bit you lose all of your benefits and coverage and end up much worse off. Adverse Selection and Moral Hazard make it even tougher to craft good programs.
I’m a huge fan of liberal arts education — I entered college thinking I just wanted to learn what I needed to know to get a job, but in retrospect the other classes have had outsized value.
What college courses stuck with you? What do you wish you’d taken more of?