Tuesday, August 10, 2010

All About NYU: Part II, Academics


NYU has a just below 30 percent admissions rate, which seems relatively undaunting compared to Ivies and other near Ivy names. However, there is the matter of money to consider if you do get in, and whether that tens of thousands of loans price tag is worth it. A certain level of competence is expected, of course, as NYU is still a rather acclaimed university, but its standards are not at all impossible. If you have your heart truly set on the university, with a passionate essay, an unique talent, and an independent spirit, and solid academics to back you up, you should not be fretting about receiving that purple postcard in the mail.


I can only speak for CAS, so remember that experiences/expectations/quality of classes vary greatly between schools and even between majors.

I’m an English major and a Creative Writing minor, have taken a few Psych courses, and am otherwise oblivious to the rest of the university. CAS has quite a reputation for its core courses, a few of which you can test out of (language requirements, math and science), but most of which are unavoidable and really beat you in shape to what NYU is all about. The most notorious of those is the innocuous and tedious sounding Writing the Essay—but far from your high school essays, WTE is a rite of passage, that necessary staying up until four AM frantically typing a delirious draft filled with grand intellectual ideas, endless deadlines and three final products that determine your worth as a college student. (Or, as another NYU expert called it, the biggest ego boost afforded to Freshman. Hey! You’re in college! You can write long elaborate essays about real subjects!)

Also par for the course: a study on a specific World Culture, and Conversations of the West, a philosophy/classics course designed tax your ability to stay awake during lecture and write long essays about entirely irrelevant things. A few more required courses that you can wriggle your way out of with the right departments and appeals, and that comprises the heart of CAS academics. As you might guess, none of these classes (except maybe WTE, and always a brilliant professor) will probably dramatically change your life, or really contribute much to your college experience except increasingly irritating headaches.

The English department is good (if not all that brilliant). Required survey lectures are massive and boring, but if you get lucky with a smaller class (and avoid certain self-important professors who only care to preach his own theories) you might be in for some rewarding intellectual conversation...or be baffled by the banality of your supposedly equally brilliant classmates. It’s a somewhat popular major, so you’re likely to find gum chewing, iPhone on desk, blond hair twirling girls who are always late, though a bit less when you get into the smaller, upper level courses.

I can't speak enough praise for the Creative Writing department. The required intro to fiction and poetry class wasn’t half as painful as I expected, and although stuffed full with people wanting easy GPA padding, or convinced that they are writers when they are, in fact, entirely incompetent (adverbs and passive tense with every other sentence), not altogether unpleasant. The Advanced and Master workshops require an application to get in, but the two workshops I’ve been (taught by Irini Strauss and Marcelle Clements) have been absolutely wonderful. The professors actually, deeply care about the students’ work, are honest but encouraging, and often teach as much about life, and life as a writer, as about technique or craft. Am not sure the workshop model is necessarily the best, but at least interesting, if not entirely useful. Visiting faculty includes Johnathan Safran Foer, Zadie Smith and Junot Diaz. Those workshops are naturally harder to get into, but absolutely worth the battle.

Picking the right (and best) courses at NYU often feels like a game of Russian roulette, and even after scrutinizing RateMyProfessor and CAS's course reviews might reveal mixed messages. It's better to take a course by an interesting professor than base your decisions based on subject alone, as certain professors can make the most fascinating topics into the driest, most excruciating three hours of struggling to stay awake and feigned legible notes of your life.

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