My Hardest Classes

Here is my response to the question, “what are the hardest classes you ever took or taught?”

Difficult Because of Apathy

The undergraduate classes I found most difficult were the 3 I took in German. The problem was that I took these classes to satisfy the foreign language requirement and I wasn’t motivated to study. (I now believe learning a foreign language to be a worthwhile pursuit.) My lack of interest probably led to my finding German hard, although perhaps I just don’t have much talent for foreign languages. But I’ll admit to barely passing.

Difficult Because of Lack of Background 

There were a number of graduate classes that were quite challenging, even given my abiding interest in philosophy. When I took “Late Medieval: Scotus and Ockham” in my first semester of graduate school I had little knowledge of Medieval Philosophy or the Greek Philosophy on which it was built. Not knowing Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, or Aquinas made understanding Scotus and Ockham challenging. Moreover, I wasn’t interested then nor am I interested now in Medieval Philosophy.

The Concept of Time” was also quite challenging as I had no background in relativity theory, the Minkowski Light Cone, or much of contemporary physics. Furthermore, the concepts here: the A and B series of time, eternalism, presentism, etc. are relatively abstract. Now however I find time one of the most important ideas in philosophy.

Phenomenology: Husserl and Shutz” was my introduction to phenomenology and it was radically different from the more analytic tradition with which I was familiar. What are the epoche and the eidetic reduction anyway? I understand the basics, but not that well.

Difficult Because They’re Just Difficult

I took “Aristotle’s Metaphysics” as an independent study class. Let me tell you that is no easy read. According to Avicenna, “even after 40 times reading the Metaphysics [he says] that Aristotle’s Metaphysics is not understandable…” So I’m in good company. Page upon page about the meaning of the word ουσία (roughly translates to substance, essence, matter, gist, nature, being) … well that’s tough going.

Hegel: Totality and Domination” Hegel is, in my view, the toughest read in the Western Canon. (Kant is a close second.) I read the preface to The Phenomenology of Spirit multiple times and I never really understood it. And that’s just the preface! I can read a summary of Hegel and I can discuss the Absolute, the dialectic, Geist, etc., but his primary texts are the most difficult material I’ve read. Fortunately, I never had to teach Hegel.

Difficult Classes To Teach

I never taught anything that I hadn’t mastered well enough to teach undergraduates. I was simply too insecure to go into a class without having (mostly) mastered the material. I didn’t want to be unable to answer questions or explain something. If I didn’t understand it myself how was I to explain it to others? But if I had to pick one I’d say Symbolic Logic.

This was mostly due to the fact that I was in my mid-50s before I taught the class. So, first of all, it had been more than 30 years since I had taken the class, and second, one’s ability to do math and logic just isn’t the same in one’s fifties as when one in their teens or twenties. It’s the only class I ever taught where I thought of my best students “they might be better at this than I am!”And some of them probably were. But I learned a lot teaching the class and I still benefit from that intellectual stimulation in my fifties. I’d probably benefit from learning a foreign language in my sixties too. But please, no more German:)

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5 thoughts on “My Hardest Classes

  1. I took a lower division course in differential equations and got a D in it. So I took an upper division course in differential equations and flunked it. I sure showed them!

  2. Interesting topic. My hardest course by far was graduate level “Boundary Value Problems” from the Math Department. I thought it was going to be a snap, having had much experience with boundary value problems while getting my Masters degree in EE. But the theorems, notation and symbols used in the Math Department were like ancient Greek to me. I struggled to pass and learned a valuable lesson: only take “math” from the Engineering Department. I still have an occasional nightmare about that class, 40 years later.

  3. thanks for the story Jim. My wife has an MS in mathematics and I used to look at her grad school textbooks in amazement. Hardly a prose word on the page and the symbolism was foreign to me.

  4. i didn’t even like high school chemistry. something about salt plus water = saltwater.

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