Category: Academics

Graphic made by Laura Elizabeth Hand, CC’19

“I’m just too busy.”

“Can’t; got to go to Butler.”

“Just because you want me to come doesn’t mean I will.”

For most Columbia students, keeping track of the number of times their friends and classmates have “flaked” on them or turned down their offers to hang out because of their “busyness” is an impossible task. This can easily be seen in both conversations with peers and the stark difference between the number of people who sign up for events at Columbia versus the number of people who actually show up. As a student body, we are each obsessed with the idea that we do not have downtime. You always need to be working and getting ahead while also espousing the idea that you’re failing all your classes and cannot find enough hours in the day to sleep, let alone let loose and fun. Despite the constant Spec op-eds and Facebook rants bemoaning Columbia’s stress culture and lacking mental health resources, when it comes to us individually doing our parts to remedy the problems we continue to critique, we don’t because we value our own reasons for being stressed above others’ reasons.

“I need to get into medical school.”

“I care about my education.”

“I have to get a 4.0; I’m trying to get into a good law school.”

In each one of these sentiments, we create a metaphorical barrier, an us versus them mentality. We perpetuate the idea that there is a goal we need to constantly struggle to capture and that to a certain extent, those around us are trying to distract us from it.

But what does it mean to be busy? How can we both enjoy the benefits of being students living and learning in America’s busiest city while also capturing these goals? In many ways, we should look to the message encapsulated in Stephen Sondheim’s classic musical, “Sunday in the Park with George.”

For those who have not heard of the show before, it follows the artistic process of famous artist Georges Seurat as he creates and develops the painting, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” Throughout the first act, Seurat is completely fixated on drawing sketches of the people who are ultimately portrayed in his famous painting. As he works on the piece and obsesses over “Finishing the Hat”, he fails to consider the lives and feelings of those around him.

“Finishing the Hat” performed by Jake Gyllenhaal


In particular, the audience is exposed to the romantic relationship between Seurat and Dot, the latter being the role played by Ashford. Gyllenhaal who plays his role perfectly as he time and time again dismisses and chides Dot as she complains about having to stand still under the hot sun while Seurat sketches her. Seurat’s goal is to develop a work of art completely like no other. He has had the idea and now is steadfast in achieving its completion. Despite listening to complaints from his love Dot, Seurat does not truly hear and process them as they conflict with his direct desires. Dot even tells him:

Yes, George, run to your work.
Hide behind your painting.
I have come to tell you I am leaving because I thought you might
care to know-foolish of me, because you care about nothing-

In being so passionate about his goal, he forgets the people in his own life. As the plot develops and Dot eventually moves on, after realizing she cannot stay with Seurat, he still fails to address it, instead retreating further into his work.

Like a Columbia student dedicating so much time to their specific craft, they lean on it as their excuse and crutch. Just as Seurat in the production cannot escape his work, we too cannot see beyond our work: our looming deadlines, upcoming exams, next club/board/committee/council meetings, impending fellowship and scholarship applications, and imminent job and internship interviews. The list of work we each have goes on and on, adding to our lists of reasons to skip that food truck fair in Brooklyn we talked with our friends about for months, or miss seeing that old friend who is visiting NYC over break, or cancel plans to go to that free (or extremely cheap) event that we RSVP’d to as going on Facebook. We look at the world and people around us in the same manner that Dot describes as being characteristic of George:

As if he sees you and he doesn’t all at once.

Instead of fully valuing those around us and the opportunities we have, we simply ignore them — out of sight out of mind — and obsess over our work. And while we did come here to learn, we need to really understand that there is more to a Columbia education than just mentally locking ourselves into libraries and priding ourselves in unhealthy sleep habits.

As students, we need to break out of using our work and goals as an excuse. Dedicate more time to trying something new, leaving Butler and going off-campus, finding the color and lights that can brighten our days rather than groveling. As much as having dreams and passions is great, so is being able to explore new topics and brighten the day of others by just listening to them and putting in the effort to get to know more about them and their passions.

Tickets to “Sunday in the Park with George” can be purchased here. Performances run until April 23rd, 2017.

Photo Courtesy of Bradley Davison (CC ’17)

Want to avoid getting that 8:40 section of the last Core class you need to take? Hurry over to SSOL then, but don’t forget to import your classes from Vergil first. As of today, rising seniors in Columbia College and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences can begin registering for classes.

If you’re still unsure of what classes you want to take, we have a LionGuide to help you with that.

And just remember, this is your last time registering for fall semester, so don’t play yourself.

It’s finally registration time, so you’ve likely already loaded up your schedule with as many classes as possible. However, you’ve still got plenty of chances left to edit that list, and to help you in that task, The Lion staff has compiled a list of favorite classes that we’ve heard from students.

Data Structures with Paul Blaer

“Blaer is literally the man. I loved every moment of his cheesy jokes and he made learning really easy. He also was super approachable and offered a ton of support if you asked. Definitely recommend this class for anyone (and if you’re a CS major, you have to take it).”

The American Presidency or something with Peter Awn

“Islam with Peter Awn was by far the best course I’ve had at Columbia. He’s an outstanding lecturer, and you actually will not want to miss any of the classes just because of how good his lectures are. That’s not in the course catalog anymore,  I’ll link you to something else. If you’re into politics, The American Presidency with Richard Pious is an incredible class.

The guy knows a ton, and he has a lot of personal anecdotes to relay based either on his research or his individual encounters with some of the people he lectures about. Plus his book (Why Presidents Fail) is one of the few professor-authored required readings that you will ever actually enjoy. It’s well-written and really, really interesting. I loved this class and I recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in American politics, whether or not you’re a PoliSci person.”

History of the Modern Middle East

“Khalidi is super smart and very entertaining. Even though the class meets early, I liked going to the lectures. The take-home midterm essays were a good method to test knowledge and get you to learn without forcing you to cram random facts in your head. Also, it covers a global core requirement.”

Galaxies, and Cosmology and Cellular and Molecular Immunology

“‘Favorite class” is kind of a weird thing to say. Does it mean “enjoyable?” I’ve taken a lot of classes here that taught me a lot about an interesting subject but beat me senseless in the process (looking at you, Orgo). I will therefore submit two different kinds of favorites:

Stars, Galaxies, and Cosmology with Prof. Putman fits squarely into the enjoyable category. Learning the basics on everything from how stars generate elements, to how we measure distance in the universe to what happened in the time immediately after the Big Bang was fascinating. The class even made me consider a major in Astronomy until I figured out that I am bad at physics. There’s a problem set every once in a while, but it’s fairly trivial. Most of the class consisted of knowing how to use some provided formulas.

In the more difficult but really interesting category, I would put Cellular and Molecular Immunology with Solomon Mowshowitz. Immunology is an extremely complicated, but fascinating subject and Mowshowitz teaches it with aplomb and a decent sense of humor to boot. He also brings in really interesting guest lecturers. The TAs were also a great resource, at least when I took the course. It’s not particularly easy, but if you put in the work, a good grade is well within reach.”

Any class with Professor Tamara Mann Tweel

“God she is so brilliant. Probably the best manager of seminar conversation I had at Columbia, period. Kind, always prepared for class, and deeply insightful. Professor Tweel has a historical perspective that stretches beyond – in examining the roots of “philanthropy”, we went all the way back to early Christian concepts of charity right through nitty-gritty stuff like U.S. tax policy and how it incentivizes a certain kind of charitable giving. She is both a believer in institutions and demands powerful critiques of them and changes to them, which I found helpful in my own path of studying how social change happens in the U.S.”

Philosophy and Feminism

“If you’re new to philosophy, Philosophy and Feminism with Christia Mercer is also life changing for a lot of people (it covers not only feminism, but also intersectionality, the prison industrial complex, and the role of science today)”

Critical Approaches in Social and Cultural Theory

“has changed how I think about everything. 12/10”

War, Peace, and Strategy

“If you’re a political science major, especially in international relations, it’s easy to lose perspective on what you’re talking about after a certain point. Sure, you know your theories well enough, but when and how should states apply them? Why do certain states favor one approach to another? How do non-state actors factor in? How does “power balancing” actually work when it comes to the part where shots are fired? And once the guns do go off, why does one side win and the other lose?

Professor Betts and his mammoth reading list can actually get close to answering all of these questions and more. He’s a fascinating lecturer with endless Cold War annecdotes that are worth taking the class for in themselves, but most of all, what you read in this class will change how you look at war, politics, and political science itself. This is one of those life-changing classes, so don’t let the workload (or Betts) scare you off. At the very least, download the syllabus and add it to your summer reading.”

Black Intellectuals

” I took a class called Black Intellectuals, which was absolutely fantastic. He [Professor Frank Guridy] holds a great space for class discussion, has radical politics in this inclusive way that makes people comfortable, and is an open-minded guy. As a Afro-Dominican man, one lens he brings is the importance of international influence on American radical traditions (as well as the impact of going abroad on the activists themselves). I learned so much. Oh and no bullshitting in his classroom.”

Computing in Context

“My favorite class has been Computing in Context with Professor Adam Cannon. The class was a great intro to coding for people new to Computer Science and taught me so much. Even two years later, I still use the concepts I learned in the class. I think it’s only offered in the fall now, but if you want to try Computer Science class, I highly recommend starting with this over 1004”

Art and Music Hum

“My favorite classes were art/music hum because they felt like a no-pressure environment where you could actually learn things or not, as you pleased, without much repercussion. And that freedom, along with the lack of pressure to know every single thing on every single slide, meant that I actually felt interested in learning the subject matter.

It’s like when you get assigned a book in high school that you would’ve enjoyed had it been for pleasure, but now that there’s discussion questions and essays to write, you kind of already hate it. I know classes are heavily professor-dependent, but in general, I feel like classes are run so I can walk in, sit down, and talk about what I see/hear — forget problem sets, equation sheets, or memorizing tons of studies to know what’s going on.”

Romantic Poetry

“Erik Gray is the current director of the English Undergrad department and a veritable god of reading. If you’re considering an English major, take this class and you’ll be convinced (Literary Texts and Critical Methods is pretty scary, but required.) Gray has a soothing and melodious voice, and he knows everything about everything, basically. Also, poetry classes don’t pose a serious amount of reading, and the assessments aren’t that daunting either. You’ll have fun. Who doesn’t love reading about daffodils?”

Principles of Economics

“Gulati is a superstar in the econ department who is known for his global political economy work. At Columbia, he’s famous for being on the American FIFA board and his amazing (but intimidating) lecture quality. Be there early—his classes often start at 8:30, and he’s known to sign add/drop forms for all except the latecomers.”

“The class may kill you but the man is worth it! A tremendous teacher and the President of U.S. Soccer (if you’re into that stuff). You won’t be disappointed.”

Science of Psychology

“The quintessential psychology class. Science of Psychology is known for being a good alternative to Astro for the science requirement and is one of the lighter pre-med classes. Multiple-choice tests remind you of high school. For those new to the subject, it can be fascinating to learn about why people think the way they do. For the more neuroscience-y types, Mind, Brain, and Behavior is an excellent follow-up.”

The Social World

“A great introduction to the field of sociology. It’s heavy on the readings and has weekly quizzes and response papers, but it will make you rethink the extent of the inequalities present in society. To quote CULPA, ‘As you choose which classes you should take at an institution that charges us upwards of $50,000 for a supposed world class education, ask yourself if you want to be challenged.'”

Intro to Java (CS 1004)

“Although required for most SEAS majors, many CC students also take this class to learn more about the hard coding behind the technology they use every day. Projects can get pretty challenging, but people often work in groups. Adam Cannon is a great lecturer and often convinces otherwise science-shy students to give computer science a chance.”

Colloquium on East Asian Texts

“The go-to Global Core option. Its nickname is Asia Hum, and the similarities to Lit Hum are striking. Professor de Bary makes the “Analects of Confucius” come alive. The final is an oral presentation, which can be intimidating, but as long as you’ve been following the readings, it’s not too bad. It’s a good counterpart to the Western-dominated canon of the Core.”

Photo Courtesy of the Zuckerman Institute

The neuroscience major is not unlike many at Columbia in that it is co-sponsored by two departments, psychology and biology. In fact, a little over half of Columbia majors share this structure of co-sponsorship. Ideally, each department communicates with its counterpart to design a robust, cohesive course schedule that draws from the expertise of the individuals in both disciplines.

However, a majority of courses in the neuroscience major retain their specific psychological or biologic identities without fully integrating the other, thereby falling short of a true neuroscience curriculum. I would like to emphasize that I do not believe individual professors are at fault, and I have truly enjoyed my time as a neuroscience major. However, I do believe that heightened interdepartmental communication could help improve the experience dramatically.

Despite efforts to heighten cross-disciplinary conversations, departments at Columbia largely remain insulated from one another. As each individual professor teaches their course, they are largely unaware of what material the students are already familiar with when entering their classes. To take a closer look, let us examine the course of a typical student in the Neuroscience and Behavior “Despite efforts to heighten cross-disciplinary conversations, departments at Columbia largely remain insulated from one another.(N&B) major at Columbia.

For a first-year interested in the major, a potential N&B student will likely fulfill their introductory chemistry requirement and take Science of Psychology in their first year. Neither course is neuroscience-specific, and both are lecture-style. While perhaps not ideal, such sizeable and nonspecific courses are typical for first-year students.

As a sophomore, the repetition becomes more readily apparent. On the psychology side of the major, N&B students can either take Mind, Brain, Behavior (MBB) or Behavioral Neuroscience. While both courses technically fulfill the ‘intro’ neuroscience requirement from the psychology side, they are very different.

MBB is the less science-heavy of the courses and is commonly taken by non-science majors to fulfill their science requirement for the Core. The syllabus can vary based on the professor, but in any given year the course content for these two classes has almost 70% overlapping material, plus a good amount of overlap with Science of Psychology. Some refresher material is a good thing and is useful to better understand new material. However, for three courses in the same department, two of which are required for N&B majors, this high amount of re-teaching is somewhat unnecessary when it instead could be spent learning new information.

Material overlap continues to be a significant concern on both sides of the major. In the rigorous two semesters of Professor Mowshowitz’s Introductory Biology course, at least a month is dedicated to neural mechanisms. Meanwhile on the psychology side, in the series of psychology lecture courses a N&B student may choose to take, the first few weeks are spent covering the same introductory material that these students have now encountered at least three times.

Continuing along the biology side, N&B students wade their way through pre-requisites only to enter their first neuroscience class in the year-long Neurobiology I&II sequence. Between these sequential courses a good deal of overlap still remains, with systems-level information taught in the cellular level fall course and cellular mechanisms covered again to teach systems in the spring.

The remaining requirements for the major include a non-neuroscience specific statistics course and a non-neuroscience specific additional biology course — for which a neuro-themed variant has not been taught since Fall 2013.

Overall, a common experience among N&B majors is a feeling of disjointed repetition and lack of neuroscience-specific courses catered to their needs and/or interests. I do not believe such a feeling is limited to frustrated neuroscience students — I have heard the same complaint expressed again and again by friends in various joint majors throughout Columbia College.

So what can be done to fix the glaring issues in the design of the N&B major? Ideally, the whole major would be restructured from the ground up to create a fully-integrated design. Realistically, the bureaucracy necessary for such an overhaul is untenable. Instead, I have a few simple proposals to streamline and vastly improve the experience of N&B majors at Columbia.

The greatest concern, of course, is the overlap of course materials. Luckily, each professor has a fair amount of leeway in their syllabi. Because of this freedom, I suggest that professors, responsible for N&B courses on the biology and psychology sides of the major, set aside one full working day at the beginning of each semester to overview syllabi with an eye for overlap.

I believe a good deal of the issue in being taught the action potential seven times is well-intentioned, with each professor unsure if the students have covered this material before. Such a semesterly meeting would eliminate the interdepartmental uncertainty and go a long way towards eliminating unnecessary repetition in courses.

Additionally, I propose expanding and integrating voluntary courses between the two departments by allowing more cellular-heavy neuroscience majors to focus in neurobiology courses, and psychology-heavy majors to spend more time on the psychology side. Allowing these electives outside of the ‘core’ major courses to be taken in either department would enable a range of students to unify within a single major.

From a scheduling perspective, neuroscience courses at a higher than introductory level must be offered on a regular basis. Here, the psychology department far outstrips biology, offering a wide range of rotating seminars. While still skewing towards psychology, some neuroscience-heavy courses are at least offered each semester from the psychology department.

Overall, I put forward a recommendation that Science of Psychology no longer be mandated for N&B majors, and instead it should be replaced by a comprehensive Behavioral Neuroscience introductory course tailored for N&B majors. With this change, Mind Brain Behavior can more specifically and more accessibly target a non-major audience, and Behavioral Neuroscience can serve as the sole prerequisite for Neurobiology I&II, allowing majors to take this course in their sophomore or junior year and leave space for more seminar-style neuroscience electives as upperclassmen taught by professors in their regions of interest.

With a graduating class of 65 majors last year, N&B is the eighth largest program within Columbia College, and has rapidly grown over the last few years. With the opening of the Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, Columbia will only continue to attract the best and brightest neuroscience undergraduates. I believe that professors and administrators want to provide the best education possible to the student body — and that many of the problems within the N&B major can be solved by increased communication between the biology and psychology departments and some simple restructuring.

Do you belong here?

It’s a loaded question, and one I believe that many Columbia students encounter during their time here — commonly in the first or second year. The feeling that while your classmates are smart, talented, and generally have their lives together, you are dumb, untalented, and merely pretending that you are not falling apart.

This feeling, labeled Impostor Syndrome from its first characterization in 1978, is thought to be common in high-pressure cognitive environments — by some estimates affecting as high as 70% of the population in these environments. The psychologists who first discovered the phenomenon, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, described it as “a feeling of phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.”

While not recognized as a disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (more commonly known as the DSM), Impostor Syndrome can have real effects on the way people interact with the world, especially among college students in elite universities.

Terrified of being outed, the ‘impostor’ avoids taking on extra challenges, hesitates before  applying to high-level internships or fellowships, studies excessively to make up for their perceived cognitive deficit, or correspondingly, procrastinates out of fear that they’ll never finish it all.

When something bad happens, whether it be a below average grade, a failed audition, a rejected submission, or merely a fight with a friend, the ‘impostor’ does not see it as merely a small setback in an otherwise well-lived life. They see it as a confirmation of what they’ve known all along — that they do not belong at a school like Columbia, and that they are doomed to fail.

In particular, certain populations are more susceptible to Impostor Syndrome — for instance, those which have been underrepresented or disadvantaged. This group predominantly includes women, people of color, and first-generation students, and these identities can negatively impact student performance in a significant way.

When primed with their identities, each member of these groups did dramatically worse on tests of logic or mathematics, in some studies underperforming by 10-20% than those who were not reminded that they were “different.”

Why do so many high-achieving students ignore all evidence to the contrary and believe they are inferior? How can this belief so negatively impact their performance? While Impostor Syndrome has not yet been studied neuroscientifically, some clues from related fields of study can help shed some light on possible neural mechanisms underlying Impostor Syndrome.

One possible explanation comes from the perceived inadequacy causing an activation of stress-systems in the brain. As I have discussed before, when your brain is flooded with stress hormones the amygdala, anterior cingulate cortex, and the insula all light up. Activation in these brain regions is known to induce anxiety and fear, as well as a host of other deleterious effects on student health.

Correspondingly, induced stress can inactivate your dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, and inferior temporal cortex — reducing working memory load, the ability to form new memories, and the ability to recall stored knowledge. In effect, if you constantly believe that you are not good enough to succeed, your success might ironically decrease.

Far from just a cognitive nuisance, if Impostor Syndrome is left unchecked it can cause extreme risk-aversion and contribute to generalized anxiety disorder. So what can be done about it? Some evidence points to fact-exposure as a good treatment — remind yourself of all the times you have in fact succeeded.

When failures inevitably occur, take the time to analyze how much was truly your fault, and how much can be chalked up to bad luck. Perhaps most importantly, talk to the people you trust about the feelings of fraud you might be experiencing. Whether that is your parents, friends, or a therapist, talking through those fears and having them invalidated can often be cathartic in combating Impostor Syndrome.

In an environment of brilliant and hyper-competitive peers, it can be easy to compare your inner self to your classmates outer selves without stopping to think that the vast majority of your fellow students are struggling with the very same issue. And if nothing else, I can answer the question I asked at the beginning of this article for you — yes, you do belong at Columbia.