Top 12 UT Austin Classes that Changed My Perspective

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One of my roommates once asked me, “Do you feel like you’ve actually learned anything in college?”

Oh, oh friend… I have learned so much in college. Some of the things I’ve learned have been mind-boggling. Here is a countdown of the most perspective-changing courses I’ve taken at UT Austin.

12. Demagoguery (NSC 110H) with Dr. Trish Roberts-Miller

This one-hour weekly seminar taught students how to identify demagoguery in action, whether it’s PETA trying to stop the snake trade or Governor Warren trying to intern Japanese Americans during the second world war. In this class, I learned just how easily I fell for demagogic rhetoric, how to spot it in the future, and (hopefully) how to convince the people around me not to fall for it either.

Note: NSC 110H is a highly restricted class, but Dr. Roberts-Miller has a short book out called Demagoguery and Democracy on the same topic. She also teaches in UT’s rhetoric department and runs the University Writing Center.

11. Architecture and Society (ARC 308) with Professor Larry Speck

This is one of the most popular classes to take for your Visual and Performing Arts Credit, but it’s worth taking just for fun. I’m one of those people who graduated high school convinced that symbolism didn’t exist and was made up by K-12 English teachers. But in the first week of class, Professor Speck managed to explain symbolism in a single lecture better than five years of K-12 teachers could.

10. Intro to the Study of Language (LIN 306) with Professor Laura Faircloth

There seems to be two classes that all of my friends want to take before they graduate: intro anthropology and intro linguistics. I can definitely say that both are worth it (intro anthropology holds an incredibly high spot on this list). The most perspective-changing things this intro linguistics class taught me were the difference between descriptive and prescriptive grammar, the idea that some consonants are objectively harder to pronounce than others (but are kept in the language because we wouldn’t have a lot of words if we only had two or three consonants), how ancient languages are reconstructed, how things like sign-language are controlled by the same areas of the brain as spoken language, and just how hard-wired our brains are to learn grammar. That’s not even mentioning the help that learning the International Phonetic Alphabet has had with my Spanish pronunciation.

9. Sex and Human Nature (ANT 348K /BIO 377 /WGS 323) with Dr. Carrie Veilleux

The title is self-explanatory. This course covers everything about sex, from our ancestors’ mating systems to our mate preferences to our reproductive systems. The course discussions talk a lot about whether particular behaviors are culturally or naturally based, as well as the ethical dilemmas that pop up around sex and reproduction. It definitely taught me to think differently about how we choose our partners and some of the fallacies we make when talking about differences between the sexes.

8. Genetics of Complex Traits (NSC 110H) with Dr. Inder Saxena

I have mixed feelings about this seminar (similar to Demagoguery above), because the course itself was pretty dry. However, it did manage to impress upon me just how fucking complicated genetics can be. For example, we’ve found 44 areas of the genome that contribute to a person’s height (at least, the genetic contribution to height), but researchers think that’s only 5% of the total picture. And that’s not even getting into the relationship between genes for, say, food digestion and processing, and a person’s height.

Again, this seminar will be difficult to take, so if you’re curious, here’s a link to one of the most comprehensive articles from the class. You should be able to access it through UT’s library system.

7. Cell Biology (BIO 320) with Dr. Clarence Chan

This class is in the same vein as the seminar I just talked about, but with one key difference: it explained to me why there can be so many areas of the genome contributing to just one trait. The sheer number of proteins and cofactors and enzymes needed for something as simple as making a vesicle is absolutely mindboggling: so much as that I really started to appreciate why evolution took a few billion years to start making animals. Cell biology is a tough class, but if you learn your stuff, suddenly a lot of different things about genetics, medicine, and heredity start making an uncanny amount of sense.

6. Cultures in Contact (ANT 326L /LAS 324L) with Dr. Covey

Ever wonder why we call white people “white” instead of “tan” or “pink” or” beige” (hint: it’s a stupid reason)? Ever wonder why it was so easy for European powers to steamroll over three full continents and enslave millions of people with highly sophisticated technology (hint: it’s not because of a superior military)? Do you know what Cristopher Columbus’ profession was before he went on his big transatlantic trip (hint: it’s one that you’ll hate!)? Did you know that the whole “1/16th Cherokee” requirement was started by a bunch of openly racist white Congressmen as part of an ethnocide campaign? And why on Earth was everyone ok with slavery for four hundred years?

All these questions and more will be answered in Cultures in Contact, which will finally nail into your brain just how little you know about your own culture’s history and why it’s important to fix that! Trust me, now that Civil Rights Movement 2.0 is up and running, you’re going to want to take this class.

5. Ethical Theories (PHIL 325K) with Dr. Matt Evans

This is another course where I have mixed feelings. In short, I’m a moral anti-realist, but the class focuses entirely on moral realism: the translation for that is that this course completely ignores one of the major schools of ethical thought and therefore can be pretty infuriating. But I’m still thankful for taking it, because it put a lot of moral philosophy into perspective. I learned about the different schools of thought, which I’d encountered in my life before but didn’t even know were schools of thought at all, and one article in this class even turned me from a meat-eater to a pescetarian (You have to admit, it’s impressive that a philosophy article by some old Australian guy managed to convince somebody to change their eating habits.).

However, the philosophy department is pretty stingy about who it lets into its classes, so unless you’re a philosophy or humanities major, I suggest strolling over to Crash Course Philosophy, because it has about 99% of the same information (plus a bunch of extra information) in its ethics section.

4. Neural Systems I (NEU 330) with Dr. Michael Mauk

During the first week, of class, Dr. Mauk told us a very interesting story: there was once a patient who couldn’t see faces. This only applied to faces. There was nothing else wrong with his sight, no form of blindness or difficulty with colors or object recognition. Just peoples’ faces. Instead, he seemed to see through peoples’ faces: if he saw someone standing in front of patterned wallpaper, then where the person’s face would normally be, he saw only the wallpaper.

We learned in Neural Systems I that our brains tend to guess a lot of the time: if the brain can’t see something (ex. because our eyes have blind spots), then it just extrapolates the patterns around it to fill in the gaps. Additionally, our brains are more primed to see certain things compared to others: there’s an entire area of the brain dedicated to processing facial features. Our brains do not treat brains as just any old object in the world: evolution has emphasized our ability to read social cues, scrutinize facial expressions, and tell different individual humans apart.

This is just one example of the many mind-blowing things we learned in Neural Systems I, but the bottom line was always that our brains do not always give us the truth of the world, and our perception is not necessarily objective truth.

For more on how our reality is fake, I recommend the book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

3. Theories of Culture and Society (ANT 330C) with Dr. Jason Cons

In my high school history and geography classes, we learned that world events and culture are determined by economics: the nations with better access to resources win the wars, the fall of the bronze age was caused by climate change, ancient China emphasized community in order to band together and properly process rice, and Europeans genocided the Americas thanks to access to domesticated animals and an industrial revolution.

This is a particular “reading” of history. It sees cause and effect through one particular lens, in this case wealth. This is called “Historical Materialism,” and one of its main founders was Karl Marx (though he focused more on class). However, there are other readings of history, and they each attribute cultural traits and famous events to different causes: everything from game theory to race conflict to psychoanalysis. This class helped me see that there are endless different takes scholars can make on history, and what I learned in K-12 was only one of them.

2. Principles of Chemistry 1: Honors (CH 301H) with Dr. Lauren J. Webb

We’re all made of waves, existence is probability, and the secrets of the universe are both at your fingertips and inherently unknowable. Everything you know may be a lie, but lucky for you this class will try its best to replace your current Newtonian view of physics with the mind-melting clusterfuck that is quantum physics.

Unfortunately, Dr. Webb doesn’t teach this course anymore. However, you can find her in CH 353, Physical Chemistry I.

1. Cultural Anthropology: Honors (ANT 302H) with Dr. James Slotta

Learning about other cultures is fun, right? Different foods, houses painted in different colors, spiritual beliefs and ancient legends the likes of which you’ve never heard…

Well, forget about all of that, because that’s the kiddy zone. Cultural anthropology is about taking a sledgehammer to all of your preconceived notions and everything you just assumed was universal. Giant gift-giving competitions where you burn everything at the end? Fair game. A man’s masculinity being directly related to how much “milk” he drinks from a plant? Fair game. Having kids with as many people as possible to ensure more property rights in the new world order? Fair game. Gender identity being based off sex positions or who you’re married to? Fair game. Cows reserved only for marriage? Fair game. Number systems that don’t go above 2? Fair game. Stable anarchy? Definitely fair game.

This course made me question reality even more than learning that electrons were both waves and particles at the same time. Because as many superficial differences as we recognize from other cultures, there is a much bigger iceberg beneath, where what seems straightforward and obvious to another culture will seem ridiculously off-mark to you. I’ve met a lot of people who want to take a philosophy course in order to challenge the assumptions they were born with. If that’s what you want, ditch philosophy and take cultural anthropology.

Dr. Slotta teaches both the honors and non-honors version of this course. The material is the same, but do the reading! Trust me, the job of an article in cultural anthropology is to slowly indoctrinate you into how people in other cultures think and view the world, and that is done much more effectively in a twenty-page reading than a PowerPoint slide.

Overall:

Some of you may be thinking, “I’ll never get into that class! It’s outside of my department! I have no time in my degree plan! I don’t even attend UT Austin!” Well, there is always the option of buying the class’ books and just reading those in your copious free time. If you’re wondering which books are covered in each of these classes, this link will take you to the Access Syllabi and CVs page, which keeps an archive of every syllabus given out in every class. You can search for the course title and number, download the PDF for that class, and take a look at which books you might want to buy.

Happy existential crises!


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