Getting the Most Out of Courses Outside Your Comfort Zone

One of the fascinating aspects of our education at Princeton is how we are encouraged every semester to take courses from a wide variety of disciplines. However, while that is intellectually stimulating, it can also be unnerving in the beginning – especially when you have to step away from analyzing a situation or a problem through the lens of a discipline of study that you are comfortable with and instead approach the issue from a completely different viewpoint. Case in point: last semester, at the recommendation of my academic adviser, I took Anthropology 203 (ANT 203): Economic Life in Cultural Context with Professor Rena Lederman. My adviser believed that the course would be useful for me as a prospective economics concentrator: it would give me the opportunity to examine the field from a different perspective and broaden my horizons. Conceptually, that made a lot of sense. Soon, however, I realized that trying to analyze economic situations without the economic tools and methods that I had grown accustomed to was rather disorienting. Nevertheless, despite the initial difficulty, I found that looking at questions I was familiar with in economics through an anthropological lens ended up being to be especially rewarding. Thankfully, that process became easier as I progressed through the course and learned the tools and methodologies specific to anthropological research.

The first and most important thing to keep in mind is to pay attention to the difference in the assumptions that the new field makes compared to those in your familiar methods of inquiry. Stated this way, it might seem obvious, but we often forget that in practice. I realized that different disciplines – and especially those in the social sciences which often seek to analyze similar issues from different angles – might start off with a very different set of assumptions about the human condition, which might result in a very different perspective. Understanding the differences in the fundamental assumptions will lead to a deeper understanding of the differences between the two subjects and thus the conclusions that they come to. 

For example, in ANT 203, we devoted considerable time to the idea of the tragedy of the commons. In economics, we are taught that the commons are destined to be taken advantage of – a result of them being a rival (in that one person’s use of it hurts another’s) as well as non-excludable good (i.e., people cannot be prevented from using the good). Therefore, economics will argue, the only way to prevent this tragedy of the overuse of the commons is through government intervention. However, as Professor Lederman pointed out, this reasoning makes a quiet, but powerful, assumption – that there are only two major forces in this scenario: the individual and the government. Anthropology, which does not make such an assumption, is free to look for other solutions and Professor Lederman showed us many examples where grass-roots, culture-based approaches were able to solve the problems of the commons. Seeing how amending an assumption that I had hitherto (and almost reflexively) considered axiomatic could lead to new ideas and solutions for economic problems was perhaps the most powerful lesson I learned in the course.

Our Professor gave the example of how social pressure in medieval times was able to prevent overgrazing in pastures – one of the most iconic cases of the “tragedy of the commons.”

At the same time, you do not have to jettison everything that you have learned before – they have their place too! The second principle that I learned is to actively try to use and understand concepts that you already know and apply them in the new field. Initially, as I struggled to make sense of anthropological concepts through the lens of economics, I often had the feeling that I was being led in the wrong direction since my conclusions were often very different from what I was hearing in class. Luckily, our professor insisted that we bring our prior knowledge to the class, which, in my case, obliged me to continue to understand and recontextualize the economic theory that I had been taught with the new ideas and techniques that I was learning in the classroom. This led to – for me – some of the most interesting and insightful discussions in the course. These discussions invariably challenged all the participants, but we emerged with a deeper understanding of the nuances that would have eluded us otherwise. For example, having the chance to discuss concepts like externalities or the economic valuation of welfare in an anthropological setting with my classmates and the professor was invaluable, and I would not have had those experiences if I had not kept trying to synthesize my economic understanding of those concepts with what we learned in the course. So, even though it might be tempting to “go with the flow” of the new discipline, I came to realize that such a course of action would leave many opportunities for learning on the table.

Finally, in order to maximize your learning from the new field, it is important to practice the methods taught in the course as often as possible, perhaps even more than the coursework demands. One of the most daunting parts of taking any course in a new field is the new kinds of techniques that you are expected to learn and apply. When I took ANT 203, I was very nervous about the process of anthropological fieldwork that we were exposed to and were asked to apply in our daily lives as part of our weekly course work. This was an integral part of our learning experience in the course, and quite different from what I had experienced in the other classes. I found it extremely useful to try to apply the techniques our professor taught even outside of the course. When I applied the principle of maintaining fieldwork-inspired journal entries of experiences in daily life, an exercise that we had done for several assignments in class – even if I was not very systematic about it – it helped me be much more accustomed to the practice. Practicing the concepts taught in class often helped me get a better grasp of the course material, and can be very helpful in general when trying to acclimate to a new course or subject.

Taking courses that are outside of your comfort zone can be very discomforting but, with a little bit of work, they can be some of the most valuable and exciting academic experiences Princeton has to offer. Think of the experience as a journey – where the process is as important as the coursework itself – at the end of which you have challenged yourself to look at things you thought you knew from a different angle and with a new set of eyes.

– Abhimanyu Banerjee, Social Sciences Correspondent