Guts and Glory

Illustration by Madeleine Witt

In 2006, Olympic figure skating gold medalist Sarah Hughes told Sports Illustrated that “Natural Hazards” was the hardest class she took at Yale. She had caught Professor David Bercovici’s lecture, now called “Natural Disasters,” in an unfortunate semester. After a hopelessly easy 2004 version, “Natty D,” as Bercovici and his students refer to it, was swinging too far in the other direction. Sarah Hughes had fallen into a course with serious math and serious science. Along with most every other non-science major in the room, she couldn’t handle it: between 2004 and 2005, enrollment dropped from 420 to 150.

Bercovici can still reel off his other favorite course evaluations from that semester, including but not limited to “Bercovici is the devil,” and “This is the most horrible class I’ve ever taken…I dreaded every moment of it.”

Why is a former chair of Yale’s Geology and Geophysics department with a Ph.D. in geophysics and space physics teaching a class of almost 350 students—a significant portion of them humanities and social science majors finishing their distributional requirements? “Natty D” is, at least some years, a type of class students know too well: a gut—a perfect opportunity for no work and a good grade. But at an academic institution like Yale, having top-notch scientists teach seas of disinterested students may be a waste of resources. Thus, the backlash.

In 2006, the year after Hughes took the course, Bercovici’s harder (“de-gutted”) version of “Natural Hazards” attracted a total of nineteen students. “That was a great year,” Bercovici says, joking, mostly. He clarifies, “I don’t actually want the course to have nineteen students. I do like actually teaching for people who are of all types, honestly.” A big course creates a kind of “buzz,” which helps potential majors find his department.

The new “Natural Disasters,” in 2007, would cut some items from the syllabus. It wouldn’t demand any less quantitative work from students, but Bercovici made other kinds of concessions: “If we want to make the level high, we need to provide lots of opportunities for help.” More guidance means lectures once a week that focus on applying concepts to homework, and discussion sections offer something between advice about problem sets and ready-made answers. “Anybody who wants to do well on the homework can do well on the homework. There’s no reason anyone should be doing crappily on the homework,” Bercovici says.

This year, the class is held in one of the largest lecture halls at Yale, Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona 114. But lecturing behind a podium puts too much space between Bercovici and his students: “It looks to a student like I’m not really there, or that I’m like a hologram, or a performer. It’s like when you go to a play, people are texting. They think the actors can’t see them.”

Instead, he weaves through the aisles waving a laser pointer and keeping in motion so students know that he is a sentient person, who can see them texting and emailing and sleeping in the dozens of rows spread throughout the hall and its balcony. “At least there’s a little bit more interaction,” he says, “They know that I’m standing right there looking at their Facebook.”

Bercovici enjoys teaching “Natty D” much more than he did teaching any of the previous versions of “Natural Hazards,” because he has more contact with his students. The ones who go to lecture stay after to ask questions, and come to section each week. But Bercovici thinks he could still improve the course. He’d like to have a smaller class, so he can better engage with students. He’s considering capping the course, and reserving the slots for underclassmen. “I’ve loved teaching some juniors and seniors,” Bercovici says. “But the people who come into a class with a perspective of being forced to take a ‘Sc’ class at gunpoint—they seem more likely to be juniors and seniors.”

He does not live in blissful ignorance about his course’s place at Yale, but he cherishes the memory of students who unexpectedly become geology and geophysics majors after studying with him. The key is to find a balanced class in which diligent non- and never-majors still get some kicks, the lazy tell their friends not to come back, and somewhere, in the sea of bodies, a geologist is born.

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