An illustration of a woman flying on a book over mountains
My favorite reading material in college was the course catalog. I’d lose hours in its pages, making plans, imagining possibilities.

Luckily for me, I can now fill my summer reading list with course catalogs. Librarians in Frost have scanned Amherst catalogs going back 200 years, as a way to mark the College’s 2021 Bicentennial. Browse the volumes at to find entries such as “Natural Theology” (1821), “Play Reading, Chiefly Shakespeare” (1921) and “The European Economic Community” (1991).

Taken together, the catalogs offer a history of the College—its academic interests, priorities and aspirations over time. They also offer countless personal histories between the lines. There’s the art history course that changed the way you walk through a museum, the theater course that trained your voice not to shake, the biology course that helps you think about public health data.

There are many ways to define value when it comes to a college course. One may spark a new interest. Another may challenge an existing belief. Yet another may lead to a long career, or a long marriage. However you define value, we want to know: What’s the single most valuable course you took at Amherst?

Illustration by James Yang

Your Challenge

Make the case, in 300 words or fewer, for the most valuable course you took at Amherst. Your submission to should include the course name, department and instructor (or as many of those as you recall), and should tell a concise story about what you learned at the time and how those lessons are relevant to your life today. The editors will choose a winning submission and two runners-up to publish in the Fall 2021 issue. All three authors will receive a Bicentennial book.

Last Quarter’s Answers

Stephanie Ramírez, associate director of social and new media, offered a Bicentennial trivia contest. Thank you to all who entered. Jim Darrow ’89 is our randomly selected winner from the 30 percent of participants who got every answer right. He’ll receive a Bicentennial book.

In 1822, the Collegiate Institution of Amherst, later known as Amherst College, had not yet received a charter from the State of Massachusetts and had no authority to confer degrees. Which college conferred degrees to the earliest graduates “on suitable certificates from Amherst”?

Union College

That first graduating class had two members: Pindar Field, who became a clergyman, and Ebenezer Strong Snell, principal of Amherst Academy and later a professor of mathematics and natural philosophy at the College.

In what year did The Amherst Student first call for coeducation?


The Feb. 12, 1870, editorial predicts that the College will “probably” decide to admit women soon. “There is nothing in the College Statues against it,” the editors pointed out. “There are many gentlemen in the Faculty and among the Trustees who favor it. The ladies demand it.” It would only take another century.

In what year did Amherst establish the nation’s first undergraduate program in neuroscience?


That year the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation awarded Amherst $400,000 to begin a neuroscience program that would combine pre-med courses with those on electronics, psychology and more. Amherst used the money to buy new equipment, hire a neurobiology professor and recruit visiting faculty.

In which of these fields—physiology/medicine, physics, economics or literature—has an Amherst alum not won a Nobel Prize?


Amherst claims five Nobel laureates: Harold Varmus ’61 (1989, physiology or medicine), Henry W. Kendall ’50 (1990, physics), Joseph Stiglitz ’64 (2001, economics), Edmund Phelps ’55 (2006, economics) and Jeffrey C. Hall ’67 (2017, physiology or medicine).