After years of humanities studies and sampled a variety of humanities courses, I have safely concluded that the following appear frequently in the discourses of professors across the humanities department preluded by the phrase, “Does anyone know.” If you don’t nod passionately in agreement, you are excluded from the knowledgeable, cultured gatekeeping clique. Don’t let that discourage you from continuing to take humanities courses! I have created for you here a cheatsheet of terms the professors allude to frequently — selected from a variety of mediums like novels, movies, philosophies, and more  — because, honestly, who even has the time to read a whole Sparknotes page?

1. “Agency”

Frequently misused in discourses, “agency” in the field of social science denotes the capacity of an individual to have access to resources and information while being able to make decisions for oneself. In a social justice class, this term is commonly employed to condemn a prevalent, politically incorrect institution, and “having agency” means to have the ability to resist violence or refrain from being limited by violence. 

2. Foucault

Not everyone has read Foucault until junior year of college, but somehow all of your humanities professors assume that you know who he is and what he said. Paul Michel-Foucault was a French political activist and philosopher in the 20th century, well-known for his critical theory of power. He believed in the inseparable relationship between knowledge and power. Another important component of his life’s work is his strong advocacy for penal reform. In his argument, he brought up English Utilitarianist Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, a circular prison where every inmate’s room faces a surveillance watch tower. The system is constructed so that the inmates do not know by whom or when they are surveilled, thus creating pressure on them to behave in a docile manner at all times. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether the individual in the watchtower is a complete idiot because the inmates, double-blinded by the system, are unable to determine it.

3. James Joyce

Don’t lie. One-third of your literature professors definitely assigned you to read something by Joyce, but ninety percent of you could not make it past the second page. Experimental Modernists were complex, and Joyce was one of the most extreme cases. Joyce, an Irish novelist and poet from the late Victorian Era, was known for his literary innovations and techniques. “Finnigan Wakes” is almost impossible to read, for it incorporates a variety of languages, slang terms, and references frequently to Irish literary conventions. If you are unfamiliar with the fables of “Tristian and Isolde” and the Druid Culture and don’t speak at least four languages, this is probably not the book for you. Another one of Joyce’s very unreadable works is the notorious “Ulysses.” To read this book, you also need to buy yourself an annotated guide. Professors most likely do not expect you to have read either due to their difficulties, but there are still ways for you to impress them when these titles are brought to the table. Frown and try to look as troubled as possible — bonus points if you can make a natural, light sigh — and murmur, “I actually tried reading it, but it’s just so complicated.” With sufficient eye contact with the professors, they will surely and gladly spend ten to twenty minutes going off about the complexity of Joyce and indulging themselves in enlightening your confused mind. However, I do recommend “The Portrait of a Young Man as an Artist” and “Dubliners.” Great books to learn about the Irish identity. 

4. Utilitarianism

Imagine everyone’s happiness can be measured, and each individual’s happiness is one unit of utility. The community of Brandeis has a population of 5,558 students, graduate students included, meaning that an increased quality of Sherman food will produce 5,558 units of happiness. The goal of society, therefore, is to maximize cumulative happiness. An easy analogy that you will hear about in each class is your control over a switch that changes the path of a train that will run over three people. If you pull the switch, the train heads in a new direction and only runs over one person. From the perspective of a utilitarian, you should probably pull the switch, because three units of happiness are greater than one, and thus is the utility-maximizing solution. Our society does not operate under purely utilitarian dogma.

5. Prisoners’ Dilemma

You and your friend Sam vandalized the statue of Louis D. Brandeis in Fellows Garden in the middle of the night and got caught by Campus Safety. They also found that the walls of Sherman were graffitied with inappropriate comics, but they have no way of confirming that you did that too. They put you in separate rooms and give each of you two options, confess or stay silent. If both of you confess, you both end up with a five year sentence; if one of you confesses and the other stays silent, the silent one ends up with twenty years while the other walks away without penalty; if both remain silent, you both get only one year. The most optimal solution for everyone is to remain silent. In reality, people always end up selfishly confessing, hoping that their friend stays loyal.

6. Freud

To simplify things, your mind is divided into three: ego, id, and superego. Your id is the nagging child with the most primitive desires and wants to be satisfied at all times, while your superego is the moral police who tries to keep you on the right path. Ego is stuck between the two. Everytime you submit yourself to the primitive desires of id, your superego condemns you and provokes your guilt to taunt you. According to Freud, one of the most primitive desires in you is your desire to marry the parent of your opposite sex, and to do that you would have to kill the other parent.

I really hope that this list has made you dislike your humanities professors less and has made your classes less difficult. Sometimes, content may be challenging, and the terms that professors keep on tossing around do not help at all. I am sure that this list will get you through sixty percent of your humanities seminars not looking completely clueless. Happy second week of the semester!