April 2, 2003

Relationships 101

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Ever wonder what went wrong in that last relationship or worry about how the sex has gone bad after a few months? Or wake up on a Sunday morning and lament, “What was I thinking last night?” Next time you have these questions, turn to Human Development 362: Human Bonding (HD 362) instead of those relationship crib sheets, Cosmopolitan and Maxim.

The class, taught by Prof. Cynthia Hazan, human development, has become a vastly popular course in the College of Human Ecology. It regularly fills Kennedy Auditorium to a capacity attendance of 600 students.

Hazan began teaching the class in 1988 with 25 students. The next time it was taught, 250 students enrolled.

The class is now capped at 600 students, ostensibly to ensure that it is taught in Kennedy. The one year the cap was not in place, the class ballooned to over 900 students and had to be taught in Statler Auditorium.

“It’s not unfortunately like a classroom experience, [but] I try to encourage discussion,” Hazan said.

To facilitate discussion, Hazan’s TAs run optional discussion sections with topics such as “Are we a monogamous species?” and long-distance relationships.

Hazan believes that the class appeals to students’ social desires.

“We are a social species, and relationships are important to us. We are hardwired for close relationships,” she said.

Through word of mouth, the class has garnered a reputation as “the love class,” and oddly enough, “the sex class,” even though there is another course entirely devoted to that topic.

Former student and TA Ari Lavine ’04 said, “[HD 362] delivers personal relevance on a silver platter and it does so on a universal basis. Everyone leaves the class feeling like it was designed and taught especially for them. That’s the hallmark of a great course.”

Hazan describes the class as being about personal relationships.

“It’s about the closest of closest relationships: parents and their kids and adult partners.”

There is some small overlap between what appears to be two very different relationships. About one-third of the class is devoted to parent-child relationships, and the other two-thirds are devoted to adult relationships. Some of the topics discussed are why specific people end up together in relationships and why relationships fail.

Of this Hazan said, “These are human interests. We like to learn about things that are applicable to our lives, and what could get more applicable?”

Students greatly enjoy the class and continually sign up for it every fall even though it does not satisfy any requirements. The class draws a diverse crowd ranging all across the colleges, from engineers to pre-med students to liberal arts majors. According to Hazan, it also draws fairly equally across the class spectrum of freshmen to seniors.

“I found [HD 362] to be the single most exciting and personally relevant course [I have] ever taken,” Lavine said.

According to Hazan and Lavine, students routinely “flinch” in class when breakups or other trends are discussed in class.

During the last class of the year, Hazan answers anonymous questions at the end of the period. Students appreciate this opportunity to hear the answers to what can sometimes be embarrassing questions.

“No matter how outrageous the question, she answer[ed] it,” said former student and TA Howard Heching ’03. “It was one of the funniest lectures I ever attended in Cornell. Overall, the class was fun because it dealt with very practical issues.”

The academic study of personal relationships and love is relatively new. Empirical studies have only been the norm in this field for the last 10 or 15 years.

The scientific literature catches many students off-guard because they think the class is merely based on experience.

“Students are surprised that there is a scientific literature behind this material,” Hazan said.

She jokingly added that they are equally surprised to learn that she requires them to know the literature.

One of Hazan’s goals in teaching the class is to erase some of the “common misperceptions that students have about love.” For example, she said, it is normal to have a 50-percent drop in sex during the first year of a relationship.

“This is a natural, normal decline in level of interest and it’s inescapable,” she said.

Another misconception is the belief that a breakup is characterized by a definitive moment, when in fact the average person goes through “eight or nine steps of breaking up” before he or she actually decides to break up.

Hazan herself was a recent subject of research. An education Ph.D. candidate recently analyzed her teaching style and interestingly concluded that Hazan “develops a relationship with the class.”

The student concluded that Hazan tries to “be fair” and instill trust in the class so that the students “have confidence that [she] will lead them.”

Hazan cannot deny this conclusion because she feels she has indeed developed a strong relationship with many of her students, who through the years have felt comfortable enough to come to her with their personal relationship problems. She is always obliging in giving her “informed opinion.”

Both Heching and Lavine credited Hazan with making sincere efforts to engage and get to know her students.

“There were always people waiting at her office. She really wanted to meet as many students as possible,” Heching said.

The class was not offered last fall because Hazan was on sabbatical leave, but it will return next year to answer all pending relationship questions.

Archived article by Michael Margolis