Academic Disciplines


What is an academic discipline? Per the Oxford English Dictionary, it is “a branch of learning or knowledge; a field of study or expertise; a subject.” (You might also observe the connection to [self-] control and to the state of being a disciple, the follower of a master.) Disciplines share problems and concerns and, consequently, they also share conventions, methods, approaches, and publication venues.

Very generally speaking, academic disciplines fall within three broad categories, which you might recognize as your liberal arts requirements: the Humanities; the Social Sciences; and the Natural (or Hard) Sciences. It’s worth keeping in mind that these divisions are largely a matter of convention, rather than the rule of law or universally agreed upon fact. The following guide is intended to offer a brief overview of the liberal arts as Gallatin understands them, with some quick notes about sources of relevant classes. Please consult the list of frequently offered courses—you can find it at— that have been evaluated by the curriculum committee and found to satisfy the various requirements to get further insight into these classifications.


The humanities, or the “human sciences,” concern themselves with culture and its expressions, typically relying on critical and speculative models of analysis. Here are some examples of disciplines typically considered under the humanities rubric, as well as some key places to find courses in these subjects at NYU (with the caveat that you should be carefully reading all notes on Albert and, ideally, the department’s website, regarding their availability):

Art History: the study of art and architecture in their historical context, often focusing on period, genre, or style. [The College of Arts and Sciences (or, simply, CAS) has an Art History department, where you will find the widest range of offerings in a variety of periods and regions; Steinhardt has an Art Theory and Critical Studies department, which offers several contemporary art options, including The Art of Now. Several art historians are members of the Gallatin faculty, and they will frequently offer interdisciplinary seminars (or IDSEMs) that will take up questions of art history.]

Classics: the study of the languages, literature, philosophy, art, history, and archeology of ancient Greece and Rome. [Look for classics options in the CAS Classics department, which also offers Latin and Greek language study, but note that some classes will be cross-listed with other CAS departments, including Hellenic Studies, History, and Dramatic Literature. IDSEMs evaluated to satisfy the premodern requirement may also involve study of the classics.]

Literature: the study of written texts, including the various theoretical and critical approaches used to interpret and otherwise respond to literary works

  • Comparative Literature: cross-cultural study of literary works, often focused on the juxtaposition of national traditions and the application of critical theory
  • English: the study of literature written in English
  • Dramatic Literature: to quote the Dramatic Literature department at CAS, “the critical, theoretical, literary, and historical aspects of theatre studies”

[Both Comp Lit and English are CAS departments, but you can find literature classes in many of the language departments in CAS (just make sure to look for a clear note that the class is taught in English, if you are not prepared to, for example, read Dostoesvsky in Russian). And of course every semester there will be a selection of IDSEM offerings to help you think about literature in a variety of contexts.]

History: the study of the past, typically with an emphasis on human activity. [History is a CAS department, but, depending on the time and the place of interest, consider looking to the language departments, as well as Social and Cultural Analysis (also in CAS) and some of the more specific programs of study, including Irish Studies, East Asian Studies, Hebrew and Judaic Studies, and Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies. Consider as well the CAS College Core Curriculum.]

Languages: the study of foreign (in this case, non-English) languages. [CAS offers a wide variety of languages, including Quechua and Haitian Kreyol (through the Latin American-Caribbean Studies) and Swahili (African Studies). The American Sign Language department in Steinahrdt enables students to acquire ASL skills. NYU also participates in the Columbia Language Exchange, allowing students interested in studying Armenian, Bengali, Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian, Catalan, Czech Dutch, Finnish, Hungarian, Indonesian, Ottoman Turkish, Polish, Punjabi, Romanian, Sanskrit, Swahili, Swedish, Modern Tibetan, Ukrainian, Vietnamese, Wolof, Yoruba, and Zulu to pursue these languages at Columbia University. Finally, for students interested in non-credit language study, NYU offers Speaking Freely, once-a-week language coaching sessions open to all members of the university community.]

Philosophy: the study of problems, issues, and questions related to existence, ethics, reality, knowledge, mind, and reason. [The CAS Philosophy department is an obvious source of philosophy courses, but it’s also wise to look to Comparative Literature and Classics in CAS. Some IDSEMs will incorporate the study of philosophy and/or consider issues crucial to the discipline.]


The social sciences look at relationships among individuals, making use of empirically observed data in order to arrive at conclusions regarding patterns of interaction. Here are some examples of disciplines typically considered under the social science rubric, as well as some key places to find courses in these subjects at NYU (with the caveat that you should be carefully reading all notes on Albert and, ideally, the department’s website, regarding their availability):

Anthropology: the study of the organization of human culture, typically emphasizing in-depth engagement and the importance of the observer. [The CAS Anthropology department offers courses that will help you consider societies and their norms, values, linguistic and cultural practices, as well as the physical and biological evolution of humans in the context of social formations. You will also find courses in archeology here. Depending on the nature of your interest, you might look to Social and Cultural Analysis and Linguistics for additional course options.]

Economics: the study of the activities and process that enable, structure, and govern the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services. [As a Gallatin student interested in economics, you will want to look at the course offerings through the Economics department in CAS. Students interested in pursuing more in-depth study will also want to look to the Mathematics department for pre-requisites to advanced economics courses. Stern makes several courses in its Economics department available to non-Stern students, but do bear in mind that these require a minimum of sophomore standing as well as other pre-requisites.]

Linguistics: the study of the underlying structure of language. [The CAS Linguistics department offers relevant classes.]

Political Science: the study of systems of government and the interactions of institutions and citizens, both locally and internationally. [Look for classes in the CAS Politics department, as well as in Law and Society (also in CAS). The undergraduate offerings in the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service—look for the UG Public Non-Profit Management and Public Policy department—can be useful for considering how politics plays out as public policy. Various IDSEMs have a political emphasis and/or make use of methods associated with the study of political science.]

Psychology: the study of human personality, as well as human behavior and its underlying causes. [The CAS Psychology department offers a wide range of theoretical and clinical psychology options; the Steinhardt Applied Psychology department emphasizes the application of psychological theories in various contexts, especially, given the school’s focus, educational settings. The Silver School of Social Work, though generally a graduate school, offers courses in Undergraduate Social Work, which may be of interest to students wishing to explore human behaviors in their social contexts. The Child and Adolescent Mental Health Studies (CAMS) department in CAS helps students consider the emotional and mental development of children and adolescents.]

Sociology: the study of social behavior and processes. [You’ll find classes in the CAS Sociology department, but relevant offerings may also come from Social and Cultural Analysis. Keep an eye out for IDSEMs concerned with social problems.]


The natural sciences, or the “hard sciences,” deal with the natural and/or physical world, deploying concrete evidence, collected through empirical observation. Here are some examples of disciplines typically considered under the science rubric, as well as some key places to find courses in these subjects at NYU (with the caveat that you should be carefully reading all notes on Albert and, ideally, the department’s website, regarding their availability):

Biology: the study of life and living organisms. [The Biology department in CAS offers a wide range of biology courses, including anatomy. Keep in mind that students interested in taking Principles of Biology I will need to take General Chemistry I as a pre- or co-requisite.]

Chemistry: the study of matter, largely focused on the interaction of molecules and atoms. [Chemistry classes are offered by the Chemistry department in CAS.]

Computer Science: the study of systems that enable the acquisition, representation, processing, storage, communication of, and access to data. [There is a Computer Science department in CAS, as well as CS courses offered by the Computer Science department of the Tandon School of Engineering. Some options are available through the Media, Culture, and Communication (MCC) department in Steinhardt, as well as Integrated Media Arts in Tisch, which offers online courses in coding.]

Mathematics: the study of number, quantity, and space, often with particular attention given to patterns. [The Mathematics department in CAS is the best starting point for all your math needs. Several departments—for example, Economics and Psychology in CAS—offer statistics courses relevant to various disciplines. The CAS College Core Curriculum offers some “Quantitative Reasoning” options.]

Physics: the study of the nature and properties of energy. [Look to the Physics department in CAS. The CAS College Core Curriculum is another option for “Physical Science.” For students also interested in engineering, the Physics department at Tandon is worth considering.]


You might note, going through the course catalog, that some departments defy immediate categorization: Social and Cultural Analysis, for example, offers courses that may be classified as humanities, as well as those that are counted as social science. Which is to say, interdisciplinarity—the crossing of traditional academic boundaries, the use of methodology from the social sciences, say, in the interpretation of texts in the humanities—is an academic reality. It is especially the reality for you as a Gallatin student: not only are many of the classes you will be taking as part of the Gallatin curriculum interdisciplinary by definition, your concentration will also span disciplines, borrowing from various fields in order to best address yourself to a significant concern. To that end, it’s a great idea to use your first two years to explore the various disciplines and think about what they might offer you as you shape your course of study and forge your own academic path.