Fix the course application process

When political science eclipsed economics as the second most popular undergraduate major earlier this fall, Political Science Department chairman Ian Shapiro told the Yale Daily News that Yale was “very, very committed to political science.” It is time for the University to demonstrate a commitment to political science majors as well.

As course shopping wraps up and students submit their schedules this week, many sophomores and juniors majoring in political science find themselves less than thrilled. The effects of the department’s popularity — it boasts 177 senior majors this year — are taking their toll. The department lacks a system for determining enrollment in its seminars; few of the department’s professors seem to care about giving preference to juniors and seniors within the major; and there simply are not enough seminars to go around for all who want to take them.

While the History Department offered 80 seminars this year, the Political Science Department offered only about 40. Of those 40, almost half were cross-listed in other departments, meaning political science majors had exclusive rights to only about 20 seminars. The Political Science Department should adopt a system of preregistration next semester that gives preference to upperclassmen within the major, and it should begin looking to hire more tenured faculty to teach more seminars.

The History Department — which still boasts the most senior majors — uses a well-organized preregistration system to determine enrollment in its seminars. At the outset of each semester, even before classes officially begin, juniors know whether they will be studying European thought with Frank Turner or biography with John Gaddis. Most political science majors had no idea whether they would even be admitted to any seminars in the department.

Instead, they found themselves competing with 60 or 70 other students — many of them nonmajors — for 17 or 18 coveted spots. Since the department only loosely enforces preferences for seniority and those within the major, many juniors lost spots to seniors in other majors, or worse, to undeclared sophomores and freshmen. In many cases, professors used their own undisclosed or bizarre criteria to select students for their seminars. The History Department is by no means perfect — many juniors and seniors were outraged this week when popular Chinese history professor Jonathan Spence opted for a class-blind lottery for nonmajors rather than giving upperclassmen preference — but at least there is consistent preference given to history students.

Perhaps one day Yale will have a uniform online course application system that will give priority to majors and upperclassmen. Such a system would put an end to the shopping-period rat race, when many students lie with abandon about their course of study, advance liberally their year of graduation, and even conjure up deep personal connections to a particular subject in e-mails designed to win a professor’s favor.

While a limited number of nonmajors and underclassmen certainly add to the dynamic of seminars in many departments, the inclusion of too many such students shortchanges those who have expressed a preference for a particular subject. Students choose to major in a specific discipline because they want to take courses in that subject; Yale should make every effort to ensure that suitable courses will be available to them.

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