Political science seminar sign-up needs no reform

To the Editor:

In a recent “News’ View” (“Fix the course application process,” 1/23), the editors of the Yale Daily News fault the Political Science Department for not having a preregistration system for its seminars. The News asserts that the department lacks a system of determining enrollments in seminars, that few professors care about giving preference to junior and senior majors, that professors apply “undisclosed or bizarre” criteria for admission to seminars, that there “simply are not enough seminars to go around for all who want to take them,” and that the department offered only 40 seminars this year, in contrast to the History Department, which offered 80.

All of those statements are incorrect. Enrollment in department seminars is determined by a combination of the expression of interest on the part of students and, in those cases in which the demand exceeds the 18-20 places, by the instructor teaching the seminar. A strong case can be made that, in those instances when demand for a seminar exceeds the number of spaces available, the best way to resolve the question of who will be admitted is to rely upon the judgment of the instructor rather than a preregistration system.

While the decision as to who is admitted to a seminar lies with the instructor, departmental faculty know they are expected to give priority to junior and senior majors. They know majors are required to take two seminars and that a very large portion of them write their senior essay in a seminar. In making decisions as to who will be admitted, faculty use obvious and reasonable criteria — in addition to seniority and major status, previous course work in areas related to the seminar, the reasons given by students why they should be admitted, etc. I have never once had a student complain about a professor’s “undisclosed or bizarre” criteria for admission to a department seminar.

The News asserts there are not enough seminars to go around in Political Science. That is not true. Many of the department’s seminars have room for more students. What is true is that for some of the department’s seminars the number of students seeking admission far exceeds the number of spaces available. When 75 or 100 or even 200 (as happened in one instance last fall) students express an interest in a seminar, it is doubtful that any preregistration system would render a better — i.e., fairer — resolution of the problem than the instructor, who can take into account many factors, not only seniority and major status but other relevant information as well.

Lastly, the News asserts that the department offered only 40 seminars this year, compared to the 80 offered by the History Department. That is wrong. In fact, the department is offering 47 seminars this semester alone. Those 47 seminars represent more than two-thirds of all of the courses offered this semester. In comparison, the History Department is offering 43 seminars this semester.

David R. Cameron

January 26, 2003

The writer is director of undergraduate studies of the Political Science Department.

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