Persistence pays off in seminar shuffle

Last fall, when political science lecturer Stanley Flink told the 140 students vying for 24 spots in his “Ethics and the Media” seminar that admission into the seminar would be impossible for freshmen and nearly impossible for sophomores, Julia Pudlin ’06 chose not to budge. Instead, Pudlin, having already e-mailed Flink, stayed for the rest of the class, talked to him after the session let out and followed up her efforts by calling him at home.

She told Flink about her experience working on Howard Dean’s ’71 campaign for the presidential nomination and her interest in the class and promised him she would work hard and prove she deserved her spot. Flink told her she would receive an e-mail notifying her whether or not she had been admitted, she said. But when she had not received anything a few days later, she proceeded to simply call Flink again.

“Finally, he was like, ‘All right, come to the next class,’” she said.

Pudlin got in. But she is far from the only underclassman or otherwise “ineligible” student who has managed to gain admission to a seminar or an extremely popular lecture generally reserved for upperclassmen or for students in the major.

Some students routinely e-mail professors in advance of a first class meeting, speak with the professor face to face after the class and e-mail again later “just to follow up.” Other students swear by getting to class early, getting a seat at the seminar table and making eye contact with the professor throughout the class.

Eric Kubo ’07 got to his American Musical Theatre and National Culture seminar 40 minutes early on Wednesday precisely so that he could get a seat, talk to the professor and make himself known.

“You have to show yourself to be more than just a piece of paper,” Kubo said.

Professor John Gaddis, who teaches popular classes such as The Cold War, said he supports such enthusiasm.

“Sometimes, the only way to get to know a student is if they make themselves visible to you,” he said.

Flink said he never looks down on students who go out of their way to contact him, because the process is a difficult one for students and teachers alike.

“It’s a terribly difficult process,” he said. “It’s a two-way street. It’s not just the students who are worried about how to get into a seminar they want against so many others, but also the instructor who has to figure out how to confine it to a low number and get the best students.”

While most professors agree that they appreciate the extra effort and may take it into account when filling any remaining spots in a seminar, they also emphasize that there is a line which should not be crossed.

Professor Amy Arnsten, who teaches “Brain and Thought: An Introduction to the Human Brain,” said some students’ attempts to get into her class have been inappropriate and have backfired.

“It’s generally the tone or the way they approach me,” Arnsten said.

She said some students will contact her just to see “how they can get in” without taking the time to really explain why they are sincerely interested.

Nonetheless, Arnsten, like most other professors, said that she is still “generally impressed by genuine motivation.” Yet motivation is never a guarantee.

A refusal to take ‘no’ for an answer did not work for Joshua Flaster ’06, who said that he essentially “squatted” for three weeks in one seminar last year only to end up not taking it.

“In the beginning, the professor made me feel like I would probably get a space,” Flaster said. “But then he made me feel like I should just take a hike.”

Despite the possibility of not getting into the class of one’s choice, some students still think learning to persevere is important in and of itself.

“In some ways it’s unfair,” Pudlin said. “But in some ways, it’s a lesson in how the world works. You have to learn how to be pushy and aggressive … You have to learn the rat race mentality, and maybe this is the place to do it.”

Hopeful students gather for an ultra-competitive residential college seminar, “Drawing for Non-Art Majors” in Green Thursday night.
Stephanie Dziczek
Hopeful students gather for an ultra-competitive residential college seminar, “Drawing for Non-Art Majors” in Green Thursday night.

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