One of the hardest lessons I have learned at Yale is that it is simply not possible to make all of one’s course decisions two weeks into a semester. Any course worth taking has substantial reading or work required before the third week of class. Forced to make mostly final decisions within the first few days of class, most Yalies seem to fall back on informal networks of advice — the sometimes dubious wisdom of our older friends or faculty advisors who have experienced, or, more often, can relay hearsay about, the classes, professors and TFs that constitute our options. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this type of counsel, but having access to only a small sample of popular opinion, is surely not the ideal basis for sound decisions.
Yale can do better. The current system of online course evaluations and online syllabi could be expanded into a more robust framework of selection information through some effort on the part of University authorities. In this case, greater efficiency would also make the situation more equitable.
First, Yale must make syllabi accessible earlier. A syllabus explains a course in a way that a paragraph-long description cannot, showing what will actually be read, discussed and assigned with sufficient concreteness to make any student’s set of options more manageable. But, under the current system, many professors never bother to put syllabi up on the Internet, and of many of those who do post theirs wait until the crucial first few days of shopping period have passed.
Yale ought to require that its professors post their syllabi electronically at least two days before the first day of the semester so that students can review them in advance and narrow down their shopping lists as much as possible before classes commence. This reform would also enable professors to jump straight into the content of their courses on the first day, giving students a better sense of the real meat of the course and avoiding the frustrating experience of having the first day consist of professors merely reading their syllabi out loud as if the students were illiterate. Most importantly, if this proposal were adopted, every student would have equal access to course information and would not be forced to rely on second-hand sources.
Second, students must be given the information necessary to gauge their odds of getting into limited enrollment courses before wasting their precious shopping days. The all-too-common experience of scores of students showing up for a small seminar could become significantly rarer. No worthwhile trade-off will make popular courses less popular, but it would be easy to ensure that, for example, sophomores do not show up for courses that have not accepted sophomores for the past few years. If professors included in their online course descriptions a brief statement about the past or anticipated enrollment numbers for their course, mentioning what realistic chance students outside the major or underclassmen had of being accepted, students would be able to manage their time more effectively during the crowded first few days.
This type of information would in no way be a limit on eager students seeking classes traditionally filled by students inside a particular major or in a particular class year: they could still show up despite the odds, but would suffer no unforeseen disappointment. There would no longer be any built-in advantage for shoppers who knew the traditional turn-out for a course or any incentive for students to deluge professors with e-mails with this sort of question.
Finally, the Teaching Fellow system must become less of a roulette game. The wide range in the quality of instruction and grading among TFs makes the selection of a satisfactory one a large determinant of the success of any student’s semester. Here more than anywhere else Yale fails to provide adequate information and allows well-connected students an unjustifiable advantage. It has been argued that Yale’s TFs deserve better compensation and some form of the right to organize. Yale should take these claims for greater respect seriously, but at the same time ensure that TFs are held accountable for their work.
Student evaluations of TFs should become public and available to future potential students, just as course evaluations are. Evaluations of TFs who led a section on any Yale course in the past should be posted with the evaluations of any other course they will be teaching, so that changing professors is not a means to escape accountability. This will give all students an equal opportunity to choose a strong TF and ultimately reward good teaching. The high turnover rate among TFs only means that evaluation will be imperfect, not improbable. Of course, it will be objected that TF’s will cheapen their grading standards to win positive evaluations. But professors are supposed to make the final call on grades in the first place and insofar as they neglect to supervise their TFs and serve as a check on abuse of the system, they are not doing their job. If anything, more professorial scrutiny of TF quality would be an extra benefit.
It takes political courage and persistence to demolish any system fraught with advantages for the well-connected and institutional inertia, but it ought to be the constant struggle of the Yale administration and our student leadership to ameliorate the quality of life of those they were chosen to serve. The solutions exist; all that is needed is will.
Matt Wansley is a sophomore in Trumbull College.