Shopping has high price for professors

One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons shows a man with a knife in his back, sitting in the office of his doctor, who cheerfully announces, “Good news! It’s just a metaphor!”

Shopping period is hardly the equivalent of the cartoon patient’s plight, but I find myself identifying with this hapless victim of a metaphor made all too literal during the opening weeks of the semester. When I came to Yale in 2005 after many years of teaching at the University of Texas and at Penn, I was not at all alarmed by the idea that my students would be “shoppers,” expecting that they would provisionally sign up for courses with the possibility of making a few adjustments in the first days of classes.

Little did I realize that “shopping” authorized students to get up and leave the lecture in medias res while the instructor pretended not to notice the classroom ebb and flow, as if she were a character in a TV show or a film, impervious to what viewers were doing on the other side of the screen. The shopping metaphor, it seemed, had desensitized students to the fact that on the other side of this transaction there was a human being, not a pair of shoes or a car — a human being who had dedicated her life to researching and transmitting a body of knowledge. I was also troubled to learn that for one-sixth of the semester I would not necessarily know who would be in my class on any given day, and that the Yale term would shrink to 10 weeks once things settled down and the really serious work of the course could begin.

I know that shopping period is considered a distinctive Yale tradition, and that students cherish the opportunity to try out a wide array of classes before having to commit themselves to a definitive schedule, but there must be alternative ways of satisfying that need, without engaging in a practice that is both anti-educational and hurtful to faculty members who feel reduced to the level of a consumer product. I urge the Yale community to consider a compromise policy that would respect the students’ freedom of choice while salvaging the personal and professional dignity of their instructors. Might a “soft pre-registration” strategy be tried, given the fact that so much prior information is available to students before classes begin, including online syllabi, course evaluations and that most valuable of news sources: word of mouth?

If shopping period could be understood as a mere metaphor, leaving behind the extremes to which its literal level leads, then perhaps we faculty members would not feel so demeaned and demoralized by the students’ exercise of their consumer rights. Or better yet, could the practice itself be replaced by the more banal but far less fraught formula of “add and drop”?

Millicent Marcus is a professor of Italian and chair of the Department of Italian.