Klein: A better way to start to the year

It’s time for shopping period reform, and here’s my manifesto: Competitive seminars should not be shopped, but applied to in advance over the summer. All enrollment-limited seminars should have rosters set in stone by the first day of classes. Shopping would remain the same for freshmen, who can’t tell a QR from a Kastan (and, let’s face it, aren’t going to get into seminars anyway). Lectures, except those with limited enrollment, could be shopped by everyone.

Bear with me here. Shopping period, as it exists today, is far from the stress-reducing and choice-increasing institution of admissions lore. The real shopping experience is something far more Hobbesian: an academic war of all against all, for spots around tables, slots in seminars, and more broadly, for scholarly self-esteem and sanity.

Mostly, it’s the scramble for seminars that renders this otherwise fun semesterly epigram into something nasty, brutish and long. Practically all of our classes are squeezed into the late-morning or early-afternoon, with seminars overlapping far more often, due to their length. We prostrate ourselves before the mighty professorial fate-deciders; we rush from room to room, unsure of our classes until the very last moment.

As anyone with a ballooning OCS and requirements to fulfill knows, a single seminar acceptance or denial can detonate a schedule like a precision-guided bomb. And often, admissions decisions rely less on real credentials or passion than the amount an addled brain can scribble on an index card in 20 minutes. Worse, we have to deal with the seat-savers, the after-class question askers, and worst of all, the office-hour visitors. No matter how much you love your little sib, you won’t love seeing him audaciously strolling into a 400-level English seminar.

So, we apply for far too many things in far too little time. And why not? Often, they are the best classes with the best professors, the most oversubscribed and the least replaceable.

True, these are simply stresses, and, as Yalies, we can deal. But far worse than the uncertainty and anguish is the sheer time that shopping period devours. Our semester is shockingly short. You’ve probably heard professors decry it, and they’re right to. Including shopping period, courses run for no more than 12 weeks. Two weeks is 15 percent of the semester, of discussions, of valuable moments with great professors, of Yale.

The choice is between starting seminars in chaos or calm. With breathing room over the summer for students to write and teachers to read applications, scheduling would become more personal, and less Russian roulette.

Of course, shopping period does give smaller, newer, traditionally undersubscribed seminars the chance to draw students. But we could accomplish much the same thing by scheduling application deadlines for these classes later than those of their “big name” counterparts, Students who find out they have been shunted by Bloom can have a week of breathing room to find their way to the joys of lesser-known Bilakovics.

And true, the professor makes the seminar — without shopping, how would one know if a certain professor is right for them? Word of mouth would help, but I would also advise an expansion of the course evaluation system. In addition to “workload” and “overall assessment” rankings, the system should include “charisma of instructor.” For seminars, in which personal reflections are incredibly important for both the professor and his or her future students, responses should be mandatory.

Even without shopping, we could discover new, exciting seminars. We could do it the way we do already: online, in the bluebook, through friends and by reading syllabi and evaluations. Abolishing seminar shopping would just give us more time to research the classes that catch our eye and make us surer of our choices.

And sending off a couple of personal statements and writing samples shouldn’t take more than a summer evening. Professors would have far more time and space to give them their due attention, rather than the busy handful of days in-between class and the course-schedule hand-in deadline.

Under the current shopping regime, we are essentially delaying our dive into real academics with two weeks of stalling. The system works for lectures and provides room for the kind of boisterous, liberal-artsy dilettantism that Yalies love. But for enrollment-limited seminars, shopping period is little more than an obnoxious, over-crowded application circus.

For myself and many others, the seminar is the core of a Yale education. Shopping for seminars damages both shopping and seminars. Let’s separate the two. Period.

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