Walk by the Registrar’s office during the first two weeks of a new term and one thing will be immediately and abundantly clear: Shopping period is a logistical nightmare. Two hundred students showed up for a class capped at 20 and two for a seminar that needs at least 10. This professor must have five more teaching assistants; that one wants his lecture moved to a larger room on Science Hill. And at night students keep calling and calling because the Courseinfo Web site is habitually, irreparably and annoyingly down.
It is an inelegant system, for sure. It is chaos for students, a headache for professors, and a hulking terror for University Registrar Barry S. Kane and his staff. At Harvard, one of the few places that, like Yale, still allows shopping, fed-up faculty will meet next month looking to do away with the complicated process in favor of preregistration.
But there were no reported cases of classes in closets this year — as there have been on occasion in the past — and judging by the first week after course registration, Yale seems to have transitioned smoothly once again from shopping period to the semester.
There have long been faculty grumblings here — not unlike those this summer at Harvard — about the inefficacy and inconvenience of course-shopping. Certainly a system of preregistration with liberal add/drop options — which Harvard professors have suggested as a replacement for open browsing — would make life simpler for everyone involved. Courses could begin in earnest with the first day of the semester. Adequate numbers of teaching assistants could be lined up in advance and no professor would have to suffer the horror of students coming late and leaving in the middle, showing up in droves or not showing up at all. There would not be the pressure to perform on the first day of class, to bring out the human brain or the static electricity magic tricks for window-shopping Yalies grazing for good lecturers.
Yale should indeed consider reforms to the course selection process, but none so dramatic and likely ineffectual as those proposed at Harvard. Instead of moving to a full preregistration system, Dean Brodhead and undergraduate department heads should consider an official capped-course application process, which would happen before a semester began. This way, students in all departments would know in advance what seminars they are taking and professors would not have to spend the first class meetings teaching to an overstuffed room in the basement of WLH.
Lecture-shopping is a sacred treasure, though. And the prospect of liberal add/drop is a farce, since professors likely would gear courses and policies toward discouraging students from actually using the option. Instead, disruptions could be minimized if syllabi consistently made it online before the semester began, helping students whittle away at their lists of classes to shop. The results of the online course evaluation system should help this summer, but better information and seminar preregistration would reduce congestion and improve shopping period for everyone next fall.