Course selection at Yale involves a big trade-off: Students sacrifice a bit of certainty and sanity for the opportunity to sample multiple options. In that sense, shopping period will never be perfect — much of the confusion that frustrates us and exasperates faculty during the first days of each semester is an unavoidable result of allowing more choice. Yet when it comes to a few of shopping period’s most glaring flaws, Yale could make some straightforward improvements that would sacrifice little in terms of flexibility.
In some cases, all students want is a little more information, a little earlier in the process. A simple example: There are few things more frustrating during shopping period than searching the online database for a course and finding nothing but a one-sentence description of the class. Most professors, we hope, have come up with at least a rough syllabus by the time students return to campus, so it is hard to see why departments shouldn’t require syllabi to be posted online well before classes first meet. For some classes, just one glance at a three-page reading list is enough to rule a course out or move it to the top of the pile. And when it comes to the syllabi themselves, professors should be encouraged to use common sense — if an instructor can’t wait to make the first assignment until the second or third class, he or she should at least make sure enough course books are available for students to get the required work done.
Then there is the problem of classes, like seminars, that are designed for a limited enrollment. Seminars are, understandably, one of the highlights of Yale’s undergraduate education. But in the first week of classes, they are just as likely to be a major cause of frustration. While one professor might stick to a hard cap of 15, her colleague in the same department might be willing to push enrollment up to 22. For some instructors, it all comes down to seniority or major; others intentionally look for a diversity of backgrounds. With few uniform rules in play, choosing a seminar without preregistration becomes a kind of absurd game, complete with its own strategies — from trying to guess which courses won’t be popular to brushing up on one’s sycophantic repertoire.
Creating a one-size-fits-all rule for filling seminars makes little sense, and there is something nice about allowing professors discretion in determining whom they will teach in such a small setting. But if professors are going to set rules for admission in the first class anyway, they could save time for students and themselves by publicizing their preferences online. Likewise, the preregistration process for sections that the History Department has been experimenting with for the past few years should finally be extended to other departments and throughout Yale’s language classes.
Shopping period is such an important part of the Yale experience that it is hard to imagine doing anything else. For all the complaints students may have during the opening days of school, few would choose to preregister for every class instead. But if confusion is going to be an unavoidable part of course selection, it would be nice if that confusion made a little more sense.