For many upperclassmen, Shopping Period could more aptly be named Seminar Application Period — a time not to weigh the pros and cons of particular classes, but to devise a way to secure coveted spots in popular seminars. Everyone knows the process of course admittance is a mess. The question is what we should do about it. Broadly speaking, there are two problems: First, there are not enough seminars; second, there is no good way of allocating limited space.
The most obvious solution to the problem of seminar shortage is to provide more seminars. If 100 students want to take “Lincoln: Principle, Statesmanship, Persuasion,” and they are all willing to pay tuition, Yale should supply five sections of the course. However, Yale cannot supply more sections without hiring more professors. But Yale is unwilling to hire more professors because it wants professors who are not only good teachers but also those who have tenurable research credentials and politics in as many cases as possible. So, the pool from which Yale can draw new professors is, at times, artificially small, yielding a severe shortage.
What can be done about the supply of professors and seminars? Short of radically altering priorities, not much. Seminar shortage is but one example of how Yale’s simultaneous attempts to maintain a research institution and provide quality undergraduate education conflict. Often the question of whether the best researchers are also the best teachers arises. If the answer is inconclusive, certainly it is unfortunate that seeking only the best researchers means many students get no professor at all.
The supply side of the problem is intractable. If Yale is going to ameliorate the shortage, it must focus on improving allocation of seminar spots. For the uninitiated, here is a rough sketch of how seminar admission currently works. On the first day of class anyone with a remote interest in the course shows up. For seminars in popular departments, this often means up to 60 people. The professor then asks students to put their names on a list along with their year and major, and occasionally asks each student to write a short paragraph about himself and why he should be admitted. Because students can drop the seminar at any time, there is no disadvantage in trying to get a spot, and all students sign up to take the course. Particularly ambitious students e-mail the professor before and after the first meeting expressing their great interest in the course and providing any additional qualifications (real and fictional) they possess. The professor then somehow determines the course list, and 10 to 40 people get rejected.
Our current ad hoc system provides no effective way of determining which students are most qualified for a particular seminar, and gives students no incentive to “conserve” seminar spots — that is, to take scarcity into account when deciding whether or not to fill one.
Yale could solve both problems by creating a “market” for seminars. Every student would be given a fixed number of “seminar dollars” his freshman year which he could spend on admittance to seminars throughout his four years at Yale. Seminars would be priced according to student demand, either in advance or dynamically via auction system (if a seminar were undersubscribed, it would cost zero seminar dollars). If students had to “buy” seminar spots, and the price were based on supply, students would have an incentive to conserve spots in particularly popular seminars. Whereas in the current system a student will take a popular seminar if it is one of his top five classes, my system would force a student to consider the value of the spot to other students via its price. A market for seminars, like any other market, would ensure that seminar spots go to those students who value them most.
Of course, all students are not equally situated, and so the seminar market should be adjusted to account for differences between students. In particular, many of the features of the old system could be incorporated. For example, Yale might think EP&E students will get more out of an EP&E seminar than the average student because it would fit within their larger course of study. The seminar market could accommodate this by giving majors a discount — e.g. EP&E majors purchase EP&E seminars for half-price. The same idea could be applied to seniority by giving seniors a discount, though since many seminars are not offered every year, perhaps seniors should only get a discount on those that are.
The seminar market is also a mechanism for raising the average quality of students in seminars. By its nature, the market requires students to be self-selecting. If they had to pay for it, students would treat being in a seminar as a privilege. Because taking any particular seminar involves implicitly forfeiting future seminar opportunities, students would attempt to get more out of the seminars they took. Furthermore, if seminars were filled with the students who most wanted to be there, the class dynamic would improve.
Enthusiasm for the subject is the most accurate metric of how a student will perform. However, other metrics could also be integrated into the seminar market system. Some possible modifications include giving students a discount based on their GPA, giving students a discount based on their GPA in previous seminars and giving students a discount based on their previous class participation GPA in previous seminars. Whichever modification is chosen, it must work within the seminar market so that all students still have the right incentives.
It is well-known that seminars offer a deeper experience than lectures. If Yale is unwilling to meet student demand, it should at least attempt to efficiently distribute supply.
Tom Lehman is a senior in Pierson College.