This week the News has reported on suggested changes to course selection period (“Shopping Period may see changes,” Feb. 2) and has published a professor’s opinions on the matter (“Regulate shopping period,” Feb. 3, by English Professor Leslie Brisman). While these pieces have drawn sharp reactions from the student body (at least judging from the comments left on the News’ Web site, where, since I am abroad, I must follow this discussion), we should not be quick to either condemn or dismiss the problems and solutions discussed. For the basis of further discussion, we should also reach a clear understanding of the purpose and intended structure of course selection period.
The questions of why course selection period (“shopping period”) exists and how it should be structured are not new. The structure of course selection period was addressed in the past by the Yale College Committee on Teaching and Learning in a report to the Yale College faculty. Key passages from the report can be found in the Instructor’s Handbook, which students and faculty interested in reforming shopping period would be well advised to consult. For the convenience of all, a couple sentences are reprinted below:
“The course selection period … enables [students] … to fashion a program through deliberation and consultation rather than simply conformity to a set of curricular guidelines … Even the first day of class should have as much real content as is possible after organizational matters have been arranged … Students, for their part, should … recognize that they are responsible for the prompt completion of all work assigned during the course selection period.”
How can shopping period continue to achieve its desired purpose and to solve the problems that are inherent in its nature yet hindrances to its efficacy?
While crowded classrooms and headaches in the Registrar’s Office are serious problems that cannot be overlooked, for most students and some professors, the most frustrating aspect of shopping period is oversubscription (not to be confused with overcrowding of a classroom). If oversubscription were solved, satisfaction with shopping period would likely increase considerably. Because of inherent differences in seminars and lectures, addressing oversubscription in the two types of courses requires different solutions.
Oversubscription in lectures, particularly large lectures, is a problem that can be easily addressed with simple but significant changes. For lectures that have discussion sections, discussion sign-up for a course should begin on the day after the first meeting of that course. Upon signing up for a discussion section, a student would be committed to take the course and the selected section and would be unable to remove the course from his or her schedule worksheet (unless he or she decides to withdraw after finalizing his or her schedule). For lectures that do not have discussion sections but have a restriction on enrollment, a system analogous to that for discussion sections could also be employed.
These changes would allow students truly interested in certain lectures a nearly guaranteed opportunity to enroll. For students who are unsure of their interests and would like to attend additional lectures before making a decision, they should not worry that their hesitation may end up costing them a spot in their desired lecture. By making lecture enrollment binding, there would likely be many open spots in discussion sections throughout the duration of shopping period, as a binding agreement would make many students hesitant of electing even the easiest gut (perhaps for fear of locking in a schedule conflict with another gut).
As for seminars, reaching a solution on overcrowding is far more difficult. Professors, directors of undergraduate study and the Registrar’s Office can, however, take a positive step in alleviating this problem by clarifying enrollment restrictions and preregistration schemes (including making public the number of preregistrants). By clarifying seminar procedures, faculty and staff would give students more information to make an informed decision as to whether shopping certain seminars would be of value. Students who have an unwavering interest in a certain course could continue to shop the course until the end of shopping period as is currently done; with the changes proposed, they would likely have less competition from those who are not as committed, saving both groups from wasting time and energy.
Faculty who are not satisfied with the measures above and wish to cull the herd should, perhaps, take to Professor Brisman’s example and require an assignment due early during shopping period. Whether this practice, if done solely to thin the ranks, is in alignment with the goals of shopping period is a question for another time.
Michael Chao is a rising junior in Pierson College currently taking a leave of absence.