A little more than a year ago, former Yale English professor William Deresiewicz penned a controversial book in which he criticized students at elite universities for being “excellent sheep.” In it, he somewhat hyperbolically implies that the Yale student body and those at peer institutions are composed of resume-padding automatons who live in a community devoid of intellectual curiosity. At this point, I think many of us have concluded that he was largely incorrect. But there’s certainly one aspect of Yale that makes me feel sheepish: shopping period.
I remember having shopping period advertised to me as a sort of utopian solution to the normal problems posed by pre-registration for classes, as is the case at other schools. Getting the chance to “try-before-we-buy,” so to speak, is certainly handy, but with Yale becoming more technologically connected by the day and slated to grow by 15 percent, it’s probably time to evaluate some of shopping period’s growing pains.
High among these is how pointless the first day of classes often becomes. Consider the large lecture courses, my favorite targets to pick on as of late. In many of these, the first day of classes becomes a mindless ritual, with students transforming from sheep into sardines as they fill overcrowded lecture halls. Once a student stakes a claim on his or her plot of tile on the ground, the show begins in earnest: there’s the obligatory 30 to 40 minutes of class spent rehashing a syllabus that many of us already took the time to peruse. Instructors then spend time wading through a veritable sea of questions that can usually be answered by little more than “Check the syllabus.” It’s probably more effective to write an FAQ or record a brief video for the course website than to waste an hour of class with this inane chore; to be sure, going over course structure is important, but class should elaborate on the syllabus rather than simply restate it.
Students are equally to blame for shopping-period woes. Those who wait out the beginning of a class expect an exciting denouement; unless the lecturer is particularly flashy or engaging, students switch from note-taking to browsing social media (I’m especially guilty of this). Perhaps this is why the information taught on the first day rarely matters for the rest of the semester; professors have learned that our attention spans on Day 1 are limited. Opening lectures become nothing more than a distraction as students rush online to confirm spots in sections for courses they may very well end up dropping days later — creating a logistical nightmare for everyone. One simple fix can be to have section selection follow the end of shopping period. But more importantly, we should probably be a bit more discerning about the arrangement of rainbow-colored blocks on our scheduling worksheets.
But I reserve even more ire for seminars — particularly for the more popular ones. It’s not uncommon to see students stooping to saccharine, if not entirely sycophantic, methods of gaining a professor’s favor. Some students quote passages from a professor’s latest book at the end of class; others email multi-page treatises professing their love for the subject. Perhaps it’s overly cynical, but I question how authentic this excitement is. Undoubtedly, there are some excellent seminars at Yale, and I’m sure that there are indeed students who express genuine passion in their applications for course admission. That said, it’s curious how many of these types of coveted seminars have CourseTable work ratings below 3.0 — a marker of a low-workload class.
All this suggests that Deresiewicz may have had a point: in lectures, we pay enough attention to understand whether or not this was indeed the science gut we were searching for; in seminars, we’ve been taught how to come up with just the right words and phrases to convince the professor to let us in.
It may be hard to have any large-scale reform accompany this semester’s shopping period. But hopefully the second week will be a little less painful for all of us. Moving forward, it may be time for us to consider how shopping period can be made more efficient and less personality-driven.
It’s time we become the shepherds of our education — not the sheep.
Shreyas Tirumala is a sophomore in Trumbull College. His column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .