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Preregistration (for spring 2017)

Topics/tags: Registration

For those of you who don’t know Grinnell well (I think there are a few of you), Grinnell has an interesting curriculum, or, more precisely, lack of curriculum. Grinnell calls its curriculum an individually advised curriculum [1]. Rather than specifying a particular set of courses or categories of courses each student must take, Grinnell requires only that each student complete a major, complete Tutorial (a freshman seminar), take at least 124 credits, and work out the rest with their academic advisor. About two-thirds of the way through each semester, each students sits down with their advisor to discuss possible courses for the next semester and to agree upon a likely plan of action.

Then comes the interesting part: registering for those courses. Every school has some form of registration. Some have first-come, first-served policies [2], in which students are allowed to enroll in a course until it fills. Some have a curriculum that keeps students in enough of a lock-step that the students don’t really have to make choices [4]. Some have students bid on classes, using some fixed set of fictitious resources [5,6]. Some require students to find faculty members to sign them in to courses.

And then there’s Grinnell’s system. We let students enroll in whatever courses they want, and let the courses over-enroll. Then, at the end, we have a period in which we try to figure out how to fix everything. There are multiple fixes to employ: We balance sections; we cut students and tell them to find something else; we sometimes let classes grow a bit; we cancel classes and add additional sections; we try to convince the Dean to fund an extra section and find someone to teach that section. After that, the students who’ve been cut try to find something else to fit into their schedule, or beg the faculty to allow their courses to over-enroll, or whatever.

I have no idea how this system evolved, or even why it evolved [7], but I find it both interesting and anxiety inducing. I’m one of the people who likes to watch enrollments evolve over the eleven-day preregistration period [8,9]. What demand is there on my courses? What courses are popular? What problems are my advisees (and, these days, my children) likely to have? Are there courses the College might try to cut? I think there’s been one time in my career at the College that the Dean asked us to cut a course (four students had pre-enrolled; we thought we could get more). These days, I’m more frequently worried about over-enrollments and how we’ll handle those. Can we shift students to another required course? Will we need to balance sections? What do we do when demand is high enough that we really should offer an extra section?

This year, I tried to reduce my anxiety by planning ahead. After looking at enrollments for the fall, I told my Dean that I expected that we would need an additional section of each of CSC 207 (Algorithms and Object-Oriented Design) and CSC 208 (Discrete Structures) in the spring. The Dean and my awesome colleagues in mathematics helped devise a plan that permitted a mathematician [10] to teach two sections of CSC 208, which freed the person who had been teaching CSC 208 to teach an extra section of CSC 207.

Of course, that led to a different kind of anxiety: Would we really need the two sections? If not, I’d be losing some credibility with the Dean, which would interfere with future negotiations. I shouldn’t have worried; we have 52 students spread over the two sections of 207 and 39 spread over the two sections of 208. Both numbers are far too high for a single section [11]. However, I should have been more anxious about others of our courses. Operating systems, which is normally capped at 24, over-enrolled by 22 students. There was no way to offer another section, so we switched those students to other courses, and promised them the opportunity to take the course next year [12]. The person teaching that course also generously allowed it to over-enroll to 28 [14]. My introductory course, CSC 151, had 52 students pre-enroll. The original plan was to balance the two sections, so that one had 37 students and one had 36; those are large numbers, but doable. Unfortunately, it was not quite possible to do that balancing [15]. Since I’d decided that we wouldn’t cut any students, I ended up with 42 students. I’ve taught 41 in our classroom before, and it was tight, but possible. I think I can handle 42, as long as I have sufficient support [16].

Where was I going with this analysis of prereg numbers? I’m not sure. I learned some things along the way. Unsurprisingly, Monessa Cummins’ course was over-enrolled. Todd Armstrong’s special topic on Russian Food and Culture was significantly over-enrolled. I wonder if the time (7:00-9:50 p.m. on Monday evenings) made a difference, or whether it’s just that students have heard about how awesome the course is. The period in which students register (before we try to adjust) Television writing over-enrolled, but I think we knew it would. David Campbell’s Nations and Global Environment over-enrolled, but it always does. Math seemed to have even more pressures than normal; both sections of Linear algebra significantly over-enrolled, and Math had to cancel an upper-level seminar in order to offer a third section. I’ve probably heard this before, but Chemistry has three sections of Organic Chemistry II, each with a cap of 24, and ended up with 32 or more students in each section [18]. And, as always, Studio Art and Drawing significantly over-enrolled.

I will admit that when I see these pressures, I get somewhat frustrated when I see courses with only a few students. I think most of those courses are important to a Grinnell education, and I’m glad we offer them. At the same time, I don’t like the stress of dealing with too many students, and I’d like to see the College provide more resources for those of us who need that support. Unfortunately, it seems like we have a zero-sum game, and I’m not sure the best way to balance those two demands. It’s also problematic that faculty come in units of five courses, so it’s not possible to cut one course in one department to add one course in another. Oh well; it’s been a decade since I’ve been on Council, so I don’t have to worry about such things any more [20].

Anyway, back to the student side, or perhaps the student and advisor side. When a student gets cut, they have to scramble to find a replacement course. And, amazingly enough, their second and third choices for the same area are often also filled. That can be frustrating.

Of course, some students know how to play the game. They identify a course that they know will not over-enroll (or that is incredibly unlikely to over-enroll). They don’t pre-enroll in that course. Rather, they choose two courses that might over-enroll, either of which they’d be happy to take, and preregister for both. If they get cut from one, they still have the other one, and then add the course they’d planned all along. If they get cut from both, they can send a sad message to both faculty members saying I got cut from two courses. Can’t one of you please allow me back in? If they get cut from neither, they decide which one they really want and drop the other one.

And that’s not the only way to play the game. Smart students know that there is value in contacting the faculty member ahead of time with an explanation of why they want to be in the course. I’m pretty sure that the odds of staying in a class go up significantly when you send such a note (and go up even more when you have your advisor send a followup). In some sense, that’s good. The system rewards people who are proactive and make good arguments. But it’s also problematic. It penalizes students who lack the cultural capital to realize that making such connections is important, or who are less willing to approach faculty (for whatever reason).

I’m sure that there are also other techniques of which I have not heard.

So, where does all of this lead? When I started this essay, I was planning to write a short essay which would mostly be about the experience of watching prereg numbers. I ended up writing a much longer essay and reflecting much more on what I see as unfairness in the system, particularly for students who are less skilled or experienced at dealing with these kinds of situations [21], but also for students who are in disciplines that are more likely to face enrollment pressures. I have no good solutions. However, I do think it might be time to revisit our system.

[1] Previously open curriculum, even more previously no requirements curriculum.

[2] When I was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago [3], Chicago had a first-come, first-served policy. That meant that it was essential to get the earliest possible appointment with your advisor, particularly if you wanted something like Bevington’s Shakespeare. When I was there, people camped out for advising appointments. I was fortunate that I had an advisor with few advisees, so I didn’t need to camp out, but I hung out with friends who did. For some reason, I never chose to take Shakespeare, but I took an awful lot of film courses from Gerald Mast.

[3] UofC when I was there; UChicago now.

[4] Such schools are rarely classified as liberal arts colleges.

[5] When I was an undergraduate at the UofC, the Business school used a form of bidding system. But you could also sell your place in the class (for the fictitious funds) and use those funds to purchase a place in another course. One of Michelle’s best friends played that game incredibly well.

[6] I like bidding systems. They provide a way for you to indicate which of your choices are high priorities and which are lower priorities. I also enjoy systems which can be fun to try to game.

[7] Maybe one of the old-time Grinnellians can explain to me how and why this system evolved. Chris? Judy? Sarah? Doug? Harley? Maybe I should just ask someone directly. Or maybe I’ll have to wait for Grinnell College in the Twentieth Century.

[8] I say I’m one of the people, but I’m not sure whether there are others. I guess I just assume that everyone likes to explore data.

[9] I say eleven-day period, but I’m not absolutely sure that’s correct. The period usually starts on a Monday and ends on a Thursday a bit over a week later. That strikes me as eleven days.

[10] Well, more precisely, a logician. I count him as a member of both departments.

[11] Those of you at larger institutions may be surprised by that claim. However, in the CS department at Grinnell, we try to cap 100-level courses at 30 to 32, 200-level courses at 24 to 28, and 300-level courses at 18 to 24.

[12] I’m currently trying to figure out whether I can schedule two sections of Operating Systems next spring.

[14] I should do a better job of protecting my junior faculty. But I did give him an extra class mentor, so I think that balances the over-enrollment. (I hope the Dean understands when I over-spend my peer educator budget.)

[15] One of the sections is in the afternoon. We used to offer both sections in the morning, but a few years ago, the Registrar asked us to split sections between morning and afternoon. I warned them that it would be harder to fill the afternoon section, and I was told not to worry. It looks like I was right.

[16] Did I say I was overspending the peer educator budget? Maybe I should have said significantly overspending the peer educator budget [17].

[17] Admittedly, I’m not really sure that we’ll overspend. But we are finding that we need more peer educators than we’ve needed in past years. I think I counted 53 positions for next semester.

[18] Elaine Marzluff tells me that this is a regular occurrence. They usually have to negotiate with the Dean to add a few more lab sections and, in exchange, allow the lecture portion to over-enroll [19].

[19] In a draft of this essay, I mistakenly wrote oven-enroll, which is what I think happens when you put small round pieces of bread dough in the oven.

[20] I’m pretty sure that I’ve pissed off enough people that I’ll never be elected chair of the faculty. And there is a long line of excellent people who can become chair of the Science Division.

[21] Or who are shy, or otherwise at a disadvantage in the ways one plays the game.

Version 1.0.1 released 2016-12-11.

Version 1.0.2 of 2019-11-17.