Friday, August 30, 2013

Be glad you're not our students (this week)

This was my contribution to the "First Day of School" photo meme perpetuating on Facebook for several week as children went back to school. You can clearly see how happy I am for the start of another school year. It has nothing to do with how pleased I am with my clever attempt at humor. I teach general chemistry this term, and our first class was Thursday. WPI has a unique (wacky) academic calendar. It's not quarters and it's not semesters. We have 4 terms between the end of August and the end of April, which means our classes are intense experiences packed into 7 weeks. Since we have such a short term, we have to hit the ground running and students have to work hard so they don't fall behind. Missing a week of class at WPI is equivalent to missing 2 weeks at other schools. All this makes the following situation all the more frustrating.

At some point between when Socrates was walking around the agora bugging customers with questions and 2013, a bunch of professors looked around and said: "Do you like dealing with the logistics of running an educational institution? Me neither. We should really hire some people to take care of the administrative tasks so we can focus on the teaching and research that are the reason we started doing this in the first place." Thus began the slow decent to the system we have today.

General chemistry at WPI is divided into the lecture and lab. Although the grades are combined at the end of the term, both run independently; however, students only register for the lab. We have 3 lectures running this term and each lecture has six labs assigned to it, but since there is no crosstalk between lab and lecture, this is an arbitrary linkage. Each lab section is limited to 24 students for safety and space reasons, so once a section is full that's it. Compound the space problem with the largest incoming class in the history of the institute. Already faced with the universal difficulties of limited class sizes, the enrollment procedures seem to be geared toward hazing incoming students and punishing professors (for what crime, it is not entirely clear, but we must have done something to someone).

This disconnected-connected lab-lecture creates registration conflicts if a student wants to register for a lab section, but attend a different lecture when the preassigned lecture conflicts with another class. So starting off with a well oiled machine already. Students register for classes online (of course) as well as wait lists if the desired section is full. Students can also sign up for as many wait lists as they want however. I can only see the 6 wait lists of labs linked to my lecture, so a student could be on multiple wait lists assigned to either of the other 2 lecture sections, and I won't know. This wouldn't be that bad, except the registrar locks enrollment a few days before classes, a lock that lasts through the first several days of classes (with our short academic term, the drop/add period is 1 week to begin with). Students can still sign up for wait lists during this period. So if someone drops the class (e.g. tests out of that term of chemistry), no one from the wait list is automatically offered the opening until after the lock is lifted. So there are stressed out incoming students worried about getting into a class, none of whom are familiar with the procedures, tricks of the trade or what they can expect when wait listed.

The only way a student can add a class during the lockout period is with a drop/add form signed by the instructor, which is then delivered to the registrar. Although I can view the class roster and wait lists online, I cannot select someone from the wait list and enroll them automatically or request online that the registrar do it. The student must physically carry a piece of paper across campus. The general chemistry instructor has a harder task than most, because great care must be taken not to break the 24 student lab section limit. So this requires sitting at a computer looking at locked class rosters (6 different ones and only one can be viewed at a time), unlocked wait lists and no knowledge of what's going on with the other 2 lectures and 12 lab sections. Did I mention the students were stressed out? In going through the process of emailing students to tell them I could sign a drop/add form for them, a student asked "What form?" Not a surprising question from someone who has been on campus less that a week. Showing more patience than usual, I went to the registrar's website to find the form, which was nowhere to be found. I talked to one senior colleague, who also immediately went to the registrar's website to search. Finally, another colleague informed me that the drop/add forms were only available in paper from in the registrar's office. That makes perfect sense in the 21st century. Did I mention the students were stressed out? 

So, it's day 2 of the term. I have 6 unassigned seats in my lab sections. I have a dozen or so people signed up on different wait lists, but very little idea if these students are still really waiting or just artifacts left after a student signed up for another section. Did I mention the students were stressed out? At some point, the people who were hired to facilitate university business managed to outsource their job back to the professors, which is quite a coup. Yesterday, I phoned the registrar's office 3 times over the period of an hour in the middle of the afternoon. The call went to voicemail every time.


  1. This is off topic. Professors in 2013 have no relationship to Socrates in the agora. The title "professor" is misleading. In our consumer society with students who are largely spoiled and immature children, we are not professing anything. We are providing a service. They, their parents and the state are paying for it. They feel like they therefore are entitled to demand whatever they want. We are but glorified burger flippers.