Monday, April 14, 2008

Competitive Whining

One of my fellow students in the language class I am taking has been trying to register for a class that she wants to take this summer, but the class is already full. She missed her assigned registration time slot, and by the time she remembered, all she could do was get on a waiting list for the class. It must be a popular class because she said the waiting list is fairly long. She wants to take this class in the summer so that she can organize her fall schedule to have all her classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays so she can sleep late the other days.

We were talking about this before class the other day, and she was upset because she had been trying to convince the professor to let her into the class but the professor is refusing. To her, this indicates that the professor is mean and unreasonable. I said "But there are other students on the waiting list. How could the professor let you into the class and not everyone else on the waiting list?" She said "But I begged her. I really want to get into this class."

I said that I hoped she got into the class, but that professors don't make these types of decisions based on the quality of begging. Why would we? How could we? Count up the number of reallys in an email saying that a student really really really wanted to take our class? Let in students who make the most dramatic pleas? My mind and soul will be riven with grief if I cannot take your class.

And furthermore, I said to the student, if she was going to beg, I recommended that she give an intellectual reason for wanting to take the class. She just sighed. Professors..


Mad Hatter said...

Perhaps the goal is not to out-compete the other students in whining, but to slowly wear the professor down in the hopes she might cave in!

Anonymous said...


Do you think this is a side effect of high tuition fees?
Do you see this as an isolate case?

Anonymous said...

This is the kind of crap that makes me so glad my teaching duties involve only teaching, and not writing and grading tests, taking attendance, handling class lists, handling student complaints, irate parents, or any of that other stuff that is the subject of endless discussion at RateMyStudents.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you brought this up. I deal with this constantly, and every December and August I spend a lot of time thinking about it. I think students are (quite correctly) advised to talk to the professor if a class they want/need is full. My course is prerequisite for a professional program, and for many returning students, it is the only (or one of very few) courses they need to complete before they can start the program. Many of these returning students do not find out whether they have been accepted to the program until well after registration opens and the course (two sections, totaling 175-225 slots depending on semester) is already fully enrolled. I want such students to get in touch with me, because it's the only way I can know how big the backlog is--the registration wait list only has 5 slots, and often we've had 20 or more students waiting to get in. I always tell them to come to the first meeting of the class and if there are enough seats, I'll try to take care of them then.

This spring, I arranged to move one section to a larger room and opened up 40 more seats in it. We still started the semester fully enrolled. Because the returning students will have to delay starting their program by a full year if they cannot enroll in my course, I try very hard to accommodate them all.

Be that as it may, I've also had students (in other classes, ones where I had no authority, ability or desire to increase enrollment) behave as though it was completely unreasonable of me not to sign them in ahead of everyone on the waiting list. I'm probably contributing to that phenomenon by the way I handle enrollments in the other class.

Maybe in the future I will point out that it's just like the line at the cafeteria or the ticket office. Other people are in line, and they got there first. If the commodity has sold out before you get to the front, that's the way it goes.

Anonymous said...

This rings so true. My colleague and I teach an upper level course with cancer in the title, and as a result it is very popular. Each year we get 50+ emails from students explaining how their future and that of the world as we know it depends on them getting into class. Students make incredibly passionate pleas about why their agenda is more important than anyone elses. We tell them, uniformlly, that the way to get into the class is: 1) get on the waiting list, and 2) attend the first two classes. It's remarkable how many students MUST get into the class, but cannot muster enough oomph to attend the first session (PS IT's at 2 pm!!).

Our best one this year was an email from a student who told us all about how she was going to be a pediatric oncologist and HAD to be in this class, and then proceeded to tell us how she had tried to cheat on the registration process with the collusion of her roommate, how it had not worked, and how unfair this was--couldn't we help?!

Irony is lost on the young.

Mark P

Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde said...

Gaaah. I love the idea that her desire for a cushy schedule is just so important as to trump other students' (presumably inferior) reasons for being on the waitlist ahead of her.

'Course, I had a Tu/Th schedule 2nd semester of senior year...but that was so I could work in lab straight through the 4-day weekend!

Anonymous said...

My Ph.D. mentor used the technique of requesting that students who wanted to add write an essay explaining why they wanted to take the class. That usually weeded out those not truly interested, not because of the content of their essays, but because a student like this one wouldn't bother writing one -- too much effort.

Kim said...

Like Mark P, I've got a policy that students have to show up for the first day of class to be admitted from the waiting list. I figure that if they can't do that, they don't really really really need to take the class.

I tell my advisees to talk to the professors if they can't get into a class, though. Usually my advisees give me intellectual reasons - for instance, it's the only section of calculus/composition/chemistry/etc that doesn't conflict with their required geology classes.

Anonymous said...

I think a lot of it goes back to entitlement. If a class is a required prerequisite and there are 10+ students trying to take the course to stay on track with graduation, then I feel like the department needs to open another section of the course. However, outside of that, it is the student's responsibility to ensure that there is a Plan A, B, and C for registration. It does get tricky with electives and managing the schedule. At my undergrad, every other semester I was among the last to register. These semesters I found myself sending many an email because of getting locked out of single section offerings of courses in my major. I can appreciate trying to play the system because in many places, registration systems are broken.

K said...

Here we are struggling to convince other departments that the online electronic wait list is the way to go...but they want more control on who gets in their classes. We instead often drop the enrollment of a class after it is full, so that we can manage the wait list...but still, it is a horrible system.

I teach a liberal studies Oceanography class and my inbox fills up everyday this time of year with folks who "need this class to graduate next semester" then why did you wait until your last semester to take it??? Plus I think that they do not know that we can see their credit count and can tell if that is true or not...

Angie said...

I had to comment on the Tu/Th schedule--I did this one semester as an undergraduate and vowed to never do it again! I found that I couldn't enjoy or be productive on Mondays and Wednesdays because of exhaustion from 8+ hours of class on Tu/Th and working on problem sets due for the next Th/Tu. Best of luck to that student--I hope she manages better than I did!

Anonymous said...

Life's rough.

Even if I didn't have classes in the morning, I still have kids and research so I couldn't sleep in anyway. Not gonna happen, so I'm not terribly sympathetic to her cause.

Of course, I was also pretty diligent about signing up for classes, so I guess I lack empathy on that front as well.

This doesn't bode well for my future as an academic. :-/

Anonymous said...

I think it has to do with maturity as well. I remember being a young and naive undergrad student (just two years ago). I think most young people, like myself, think we are special and entitled. Well, this sentiment quickly wore off when I entered the real world and learned my place as another member of the herd.

I'm going through a similar process of trying to get into a professor's research group for graduate school. The professor isn't famous or well known in the field, but the research coincides exactly with what I want to do. The professor is having me write out my purpose, goals, and what I would do if I were to plan my own project.

I put in a good faith effort to truthfully outline my motivations and desires, but without resorting to grovelling or whining. Part of me believes in existentialism, where if it is meant to be it is meant to be. The other part of me believes in egotism, and that if I have to work this hard just to get in the group, how hard is it going to be the next 4 to 5 years.

Anonymous said...

At my institution, instructors have no control over the waitlist, and cannot help people jump the line. That is run by registration and completely out of their control.

Anonymous said...

It's not just students -- I saw the same thing happen on a student-run career fair.

One company that usually attended had a reorganization resulting in them not registering for the career fair until after it was full, and they were put on the waitlist as usual. They didn't like this and called an associate dean, who started putting unethical pressure on the students to cheat the waitlist for this company. In the end the students worked up a way to include X more booths and thus admitted the first X companies off the waitlist, which happened to include the company in question. Everyone seemed happy.

Two days before the career fair, we got one of the strangest phone calls I've ever heard -- a woman said that she would really really like to have a space at the career fair, and the associate dean mentioned previously said she should call. I immediately took down all the standard registration information and explained the waitlist policy. She repeated that she really wanted to attend, and Associate Dean said she should call. I said of course we would do everything possible to accommodate her and call her the minute her turn on the waitlist came up, but our limited space was fully allocated. She sounded confused and asked who else she could speak to, because ASSOCIATE DEAN told her to call. I assured her she was speaking to the office in charge of registration and we would do everything possible, but registration had been full and waitlisted for months. I also said there was still hope, as we tended to get a number of last-minute cancellations. She asked several more times if she could speak to someone else, because ASSOCIATE DEAN told her to call. I told her she was speaking to the highest authority available, since I was the president of my organization. This got several more repetitions of, "but Associate Dean said you would help me," to which I cheerfully assured her that we would do our absolute best and let her know as soon as her turn came up on the waitlist. She tried saying ASSOCIATE DEAN a few more times and then gave up.

Um, hello, we were an honor society. We weren't about to start waitlist cheating just because someone lost paperwork or wanted to throw power trips.