January 22, 2020

DERY | Return the Syllabus to Syllabus Week

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Last semester, a friend and I enrolled in the same Freshman Writing Seminar, basing our decision on a brief course description in the Class Roster. We thought little of the fact that we enrolled in different sections; after all, not much else could differ besides the professor and time slot, right? Wrong. Yet, at the time, basking in our pre-freshman innocence, we were convinced otherwise — to the point where we promised each other we would be “study-buddies” when the semester rolled around. How cute.

So, much to our surprise later that week, while my section discussed topics ranging from love to religion, his focused on the African diaspora. The only apparent commonality between our classes was the absence of any of the readings listed in the course description. And though we ended up not dropping and rather enjoying the class, the surprise we faced could easily have triggered stress over finding a new course at the eleventh hour. Had this been the case, we would’ve joined the many Cornellians faced with this challenging feat characteristic of the add period. Had we been provided a syllabus during pre-enrollment, there would never have been an issue.

Ultimately, despite the Class Roster’s numerous browse filters and almighty scheduler, our school expects us to decide whether a class is worthy of a spot in our precious eight semesters based on a three-sentence summary. Those of us who know better recognize that, at Cornell, the heavy-lifting of the class search is done outside the Class Roster.

For courses that fall within our major, the choice may be simple and natural; in these predetermined sequences, we know what to expect. But when exploring options on topics we know little about, the search can quickly devolve into judgments solely based on the professor’s Rate my Professor score, Reddit rants or the number of credits it offers. Our class search during the add-drop period is reduced to hearsay when no syllabus is offered to provide insight directly from the instructor. The solution? Providing us with syllabi before the enrollment period would relieve stress, ensure less unpleasant surprises and, in turn, lower the drop rate.

And though the Student Assembly passed a 2017 resolution whereby instructors can upload syllabi directly to the Class Roster, the implementation of this initiative is undermined by the reality that many courses still remain without a posted syllabus. Administration can no longer take a passive approach in enforcing this resolution and should instead incentivize or mandate the posting of a course’s syllabus before the start of the add period. At the very least, posting previous semesters’ syllabi would already be an improvement from the status quo where no curriculum is provided for many classes.

But it’s also time we recognize that our course search crisis transcends the syllabus. When I sift through the Reddit threads of my prospective classes and the Rate my Professor profiles of their instructors, I am not searching for a class calendar or grading break-down, but rather authentic reviews from students who took the class. So, in order for Cornell to truly take the class search back into its own hands, administration must go one step further — a step that my local University of Rochester has already taken. In addition to posting previous years’ syllabi for each course on their class roster, the previous semester’s students’ course evaluations are made available to prospective students. To account for anonymity concerns, Cornell could add a new, more concise evaluation tailored specifically towards the Class Roster that would ultimately be more helpful to students. This way, the black-and-white course synopsis written by the instructor is complemented by former student perspectives that often provide equally valid insight.

And as always, timing is of the essence. As students, we cannot afford to wait until the semester starts months after pre-enrollment to learn the nuances of a course. By then, many classes we would have otherwise enrolled in may be filled, and once again Cornellians flock to Course Grab to fight over the scraps.

Unfortunately, Cornell’s history is not on our side, as the University is no stranger to leaving students in the dark. Since 2011, Cornell no longer provides us with median scores, despite the fact that they appear on our transcripts.

Simply put, University administration cannot deprive students of all relevant course information — from curriculum to student input to grading — and then wonder why many students choose to drop. We have the right to know what to expect and what will be expected of us, and this starts with increased awareness when we select our courses.

Roei Dery is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at
rdery@cornellsun.com. The Dery Bar runs every other Thursday this semester.