University News

When students shop, professors have the last word

By
News Editor
Monday, September 28, 2009

As students crammed into a second-floor classroom in J. Walter Wilson last Monday, Associate Professor of History Michael Vorenberg started his seminar with an apology.
Though Banner had allowed 20 students to pre-register for his class — HIST 1970H: “American Legal and Constitutional History, 1780-1920” — there was a snafu. Banner was supposed to require Vorenberg’s written permission to join the class, but the system had not enforced that restriction.

Because of the mistake, Vorenberg said, prior registration on Banner would not assure anyone a spot going forward. Vorenberg e-mailed pre-registered students about the problem before the class to notify them, he said, but some students later informed him that they did not receive the message.

The glitch in registering for the class “really wasn’t a Banner problem,” Vorenberg explained in an e-mail, adding that he was not sure where the error occurred. He guessed there was some miscommunication between the Office of the Registrar and him or the Department of History.

As rare as such situations might be, the University does not have a set protocol for dealing with them. Vorenberg, for his part, told the students assembled that day that prioritizing the class list based on seniority, concentration and other factors was within his purview as the professor. 

However, the ambiguity can be problematic.

“Students who thought they were in the course because Banner said they were, and then they heard from me that they weren’t in it, they might well be frustrated,” Vorenberg wrote in his e-mail.

Over the two-week shopping period at the start of each semester, professors can exercise considerable discretion over the enrollment in their classes, including attendance requirements, how and when to enforce course caps and when Banner registration closes. The process can cause uncertainty for students.

The registrar’s office consults with departments between each December and again the following March to ensure that they put the correct restrictions in place on Banner for the coming academic year, according to University Registrar Michael Pesta. Professors or department managers fill out a sheet that describes each class and can check boxes regarding which restrictions they want on the class.

Professors and their departments determine most of the rules of shopping period, administrators said. But balancing professors’ control over their classes and students’ freedom under the New Curriculum is a “back and forth” exchange, Pesta said.
“The Brown curriculum says that you are the architect of your education,” he said. “So it’s not going to require that you take certain courses.”

But the word “shopping” is a misleading term, Pesta said. The design of the period is not meant to make the first two weeks of each semester a “free-for-all,” he said.
So what freedoms does shopping period guarantee students?

“The student has the right to look at as many courses as he or she can,” said Deputy Dean of the College Stephen Lassonde.

However, successful pre-registration on Banner is “not a guarantee” of future enrollment, Lassonde said. Though “every student can make his or her case,” he said, the professor has the last word regarding who is enrolled in the class.

In Vorenberg’s class, students — at least those who ultimately got in — seemed satisfied that he had exercised his discretion fairly. But even if a pre-registered student had felt unfairly ejected, he would have little recourse.

If a student is enrolled via Banner, but the professor is unwilling to allow him or her into the class, the student could ask the Dean of the College’s office for advice about approaching the professor. However, final enrollment decisions are left up to faculty.

Though there is no means for a professor to “unregister” a student on Banner for failing to meet his requirements, the professor can issue the student a “No Credit” or “Missing” grade, which eventually becomes an “NC,” according to Lassonde. Like other grades of “NC,” the mark only shows up on a student’s internal academic record, not the official transcript.

My class, my rules
Among the many requirements professors can enforce, one of the more common is attendance. In some courses, for instance, students are required to attend the first three class meetings.

This occasional restriction makes sense, Pesta said. Some professors like to start teaching the  material immediately, Pesta added, and they don’t want students falling behind.
Some professors like to limit shopping-period chaos by requiring instructor’s permission to register for the class. This helps restrict unfettered access before shopping period officially ends.

Besides avoiding overwhelming shopping periods, finalizing enrollments also allows departments to correctly allocate TAs and gives the registrar’s office a chance to find a different-sized room for the class, if necessary, Pesta said.

Clay Wertheimer ’10, president of the Undergraduate Council of Students, said closing Banner registration early is “detrimental” to shopping period. He understands professors’ concerns, he said, but thinks they can “find a balance” of starting class material and allowing students some freedom to attend different classes early in shopping period.

Lassonde said he understands students’ concerns about some classes’ attendance requirements, but thinks the function of shopping period is not greatly harmed as long as only a few professors implement such policies.

Sammy Feldblum ’12 took a Spanish-language class in which the instructor required attendance of the first three classes, preventing him from shopping a poetry class he was considering. He said it wasn’t clear why certain professors had such attendance policies.
“There’s no special reason, really, why Spanish classes should be treated like that while others shouldn’t,” Feldblum said.

Jack Murphy ’11 wanted to take a creative writing class that had a requirement to attend the first three classes, but he missed the first meeting. He went to the rest of the classes, however, and convinced the professor to allow him to enroll by submitting a writing sample and letting the professor know he was interested in the class, he said.

When Murphy talks to professors in such situations, he said, he tries emphasize his commitment. “I’m not just some kid showing up,” he said.
 
The paperless system
Since the University changed from paper registration to Banner more than two years ago, the fundamentals of pre-registration have changed dramatically.

Before online registration, an enrollment cap on a course had no effect on a student’s ability to submit paperwork to pre-register for a class. The number of students who pre-registered and attended class during shopping period often exceeded the cap. Some students were then forced to drop the class once the semester started.

The enrollment process has become much easier for everybody since the University instituted Banner, Pesta said. But given about 4,000 sections of classes offered each school year, there are bound to be some complications.

Many students and professors had been concerned about the implications of switching from paper registration to Banner before the change was made. Vorenberg, who worked through the Banner confusion this semester, told The Herald in April 2007 he was concerned about potential technological issues with Banner.

Many of his worries about the system have since been alleviated.

“The problems that concerned me years ago about Banner turn out not to be problems,” Vorenberg wrote in his e-mail. “On balance, Banner has made my ability to administrate courses easier, not harder.”

But miscommunications and restraints on courses still present occasional challenges in the age of Banner.

“The misconception is that (Banner) solves all problems,” Lassonde said. 
The numbers game has becom
e more accurate since the adoption of Banner, but Wertheimer finds its administration of pre-registration caps problematic.

Banner should not restrict people from pre-registering due to size, he said, because doing so apportions space in classes on a first-come, first-served basis. Having a limit on a class is acceptable, Wertheimer said, but it must be enforced after students attend class and make individual cases to the professor.

“I’m comfortable leaving (caps) up to the professor, but what I don’t like is professors that are leaving that up to Banner,” he said. “Banner isn’t a professor and can’t make the qualification decisions.”

Pesta and Lassonde both said students could abuse aspects of the pre-registration process, for instance, by reserving a spot in a course just because it is limited-enrollment, not because they have a strong desire in the class itself.

But both administrators remained confident that students who really want to take a class and have fulfilled its requirements would be able to take it — at least at some point.

In the case of over-enrollment in VISA 0100: “Studio Foundation,” for example, overrides to enroll are apportioned through a lottery of all students who express an interest during pre-registration period. Those who are not allowed to pre-register through the lottery are given priority the next time it is offered, Pesta and Lassonde said. They also can attempt to register during shopping period by consulting with the professor.

Many departments also maintain wait-lists for classes, Pesta said, in case spots open up early in the semester. A professor or department manager might close a class early on Banner and offer students who have shown interest an override to join the class, instead of opening the new spot on Banner to anyone who sees the vacancy, he said.

Since there are no University-wide regulations for handling such problems, letting professors and students deal with them on a case-by-case basis is usually the optimal strategy, Pesta said.

The solutions to certain problems, he said, are “hard to answer globally.”