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Class popularity driven by rarity of subject matter, word of mouth

Structure, meeting time, topic, capped status all affect students’ class pre-registration decisions

By
Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, April 28, 2016

Each semester, many classes from a variety of departments fill up quickly during pre-registration for the following semester — sometimes leading to packed classrooms, other times to empty seats on the first day of class. With pre-registration for the fall 2016 semester currently underway, The Herald looked into several classes that filled up during last semester’s pre-registration to see what accounts for these classes’ popularity and whether student interest was maintained after pre-registration.

For some smaller classes, seats were completely filled after seniors registered. For example, several sections of ENGL 0930: “Introduction to Creative Nonfiction” and both sections of UNIV 0400: “Beyond Narnia: The Literature of C.S. Lewis,” were filled after senior registration. Both sections of ENGN 1010: “The Entrepreneurial Process: Innovation in Practice” were full after junior registration, as was the only section of PLCY 1800: “Investigating Modes of Social Change.” PHIL 1520: “Consciousness” was filled after sophomores registered for classes.

The faculty members teaching these courses offered various explanations as to why their respective classes filled up quickly.

Timothy Flanigan, professor of medicine, has taught “Beyond Narnia,” a discussion course about the fiction writings of C.S. Lewis, for the past six years, Flanigan said. Initially, there was only one section, and “the first class was packed,” he added. “I thought the only thing stranger than a physician teaching a discussion course on C.S. Lewis was that this many Brown students signed up for it.”

Since then, the class has been filled beyond capacity every year, leading to an additional section being offered this semester, Flanigan said. Flanigan noted that the interest in his course may be due to the content and style of the class. “Lewis gives great insight into the person — this mysterious combination of mind, heart, soul and body,” he said. “People really want to grapple with that.”

Martha Rosenberg, adjunct lecturer in international and public affairs, teaches “Investigating Modes of Social Change,” which was a new course this year through the Engaged Scholars Program.

“We are living in a time of too much need for social change and heightened awareness of the importance of social change,” Rosenberg said.

“In the last 10 years, the wider culture has shown interest in consciousness,” said Christopher Hill, professor of philosophy. Hill teaches “Consciousness,” which “surveys the philosophical and scientific literatures of the last 10 or 20 years about consciousness.” There is also interest in other departments and faculty that “trickles down” to students, Hill said.

Other professors stated that the nature and reputation of a class impact student interest.

“Introduction to Creative Nonfiction” has consistently been a popular class, with around 50 to 60 people in the room on the first day of class trying to fill one of the 17 available spots, said Ed Hardy, visiting lecturer in English who teaches two sections of the class.

Lawrence Stanley, senior lecturer in English and co-director of the nonfiction writing program, noted that the popularity of “Introduction to Creative Nonfiction” is “a kind of Brown phenomenon.” The course covers a wide range of genres and is “a really good class” since it is “well-taught” and offers lively discussions, Stanley said. “Students get to experiment with their writing” and have more freedom than in other classes.

An additional factor is that all nonfiction courses are mandatory Satisfactory/No Credit, Stanley said. “We want people to work on their writing and not for a grade,” he added. “If you put grades in there, students want to know ‘what do I have to do to get an A,’ rather than ‘what do I have to do to become the best writer,’” Stanley said.

“The Entrepreneurial Process” has been taught since the spring of 2006, and demand for space in this “core course in the entrepreneurial process” is “definitely growing,” said Daniel Warshay, adjunct lecturer in engineering. “There’s typically over 100 students crammed into Wilson 301,” Warshay said, adding that the soaring interest is “flattering and rewarding.”

“Formatted like a Harvard Business School course,” the class is discussion-based. Warshay uses the Socratic method, a style of teaching that focuses on questions rather than answers, he said. One part of the class is to develop a business plan that students pitch to venture capitalists, he added.

Throughout the years, several student projects have gotten funding, leading to companies like Runa, a clean energy beverage company, and Premama, a maternity vitamin company, Warshay said. Students in “The Entrepreneurial Process” also have access to an alumni network that is valuable even after graduation, he said. “People routinely tell me that it is the hardest class they take at Brown and the one they love the most.”

In order to reduce class sizes down to the capped number of students, faculty members use various methods.

“I cold call on the first day,” Warshay said, which “chases away a number of people who aren’t up for that level of intensity.” Also, students have to send Warshay a “personal statement of objective,” telling Warshay “who they are and what they want to get out of the course” that helps to determine who is a good fit for the class, he said.

“Students are the customers,” Warshay added. “I can’t say yes to everybody, but I have never said no to anyone who is persistent and really wants to take it.”

Hardy said he uses a lottery to distribute the spots that open during shopping period, while other “Introduction to Creative Nonfiction” instructors use different methods such as writing samples.

Still, not all classes retain their popularity after pre-registration.

Forty students registered for “Investigating Modes of Social Change” during pre-registration, but currently only nine students are enrolled, Rosenberg said. The meeting time impacted the class size, since most students are deterred by an 8:30 a.m. start, she added.

Hill was surprised that his “Consciousness” class filled up during pre-registration and gave out override codes to 16 or 17 students, he said. But on the first day of class, there were only 43 students, he said. “It could be that the title sounded jazzy,” but once students saw the amount of science and the difficulty of the work in the syllabus, they changed their minds, Hill said.

Several professors noted that some classes stabilize  during shopping period because of student preferences.

“Brown students are pretty savvy about how they select their classes,” Stanley said.