Staying on course

We Ephs are privileged to suffer relatively little red tape in comparison to other colleges and universities, and for better or for worse, the red tape that we do have is primarily self-imposed. The benefit of it being self-imposed can be seen in the restructuring of the housing system. Long one of our hallowed institutional pillars of College administrative inefficiency, a title shared by mainstays such as the fellowships office, career counseling and the Office of Student Life in general, is changing for the better by innovatively adopting straightforward policies instead of nonsensical ones. There still is plenty of red tape to clean up, however. The study abroad office is a perfect example, which requires students to jump through all sorts of hoops to study abroad while all they should have to do is be accepted to an approved study abroad program. Indeed, the study abroad office even employs its own dean to hold up the hoops to jump through. For many of you, the introductory study abroad meeting may have been the first time you heard of the “hyphen rule.”

The hyphen rule treats two semester-long courses as one, year-long “hyphenated course” and in doing so, requires you to take both semesters of the course to receive credit. This means that if you take one semester of a hyphenated course, you must take the second semester to receive credit for your first semester. When studying abroad, students are required to study the language of the country they are studying in. If that language has a hyphenated introductory course, then students must study that language while abroad and while at Williams to receive credit. The reasoning is that some courses are conceived to take a whole year to cover all of their material. A hyphenated course may cover a year’s worth of content or may involve skills like language that require more than a semester to achieve proficiency. Breaking the course in two would be contrary to the course objectives, so the hyphen rule works to discourage that. The name comes from the hyphenated course number, which combines the first and second semester course numbers. For instance, “Aspects of Western Art” has ARTH 101-102 as its course number, and “Introductory French Language and Francophone Culture” has RLFR 101-102. It’s a useful organizing principle for coursework and may facilitate professors’ teaching objectives.

At first, this seems to make sense. After all, no one has ever mastered a language or the canon of art history in one semester. But then, no one has ever mastered any subject after one semester. That’s what departmental majors and graduate school are for. Academic departments should not be imposing their pedagogies on non-majors. If professors feel that hyphenated courses are crucial for participation in their disciplines, then they should make them requirements for students who wish to participate in their disciplines. No one can criticize that.

This is really a story about a few subjects privileging themselves over others. I can’t imagine that our computer science department would have the extraordinary growth in participation that it is currently experiencing if there were a hyphenated introductory computer science course. I am an art history major, but I must admit that “Aspects of Western Art” gets by as a hyphenated course largely due to the attractiveness of the topic. Languages are similarly privileged because of the importance our culture places on language learning. Further, by forcing participation in another course amidst a student’s limited schedule, these subjects are privileging themselves at the expense of participation in other subjects.

The hyphen rule is an unnecessary restriction on students. Students take four or five courses each semester, most taking four. A hyphenated course therefore represents a significant fraction of an average student’s four-year course-load. Deciding to take a hyphenated course is not something that students take lightly. Right now, we are in the thick of spring preregistration. Some of you, like me, have probably spent a good deal of time glaring with frustration at an obstinate PeopleSoft course registration page. We face the difficult task of cobbling together a schedule of four or five non-time-conflicting classes that satisfy our personal interests, goals, distribution requirements and for the forward thinking, career aspirations. If you’re experienced, you’re probably crosschecking every decision with Factrak to seek out the great professors and avoid the objectively bad ones. If you’re an upperclassman, you may be practicing the regular fortune-telling ritual: mixing past course catalogs with gut instinct to predict the course offerings of your remaining semesters in order to avoid throwing your major requirements further off track than they already are. There are innumerable variables that we must fight to keep under control.

All in all, these are difficulties that should be expected in any large-scale course registration system. Matching thousands of students to their desired and appropriate classes is not easy. Of course, we definitely don’t have it as bad as state schools with many more thousands of students and a growing number of five-year degrees, so any critique comes from a place of privilege. Nevertheless, there are some great opportunities for improvement and reconsidering the “hyphen rule” would be an important place to start.

Benjamin Eastburn ’15 is an art history and computer science double major from Palo Alto, Calif. He is studying abroad in Rome.


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