Golan Levin and Collaborators

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“Oh no! I’m on your waitlist!”

10 August 2008 / pedagogy

Around this time of year I frequently receive emails from anxious Carnegie Mellon students who have tried to register for my courses, but have found themselves on the waitlist instead. It’s an understandably stressful situation for these students, who want to resolve their semester schedules and may have a strong desire to take my class. Since I have found myself responding with the same advice again and again, I have decided to offer this brief blog post as a resource to which I can point such students in the future. Thus, to put you at ease: here are

Some facts and advice for my waitlisted CMU students

1. Non-Art majors are automatically waitlisted. The first thing you need to know is that being on the waitlist doesn’t necessarily mean that the official roster for my course is even full! Indeed, one semester, I had only 3 students registered for a course, but 14 students on the waitlist, all hoping to get into a class with a total capacity of 19 seats. (This is especially common for my intermediate and advanced classes, such as “The Interactive Image”, “Audiovisual Systems and Machines”, and “Information Visualization as a Mode of Art Practice”.) This unfortunate situation is the result of an administrative policy of the CMU School of Art, which automatically puts all non-Art-majors onto the waitlist. As it happens, a significant percentage of the students interested in my courses hail from other areas, like Computer Science, Design, HCII, Robotics, Engineering, Architecture, and Music, etcetera. If your major is in one of these departments, you’ll be automatically shunted to the waitlist regardless of whether or not my class is actually full. (Special note to BCSA students transferring over from CS: it may take a few additional months before your new departmental status is recognized by the course registration system, thus you may also encounter this problem.)

2. A registration “cold-war” artificially fluffs both the roster and waitlist. I’d like to believe that my courses have such long waitlists because I’m such a great teacher :) But the main reason my waitlists are so long is that there’s no penalty or constraint keeping students from registering for multiple simultaneous courses! There’s a “cold-war”-style logic in effect here – in which an anxious student attempts to register for four different classes that all take place during the same time slot, because she doesn’t know which course she’ll actually get in to, or whether or not she’ll get into the course she “really” wants. Because my courses are often cross-listed in multiple departments, I’ve even seen situations where a single student is waitlisted more than once. Since many of the other students are similarly hedging their chances, the rosters and waitlists become much larger than reality – in other words, the sum of waitlisted students is more than twice as large as the number of actual students! The main effect of all this is that the bulk of waitlisted students (and even some of the officially-registered ones) never show up to my classes at all, because they were actually more interested in some other class the whole time. Yup: my class was just a “backup”, and there are suddenly plenty of available seats.

3. My courses are challenging, time-consuming, and many students drop. A surprisingly large number of students register for my courses – taking roster seats away from waitlisted students – only to drop the class after two weeks because they weren’t expecting or seeking such a significant workload. Other students drop my classes because they had imagined the class would be something different, and didn’t realize the coursework would actually involve …writing software. Of course, the unfortunate effect of this is that the waitlisted students who are genuinely interested in the course are denied seats by the disinterested students who will eventually drop out. One semester, my “Audiovisual Systems” class began with 20 students on the roster, and another 23 on the waitlist; only 19 of these students showed up on the first day – and the semester ended with just 9 students. That’s a 4:1 reduction!

So if I’m waitlisted, what should I do?

Here is some “secret” advice. If you are serious about taking one of my courses, show up on the first day at the very start of class. Then show up on the second day. Then keep showing up no matter what, and do all of the assignments on time. I know: sounds obvious, right? In my four years of teaching at CMU, I have never yet had to turn away a waitlisted student who was demonstrably interested, punctual, and hardworking.

Please note that this statement is not a guarantee that I will register all waitlisted students. But it is a statement of fact that I’ve almost never had to actively turn away a waitlisted student who followed the above recommendations.*

Finally, a plea. The only way we’ll ever break the wait-list “cold war” at CMU is if students rein in the paranoid behavior of over-registering. So please: If you’re on my roster or waitlist, and you’re not really interested in the course, do a favor to your waitlisted peers, and relinquish your spot.

*As a point of fact, I have on occasion turned away waitlisted students who came late to the first class, missed any of the first few sessions, and/or missed assignments in the first few weeks. And while we’re on the subject: if you show up an hour late to the first day of class, it’s a good way of broadcasting that my course wasn’t your first choice ;)

Can I audit your course instead?

Sorry, no; I don’t allow auditing. It’s not fair to the students who are doing all the work.

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