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For All We Pay, They Still Can't Schedule

Column by Matt Neimark

I think I've gotten over most of my gripes about MIT: relentless professors who pretend that their subject is the only one you're taking, dull classes filled with uninquisitive students, brutal winters filled with dirty snow you have to trudge through to get to classes, and, of course, socially inept classmates. Yes, I've gotten used to this place, and I might even say that I like it.

There is one thing about MIT that I have not accepted and will never accept: The fact that it is so difficult to schedule classes every term. MIT is a private university and we as students pay over $10,000 per term. Furthermore, to fulfill the graduation requirements, we have to take many specific courses, some of which are only offered every other term. Is it too much to ask MIT to have enough sections offered at a variety of different time slots to accommodate us?

Now many freshmen are thinking, "Time slots? I've had no scheduling problems this term." That's because lectures in freshman classes like Calculus (18.02), Physics I (8.01), and Principles of Chemical Science (5.11) are deliberately spaced so that there is low probability of conflict. And when a conflict exists, an extra lecture is added to accommodate these students. There are so many recitations, you will always be able to find one that does not conflict. And the only lotteries freshmen have encountered have probably been with Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences Distribution classes, where a computer-based lottery system on the Athena Computing Environment has been implemented so students know right away whether they are in or not.

While the HASS-D lottery represents an improvement, there remains the problem of limited enrollment. Just check the registration booklet. No HASS section can have more than 25 students and often when one is dealing with a popular professor or a class to fulfill the Phase I or II Writing Requirement, twice that number of people might register for and attend the first class.

Take a typical term for junior or senior year. You've finished all your HASS-Ds but are still working on finishing that concentration, which is Spanish. So while pre-registering for classes, you look for Spanish classes in the registration schedule. Spanish conversation looks good, but it conflicts with Thermodynamics and Kinetics (5.60), which you need to graduate and there's only one section. All the other upper-level Spanish classes also conflict.

Maybe you can take a writing class - you have always enjoyed writing, and miracle of miracles, one of the three sections of Writing and Experience does not conflict with anything else. So next term you attend the first class. There are 40 people crammed into the room, and you don't even have a place to sit. The instructor explains that there is going to be a lottery, but first asks if there are any second term seniors in the class. The class satisfies Phase I and - believe or not - there are at least 30 second term seniors who have still not passed Phase I! So it's already a week into the term and you have to find another HASS.

One of the biggest problems with scheduling is classes that start or end on the half hour. Fitting these into a midday schedule causes unbelievable grief since the extra 30 minutes are very likely to occur during another class you want to take. MIT could solve many students' scheduling woes by requiring that all classes begin and end on the hour.

The Institute could hire more instructors so that more sections could be added to popular classes. Of course MIT does not have the money to do this, but there are many HASS classes offered here that are vastly undersubscribed and get canceled anyway. Perhaps by removing some of these sections, more sections could be added to oversubscribed HASS courses.

Another solution would be to simply lower the HASS graduation requirements. Classes wouldn't be so oversubscribed, and lotteries would not be as much of a problem. While there is likely to be little change, it seems that something ought to be done to ease our registration hassles.