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Teaching by the Rules

The MIT faculty has a practice each semester of violating its own rules governing schedules for classes, exams, and end-of-term assignments. The tremendous workload that students face has become part of the MIT mystique, but this is no excuse for ignoring scheduling rules that the faculty itself voted into existence. Because the faculty refuse to combat the problem, students have been thrust into the difficult role of policy enforcers. This is unacceptable, and the new chair of the faculty, Lotte S. Bailyn, must take the lead on solving this problem now.

The faculty established the rules on schedules for a good reason: to prevent students from being overburdened by the work in any one class. But every semester, as previous chairs of the faculty such as Professor of Urban Studies and Planning Lawrence S. Bacow '72 can attest to, professors commit dozens upon dozens of violations of the rules: 12-unit classes whose workloads go well beyond 12 hours a week; classes that meet during the 5 to 7 p.m. block that is off-limits for undergraduate subjects; professors who schedule night exams during the term and who refuse to cancel a problem set or a class session; classes that require a presentation, final paper, and exam during the last week of classes; recitations and end-of-term problem sets that are "optional" but students have to do if they want to learn the material; blanket extensions on assignments far into finals week.

Some professors commit some of these violations under the guise of doing students a favor by giving them extra time on assignments or extra class time to learn material. Others give more work in their classes as a matter of competition - to force students view their course as seriously as they view their other classes. Still other professors, as Bacow noted in a Faculty Newsletter piece last semester about this issue, let students vote to break the rules, apparently under the notion that students can override faculty rules when it suits class scheduling needs.

Stamping out this behavior is a question of faculty discipline. Students should not be put in the awkward position of choosing between telling professors what to do, filing complaints behind their backs, or just remaining silent. Ideally, students could protest en masse by complaining openly or by simply not doing the work, but in practice, the fear of bad grades keeps students divided. The bottom line is that the faculty set out the rules that prohibit the violations. It's the faculty's job to stick to the rules and enforce them.

The larger issue here is the way professors structure their classes in the first place. Many faculty pay lip service to the cliche that MIT students are overburdened with work, but few are actually willing to change the amount of work they require in their classes. Courses like Circuits and Electronics (6.002), Introduction to Experimental Biology (7.02), Integrated Chemical Engineering I and II (10.490 and 10.491), and Unified Engineering I to IV (16.10, 16.20, 16.30, and 16.40) are notorious for massive workloads that go far beyond the units assigned to them.

Professors often take for granted the fact that they have a certain amount of material to teach in a term and that they can require any number of classes, assignments, and exams to cover that material. Although course content may change from year to year, professors don't necessarily alter the volume of work in their classes. Many assignments require mindless grunge that takes hours to work through and teaches students little. Professors should be making a serious effort to evaluate how classes can be taught more effectively. Making workloads more manageable while teaching students the same or more should be a primary goal.

The faculty should deal with these problems now. Bailyn in particular should take the lead on solving the rules violation problems. She is, after all, the one who will have to write the endless number of e-mails to professors breaking the rules once students start complaining. Either way, she certainly has her work cut out for her during her tenure as chair of the faculty.