Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Rule Stupidity

Note: Update 1 Below

I thought I'd give my readers a STOC-break and discuss beginning-of-the-semester frustration with a stupid Harvard rule.

Setup: Math 123 (2nd semester algebra) and CS 124 (my algorithms/data structures course) are at the same time this year. Both are important prereq courses for many other courses. There are a small number of joint Math/CS majors, who, naturally, really want to take both. (They're both only offered spring semester.)

Now, since my class is recorded and put online for the Harvard Extension School -- usually now within 24 hours -- and Harvard students are given access to all these videos, this wouldn't seem to be a problem. The students take both classes and just watch the videos for mine. Is it ideal? Of course not. But it's better than making them wait a year to take one of these important classes. I do have Teaching Assistants and sections and office hours and TA office hours and all class notes online and such so they do have resources besides the recording. There are other details -- arranging final exams, for instance -- but I (and the math professor) have expressed our willingness to deal with that.

The administration says no.

Apparently, the rules on the books for "simultaneous enrollments" (taking two classes at the same time) won't allow for recorded lectures, and despite my plea for an exception in this clearly suitable case, the rule is, apparently, the rule.

Except (as I've also informed the rule-enforcing-body) it's really not. Because in this case the students will simply sign up for an independent study with me, CS91r, and have the content of their independent study be the class CS 124. This is less than ideal for everybody -- the students don't get proper credit for the course they're taking, I don't get the TA-resources associated with the students, and there's more paperwork for everyone. But it seems clear to me (and, apparently, the students, who asked me to do this) that this is in the students' best interest, so that's what I'll do.

But still, the rule-enforcing body says, the rule's the rule, and they'll enforce it.

I'm sending them all a link to this post so they can defend themselves if they choose. Feel free to comment with your own stories of stupid rule enforcement at your university...

Update 1:

I'm happy to say that I've had further conversations with the powers-that-be, and I think we've come up with a mutually acceptable interpretation of the rules that will allow the students to register for the class. I have to thank the powers-that-be for working with me, and on reflection, it undoubtedly wasn't because I got angry about it, but simply because I was consistent in asking if there was some kind of solution. It's still got to pass through a vote of a committee, but I'm optimistic, and I certainly feel they listened to my concerns -- which doesn't always happen with a bureaucracy!


mollishka said...

MIT had no problem letting undergrads sign up for two classes that met at the same time. If you flunked one because you weren't going to lectures or had exams at the exactsametime, well, that's your own damn fault.

Anonymous said...

The Philosophy department at Unicamp, Brazil, doesn’t allow undergraduate students from other departments to sign up for graduate classes. As graduate mathematical logic classes (introduction to mathematical logic, logic and category theory, introduction to set theory, computability, non-classical logics, model theory) are given by the Philosophy department, interested undergrads usually attend to the classes without getting proper credits.

Anonymous said...

Although it's probably too late now, it might have been best to just not inform the administration and hope they didn't realize that the students were signing up for conflicting classes. Now that this might not be possible, have you considered just repeatedly bothering the administration until they give up and change their mind? Most people are reasonable, and even if they say "No" the first (and second) time around, if you talk to them long enough (and have a convincing argument) then most rules are circumventable.

foreach timeslot: assert(num_classes_in_timeslot <= 1); said...

you know, the "rule" is probably a consequence of the scheduling/registration software that wouldn't let a student register for two classes at the same time -- an "integrity check" that someone probably implemented before the days of video classes and such...

i.o.w., your own version of y2k

now if this becomes a big issue, harvard and others will pay some software consultancy firm lot of money to identify and fix this kind of holes in the system... and thus software continues to be a self-sustaining industry :-)

Anonymous said...

the Harvard students also have the option to take one the two classes at MIT (through cross-registering). schedule conflicts is a good enough reason to motivate cross-registration, if i remember correctly. this is of course sub-optimal (because of commute), but still an option.


Anonymous said...

forgot to mention: presumably, this is NOT what H administration wants to be happening. by having H undergrads cross-register at MIT for fundamental classes, the administration is losing money, at least indirectly (and, IMHO, reputation).


Anonymous said...

But will CS91r satisfy the same prerequisite requirements as CS124?

adamo said...

So, why don't you try and find out what it takes to change the rule?

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Various comments on comments:

0) Post was updated -- looks like an agreement can be found!

1) I don't mind that they have a rule that discourages students from doing this -- I just think this is a clear case where an exception can be made (given a suitable interpretation of the rules).

2) They were always going to notice -- they have computers that check things like that -- but no, I don't think it costs anything to tell the computer this is an exception.

3) Taking it as CS91r would have been fine as far as a "prereq" for other classes; prereqs are suggested, not mandatory, for classes here.

4) Adamo -- I'm just assuming you have no idea what goes into changing a "faculty rule". I admit, I have very little idea, but the little I know suggests it's not worth my time and effort if another path can be found.

adamo said...

"Adamo -- I'm just assuming you have no idea what goes into changing a "faculty rule".

I definitely do not. But if you want an exception to be accepted it is usually easier if you make it part of the rule :)