Saturday, April 14, 2007

Course Renumbering And Chaos

The numbers assigned to courses in most departments often make very little sense. This circumstance arises over time as new courses are added and older less relevant courses are dropped. Thus, as a result of a fairly natural and organic processes, there are almost always anomalies in the course numbering system. It is also the case that, as course number assignment is usually done at the departmental level, there is little rhyme or reason with respect to course numbers between departments.

Such a slightly chaotic system might see problematic, but usually is not. People eventually learn the quirks of such a system. What causes real trouble though is when a proposal arises to 'rationalise' the course numbers. It is my contention that all such efforts should be strongly resisted at all costs.

Those who propose rationalising course numbers usually fall into one of two categories. A program to 'fix' course numbering will sometimes be proposed by recently appointed department heads, when they are in the 'new broom' mode. It provides them a means of appearing to be changing things and getting things done. The other category of persons who are likely to advocate changing course numbers are deadwood faculty, looking desperately for something vaguely useful to put on their faculty reports. This latter category of person often advocates this kind of thing when they wish to angle for a promotion. It provides them with an almost limitless excuse to write memos, hold meetings, prepare draft proposals. In other words, it can be a source of unending 'busywork'.

The arguments offered for these rationalisation programs are often of the kind that appear utterly compelling to Provosts, Deans and other administrative types, who have lost touch with the realities of teaching. Such programs are offered as a means of simplifying things for students. It is also sometimes claimed that the proposed new system will suddenly be rendered consistent with some other institution's system.

I have lived through quite a few of these course renumbering programs. The result of them is always the same: Utter chaos and confusion! No matter how good the arguments sound, they should always be resisted, for this reason.

The problem with changing course numbers is that everyone already knows the old idiosyncratic system. Although renumbering effots are usually accompanied by a flurry of announcements and explanations, these usually have little effect. Too many memos, be they paper, or by e-mail, or both, on the same topic end up going unread. Also, it is common for an initial memo to then require subsequent clarification, or emendation, thereby increasing to overall level of confusion.

The problem is that people are used to the old system, so they tend to default to it. The vast array of forms that need to be updated, means that there are always some oversights.

We had a recent example of course renumbering zealotry. A department that taught a series of courses, that are mandatory for a large number of students renumbered their courses, as part of a complex scheme, which really had as a goal reducing the amount of time faculty had to spend teaching. The course renumbering was part of the complex smoke screen developed to obscure the real goals. For many years now, the mandatory courses ran 101, 201, 203. Although this was not entirely rational, at least everybody knew the system. However, after the changes, the mandatory courses run 101, 102, 203. The result of this change? Chaos!

What really happens when courses get renumbered? Well, students enroll in the wrong classes for a couple of semesters, thereby slowing graduations. Faculty advisers mis-advise students, due to habit and the confusion caused by the various memos and e-mails. Department main offices get besieged by phone calls, as people try and make sense of the new system. There is also usually a great deal of what might be termed 'collateral damage'. The carefully developed tables of course equivalencies with other institutions have to be changed. Also, other institutions usually fail to get all the memos and thus, students end up being denied transfer credit, until the new system is understood.

The point here is simple. No matter how passionate and compelling the arguments made in favor of renumbering courses, they should always be resisted. This is, unless of course, for some perverse reason one should be a fan of causing institutional chaos and dysfunction. You have been warned!

The CP


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