Thursday, December 31, 2009

Solving More Mysteries from the Enrollments

I've emailed thousands (ok, hundreds, but it seems like thousands) of students in 100-level math classes with assorted announcements about prerequisites, corequisites, placement scores, and general reminders about which courses can be taken for credit in which combinations. Merely based on reading the information in the catalog, it's hard for some students to tell which math classes they should take -- especially since some of them are confusingly titled*. But the catalog requires everything to be in tables of text and will not allow a directed graph that shows the dependencies of math classes.

So I was emailing the College Algebra students. You can't get credit for College Algebra if you have passed any higher numbered course with a C or better (with a minor exception for a crazy-low-level course with a high course number that hasn't been offered in years). Stu writes back telling me that he's taking the courses out of order and isn't sure what he should do. I ask more and find out Stu's story.

Stu placed into Calculus Lite in the fall and took Calculus Lite and passed it. At the time Stu was unsure about a major. This was a good choice for someone who is unsure about a major. Calculus Lite will count (possibly with a petition, but a petition likely to be approved) for just about every major except math, physics, chemistry, biology, geology, computer science, and all the various flavors of engineering.

In the meantime, Stu has picked a major. Stu's new major is one of those types of fields that has the same name as a job, not the same name as an academic subject. In fact, one of the features of this job is dealing with information and communicating it clearly to other people.

Stu was reading the catalog copy, apparently written by faculty members in this field, and it lists the courses required for this major. Score one for Stu, as Calculus Lite is required of Stu's new major, so he didn't waste his time taking a higher math than the bare minimum necessary to graduate. The catalog also says that this major requires College Algebra and Math for Business. You can not take Math for Business unless you have a high enough placement score (same score as required for Calculus Lite) or have passed College Algebra. If you have passed Math for Business (or Calculus Lite or any number of other courses) with a C or better, you can not take College Algebra. The catalog entry for Stu's major does not explain that whether or not one takes College Algebra is based on one's placement scores and/or math background. It just says that the class is required.

So Stu signed up for College Algebra. Our system will let Stu sign up, even though he has passed Calculus Lite. It just won't let him get credit upon completion of the course. This really would be a waste of his time. Stu and I emailed back and forth, and he pointed me to his new major's confusing list of requirements. He's really worried that he can't take College Algebra for credit because it is Required Of His Major ZOMG!!! I told Stu to talk to an advisor in his major when the university reopens after New Years and to sort things out with an advisor.

In about a year our registration pendulum will swing the other way. We are replacing our homebrew registration system written by the registrar's crack team of software engineers and database managers with Banner. And Banner has been promised to Solve All Problems and also to Enforce All Restrictions with a ruthlessness reminiscent of Brazil and the works of Franz Kafka. And I will go from being the person who tells everyone "no" to the one who overrides the system to say "yes."

*For example, our "precalculus" course is designed to prepare students to take Real Calculus. Students preparing to take Calculus Lite have no reason to take precalculus. But one might legitimately assume that if one's major requires calculus, that one should start out in precalculus.