Mathisson’s Course Registration Criticisms Lack Appreciation for Liberal Arts Education Benefits

 I am both a first-year and an international student, which means that I am constantly wondering about the value of my Oberlin education. The value to my personal development, academic goals, co-curricular interests, and — most importantly — to my parents’ wallets. Course selection is, therefore, of the utmost importance, because the first metric in my understanding of the benefit I gain from attending Oberlin is my satisfaction with the classes I attend. 

Last week, Student Senator and College second-year David Mathisson wrote about his “multifaceted policy package to fix course selection,” in an article titled “Course Registration Issues Remain Unaddressed” (The Oberlin Review, Nov. 8, 2019) and I couldn’t help but wonder: Why? I wasn’t just puzzled by the relevance of the article – considering the publication of a nearly identical piece this past April (“We Need to Fix Course Registration — Here’s How,” The Oberlin Review, April 12, 2019) — but more importantly, I was perplexed by the concepts it identifies as problematic. 

Course selection is a crucial aspect of a college student’s life — the only higher priority is actually putting your maximum effort into getting the most out of your classes. Essentially, dedicating a significant amount of time to planning and determining your classes before registration is not only a necessity, but advantageous in the long run. Now, I’ve only been through the course registration process twice at Oberlin, but I can say that setting aside the time to research, meet professors, and discuss the class well ahead of time greatly reduces the anxiety associated with registration. The crux of the matter is that meticulous planning is essential. It is important to identify the academic goals you would like to achieve in the semester in conjunction with the graduation requirements. A breakdown of individual requirements is easily accessible on the Degree Works for Students portal through OberView. 

Making the effort to plan ahead before registration begins actually allows students to use consent to their advantage. The process of getting consent to take a course represents two things: asserting your genuine interest in the course based on prior meetings with the instructor and your advisor, and guaranteeing your spot in the class. If you’ve never met the professor — or even made the effort to find out their office hours — and resort exclusively to an email, the professor likely will not reciprocate with as much urgency as you would like. 

However, planning ahead of time and building rapport with the professor over an in-person meeting can greatly benefit your experience through registration and add-drop. Not only can you clarify any doubts or concerns you may have about the course, but you could also get access to the syllabus. Consent offers professors the opportunity to design academic environments suited to their own and the students’ strengths, ensuring maximum benefit for all. The process may seem tedious, but by the end of it, can genuinely help curb certain anxieties about classes and the semester ahead of you. 

Even in situations where consent isn’t required, interacting directly with your professors prior to registration can be helpful. You can gain insight into the professor you plan to spend an entire semester with, while simultaneously acquainting them with the level of zeal you could bring to the classroom. As a habit, emailing your professors before classes start can be a great segue into your classroom interactions, inevitably creating a more comfortable space for both of you. 

Further, your academic advisor provides a significant support system throughout course registration. If your first advising meeting regarding course selection is preceded by significant effort on your part, the next steps become easier. The system isn’t broken; it just needs to be worked with in the way it was designed to be.

Therefore, the premise of David’s article is already flawed. Consent can be beneficial when navigated properly, and placing an ultimatum on professors to “accept and consent students in before the first course selection time opens or guarantee every applicant a spot,” would be counterproductive and detrimental to the academic environment Oberlin holds so dear. 

The proposed alternative is replacing consent with “broad and inclusive” prerequisites. Ignoring the oxymoronic nature of Mathisson’s definition of prerequisites, getting rid of them altogether would give rise to a new and arguably more problematic situation. Prerequisites serve as barriers to entry, which means that students who lack definitive experience but want to challenge themselves in a rational way would be excluded from that opportunity. Most classes at the 400-level inherently require prerequisites, so those barriers are intuitive and logical. However, while many 200- and some 300-level courses may not require the same exclusivity, they could stand to benefit from a specialized base of interests. According to The Oberlin College Strategic Plan 2016—2021, the College is dedicated to “institutional transformation through an inclusive approach to academic and musical excellence.” This form of pedagogy could give students the opportunity to engage with classes they don’t necessarily meet the requirements for, and is a crucial aspect of the wholesome development of a student. Not to mention that logistically, verifying each student’s qualifications for a particular course before registration begins would be far more tedious than systematically gauging their level of interest, and would therefore take longer and add another level of bureaucracy to the system Mathisson is criticizing for already being too drawn out.

The third point in Mathisson’s policy calls for either the removal or reduction of general graduation and major requirements. It is difficult to attribute any gravity to this argument for two reasons: That people continue to graduate each year having met the requirements is proof of their feasibility, and the thoroughness of Oberlin’s curriculum is its greatest strength. 

Replacing a deep, meaningful range of academic experiences with convenience would be antithetical to the purpose of higher education. Already, some classes fill three or more institutional requirements, in addition to Oberlin-specific benefits such as not having to take general education requirements like Writing 100 or Chemistry 101. 

Further, to address the contention regarding attribution of Natural Sciences and Mathematics credits for Economics courses — each course in the Economics department already fulfills equally-important Quantitative and Formal Reasoning and Social Science requirements. The characterization of the institution as one that doesn’t trust its students is both unfounded and too illogical to be taken seriously. The idea that our agency is compromised by a system designed to push us to experience a range of intellectual stimuli is entirely absurd, not to mention childish in its understanding of agency and liberal arts.

One of our top priorities as college students is having access to a high quality education that equips us with the tools necessary for intellectual and professional growth. The rigor that goes with that need cannot be substituted for a more convenient path. I find comfort in knowing that Oberlin aims to facilitate a challenging academic environment with the intent of providing a holistic college experience. My request to Mathisson would be to stop pushing a package that wrongfully characterizes that approach to pedagogy, and that inflates its own importance by offering solutions to a perfectly functional and equitable status quo.