The Strains of Decision

I know I’ve written very similar posts to what follows, but this is really on my mind as I watch the ‘dance of enrollment’ with a bit more focus than in the past, due to my receiving the harshly punitive sentence of being designated department chair.

I feel really clear that we have really distinctive “decision models” in play every semester as students choose their courses for the semester that I could almost model using an autonomous-agent simulation, though there’s also a complicated environment that I’d have to simulate as well.

As I watch enrollments come in and listen to students talking about their choices, I see the following really different types of enrolling agent:

1) Driven by affinity for course-specific title and subject matter. This type of student doesn’t really care very much who is teaching the class or who is taking the class. They are not interested in the department’s overall curriculum and are not interested in either prerequisites or later courses in an implied sequence except inasmuch as they pose a barrier to enrollment; this student’s choices are mostly a la carte. This student’s affinity can have different sources (sometimes the student is very aware of what has sparked their affinity, sometimes not): parental advice (or demands), previous experiences, self-image, independent reading or research.

2) Driven by affinity for particular professors and their pedagogy. This type of student doesn’t care that much what a class is about. They are not that interested in the disciplinary affiliation of their preferred professors. This student takes classes that are either taught in a way that a student prefers or with a particular individual style distinctive to the faculty in question. Generally this student has narrower information streams: either past personal experience with professors or the informal information shared between students about faculty.

3) Driven by adherence to a course of study as formally defined by departments and programs. This student wants to know what the rules are and wants to follow them largely as they are specified. Where the rules are implicit or more open-ended, this kind of student often wants advice that will turn implicit rules into explicit ones or wants open-ended choices to be foreclosed by rules or strictures imposed by the advisor. This student is often much more focused on the final certification at the end of this course of study and on outcomes that follow on graduation and receipt of that certification.

4) Driven by perceptions of difficulty and a preference in relation to those perceptions. Yes, some students are looking for courses they imagine are easier (either one such course in a tough semester or in general) though they often will not admit to such a preference that explicitly, at least not to a professor. (Which is politically canny on their part.) At Swarthmore, I see at least some students whose decision rule is the opposite: they’re looking for a course or courses in general that they perceive to be difficult, painful or challenging.

5) Driven by self-conscious whimsy. This is pretty rare, but I do run into students who are basically choosing courses as part of a performance of autonomy and non-systematic, non-compliant behavior: the main principle is to go with their first impulse and try to break any dictates or obligations they feel are being laid upon them (as far as they can while still complying with the requirements for graduation, which include completing a major).

6) Driven by antipathy to a discipline, methodology or worldview. E.g., all courses they choose are intended to attack or repudiate some other disciplinary approach or ideology, to compile a prosecutorial dossier against it. Also relatively rare.

7) Driven by a fairly systematic critique of Swarthmore’s curriculum or common pedagogies, e.g., a student who is choosing courses that they believe represent or empower that critique. This is really rare, and generally something you only see from seniors.

There are also many students who mix and match these decision rules: one course chosen to comply with a disciplinary program, one course chosen by whimsy, one chosen by a desire to take a class with a particular professor.


The problem on the other side of things is another subject I’ve written about with some frequency: how to distribute resources in a way that anticipates these different decision rules and the consequences of their distribution, or if you so choose, how to actively combat or disallow some of these rules or use resources to favor some over others.

Faculty, for example, really cannot have fully public, usefully candid conversations about the impact of student perceptions of professorial charisma, even if we have strong intuitions that those perceptions are having a major effect on particular enrollments.

What we don’t really have, though, is anything consistent or shared to stand as a counterweight to enrollment. There is a hodgepodge of smaller counterclaims that crowd into that space when there is a discussion. That some types of classes have to be small (true), that some subjects are important no matter how many students take them (or by extension, no matter who is teaching them) (true), that our job is not just to mirror the prior demands and desires of students but to rework and transform what they think they want with what we believe to be important for them to know and do (true). The problem is that none of those can really be shared values unless we have some non-arbitrary agreements about which types of classes, which kinds of subjects and what kinds of learning–and simply favoring what we have in the curriculum at this exact moment as setting the standard is arbitrary.

Which of those decision types do faculty as a matter of deliberate principle want to push back upon, advise or otherwise not permit to set the terms of our curriculum? You’d think that type #3 would be our idea: the student who is following what our curriculum tells them to do. But for many students that is not only dissatisfying personally, it turns out to shut them out of the benefits of a liberal arts approach to learning, because nothing inside of a department’s curriculum typically specifies those parts of learning that should or must happen outside of it. Sure, we have some general education requirements that are supposed to attend to that, but those contain almost no specific instructions about which courses should be taken at which times. For Swarthmore, that’s 20 credits that can’t just be chosen by obedience to prescribed rules. So every student will need some other decision rule, and if we try to disable that reasoning, we’re disabling that part of their education.

I keep banging my head against this wall. Building this bigger conversation is something we have to do–not just the Swarthmore we but academics at most institutions. And some days it seems to me to be the conversation that we never can quite get around to having.

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6 Responses to The Strains of Decision

  1. As an undergraduate, I was mostly a type 3, although I didn’t particularly care about what my “certification” would do for me after graduation. I was a double major in History and French, and I pretty much knew that those wouldn’t help me get a job. I’m grateful for the opportunity to pursue and study those subjects, but I was right.*

    I found a certain freedom in following the rules and checking off the requirements. It would have been even better if the requirements allowed for more choice (I was at a public university, with “state” in its title, so it wasn’t really all that difficult).

    I’m not sure what this says for defining the curriculum. But if the rules are clear and relatively non-onerous, I believe such a state will let all (or as many as possible) flowers bloom.

    *Due caveats about my lack of ambition and my eventual decision to get an MA in history (good idea) and PHD in history (bad idea, but at least I’ve got one)

  2. Western Dave says:

    You missed one big type of course selection. Desire to take a course with a peer or peer group. I signed up for Gerry Levninson’s Music of the Orient mostly because my girlfriend talked me and my roommate into it. I survived. But I ended up learning a ton in the course that made me a better history teacher and a better music listener. This doesn’t happen that much at Swat, or SLAC’s in general, but it certainly happened a lot at Michigan.

  3. jerry hamrick says:

    When I registered for courses in college I was first driven by what classes were still open when I was admitted to the enrollment hall. Then I had to evaluate them in order to see which might advance me toward some degree, any degree, within my self-imposed four-year window.

    That is except for the last two years in which I wanted to enroll in classes that two particularly attractive coeds were taking. This led me to taking more classes in German and English than I had originally planned, and ultimately led to an accumulation of enough hours in German to qualify as a secondary teacher of that language in Texas, which I did for a few years. My pursuit of the two coeds came to naught, but it was a lot of fun while it lasted.

    To me, college was all about socialization. My first seventeen years were spent in a rural Texas town that was virtually cut off from the rest of the world. I had a lot of learning to do. I was truly a hick, but now have been somewhat civilized so that I call myself a country boy.

    Academically, I attended three colleges: Tulane, Tarleton State Junior College, and Baylor University. I learned a lot of math at the first two and almost none at the second, even though I finished with 52 semester hours in the subject. Baylor was, and probably still is, an academic wasteland. But it was a hoot to go to school with the ministers-in-training. Several of them became ministers of Baptist churches, mostly in the South. I counted them as friends and over the decades it was a pleasure to learn what they thought about domestic politics. Sadly they have all passed on to their rewards.

  4. Withywindle says:

    Basically, I liked history and literature, and took a lot of both. And tried to get out of lab science courses and difficult gym courses. But!–

    1) Coincidence. I was not entirely motivated to be a Spanish minor, but I discovered at the last moment during seminar scheduling my Fall Junior Year that the Spanish seminar available was scheduled to conflict with a history seminar I’d already scheduled–so in a panic I scampered into an available English seminar, and became an English minor. (Without ever having taken an upper-level English course–something I’ve always felt was a tricksterish triumph on my part.)

    2) Avoidance. I already knew junior year what sort of history I wanted to study in grad school, so I deliberately avoided taking history seminars in that area, because I figured I could learn it later.

    Also, for your first category, I would expand it (in my case) to include “obliviousness.” “Don’t care about the professor” isn’t quite right; “didn’t consider asking about the professor until I was already in the class, and then thought, hmm, maybe I should have asked.”

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    Avoidance is a really interesting way to think about it. Makes me think about it–I think I sort of had a logic like that at times. I wouldn’t quite call it avoidance as much as I’d call it over-management of my lifetime agenda–e.g., I thought I had a master plan and only began to realize that I didn’t really know what I was doing when I was well into it.

    Scheduling and coincidence are important. Also what David mentioned in his comment: sticking with peer groups.

  6. SamChevre says:

    A category that drove a large portion of my decision-making was a form of “Avoidance.”

    My thinking was that I was better off spending time in college on things I was unlikely to learn otherwise. So despite my interest in history and politics, I took classes in math and French; my thinking was that I was far more likely to learn history by reading and discussion later than to learn math or French that way. (This was certainly influenced by being 23, and having a good sense of what I enjoyed reading and thinking about, when I began college.)

    I continue 15 years later to be glad to have chosen that way.

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