Monday, August 27, 2007

Shopping Around For Courses

I'm usually The Decider--I don't deliberate over-long about purchases unless they're truly big-ticket, life-changing items (housing, cars and the like). I scare and possibly offend dandy foppish men by pulling clothes off the racks and buying without much consideration (it always works out fabulously). I seem to pull books off of shelves with a passing glance at the back cover. I ask waiters what they like best to eat and trust their choices. I seem to not care very much about what I consume and purchase.

A part of this is that I deliberated in private before coming to the store. I shop online and try on at the store. I read book reviews from several different literary magazines. I know that waiters will always know the best thing to eat at their own restaurants, which I've already pre-screened with Zagat or Fodor's. What appears to be indifference and nonchalance is the product of being a smart consumer.

I find that such pre-screening doesn't work in other areas of life though. You never know how a house will suit you until you walk around in it and check the door jambs. You have to test drive cars and compare prices on Kelly Blue Book. And you have to check out the syllabus and sit in on a lecture (or two) before you can ascertain whether or not it will suit your pedagogical needs.

There are ways of pre-shopping for courses. There's course evaluations of course, and word of mouth. These are not always very illuminating or reliable sources of information. There will be the groupie-type of course evals, with the 10's bubbled in so enthusiastically that they might as well be encircled by little hearts. There will be the hater-type of evals, with the 1's and 2's bubbled in with vindictiveness. And then there are the not-at-all-useful middling evals, with the 5's and 6's filled in the spirit of inoffensive indifference. "You were okay," they seem to say, and not much more.

And then there's the outlier problem of the written comments. Since they only give you 15 minutes for this thing at the very end of the semester right before finals, I wonder what types of students stick around to write something. Again, it's the Groupie vs. the Hater. Be wary of hyperbole, as this is an indicia of groupieness. "Best professor ever" is ridiculous. As Dave Hoffman will tell you, this is what is known as "puffery." Any comments about dress and appearance immediately makes the evaluation suspect. As for the Playa Haters, hyperbole in the other direction is something to take with a grain of salt--if the hater eval is an aberration, then probably this person's assessment is tinged with personal beef.

However, there is something to be said when half or more of the class hates the prof--the rest might be too cowed by authority to just say so. I remember my acerbic contracts professor was so hated that students pre-typed evaluations to staple to the bubble-in forms. That is a bad sign. This doesn't make any difference to tenure review at a top school, and probably won't help any future 1Ls locked into their course schedules, but it's something to consider for that 2L or 3L class.

Word of mouth is notoriously unreliable, because assessments of pedagogy are very subjective. Some students like pure unadulterated lecture; others like dialogic style teaching. Visual learners love PowerPoint, aural learners perhaps less so. Some prefer blackletter law to the point of hating policy or theory-oriented courses, while others prefer the latter and think the former to be rote and boring. It's all up to you. Sit in on a lecture.

School started for me this week at Liberal College Law. However, this week the other departments at Liberal College begin their semester. I have even less idea how to shop for courses in other departments or where each department keeps their course evaluations. And I don't know any other students in political science, business, or sociology to get words from their mouths. So now I get to sit in on four organizational theory courses in hopes of finding one that fits in the schedule and with the dissertation.

Sometimes, you just can't pre-shop. Back to the inefficient, but more accurate way of shopping for courses.