This week was the first week of the new quarter, which means the chief task of any TA is dealing with the time-sucking and bureaucratic details of enrollment. No matter what class, it seems, students mob the instructors before, during, and after lecture, by email, in person, and by carrier pigeon, with sob stories about how this class and only this class will allow the student to graduate (why fifth-year seniors with one class left couldn’t add the class during their senior level priority enrollment pass last quarter and be assured of a spot, I don’t know). Meanwhile, the professors either put on a grand show the first few weeks or appear as mean and evil as possible, trying to convince students to stay or to leave, depending on enrollment. The first two weeks at this school are known as the “shopping period” ---- and considering that’s two weeks out of only 10 it is disproportionately disruptive ---- and perhaps the most frustrating thing is when you turn away legions of crashers from sections you have already overenrolled to the gills, only to have your “shoppers,” signed up for 24 units and “test-driving” them to find 16, drop the class just before the deadline and leave the sections underenrolled, freeing up spaces at the last minute that you could have given to some of those seemingly desperate students. Is shopping common at other institutions or especially bad at this one?
All this means that my time this week was spent dealing with forms and ID numbers and frantic emails, not on actual teaching or my dissertation, and on top of that I was grumpy and annoyed. Some fellow grads who went to my undergrad institution note how our computer enrollment system actually worked; although it didn’t prevent people without the prerequisites from enrolling anyway, it prevented you from signing up for a double load or enrolling in conflicting classes, and it had a built-in wait list system. As people dropped (or were accidentally dropped by financial aid, one of the few problems actually worse there than here) students on the wait list were moved up a slot and eventually into the class automatically, allowing TAs and profs to actually make a thundering takeoff into the course and tear through material at a blistering speed. Here, even if you keep the sign up sheets and counting people and interruptions to a minimum, instructors often feel as if they need to “hold back” or have to reteach large portions of those first two weeks because the class population drastically changes over that time.
I know that I am just a cog, and that this campus’s computer enrollment system, if it is designed for anyone’s convenience and flexibility, is not designed with me in mind (or the students either, perhaps). But, if I could ask for one thing for Christmas, it would be for a better computer system that “held the line” on such things as students adding a class they are not eligible for, double loads of units, conflicting lecture times, and provided a wait list rather than force me and the other instructors to deal with it. Oh, wait, no ---- I wish for a tenure-track job. Can I ask for two things? No? Then forget it. See what I mean? This isn’t my “real job” so I have no investment in fighting the kind of fight this would take to fix, and so no one pushes to fix the problems in this system. Revamping the system or creating a new one would involve too much disruption for the enrollment admin people, as it would probably require being taken down and reinstalled, and only problems that affect or annoy that staff level would get fixed.
The problem is, although I’m pretty blasé with the fact that I am a cog, and after teaching so many students and hearing so many stupid excuses or sob stories, I can definitely see the students as cogs, the students themselves don’t necessarily get it. Of course a lot of them do know they are cogs in a system and that what they need to do is work that system in order to get it to work for them, which is why we encounter so many tricks and evasions and outright lies, students saying whatever they think will push the magic button and except them from the rules (any dead grandmother stories recently, anyone?) but a lot of them have a rather rude shock when they discover they are screwed just because of an accident or their own stupidity. You can hear the tone of real panic and realization sometimes. The student whose financial aid did not arrive in time, the one who accidentally pushed the drop button on his/her online schedule, the one who enrolled but did not realize that both lectures were at the same time, the one who couldn’t find the classroom and thus was not there to hold his/her spot ---- these people think of themselves as unique and worthy individuals, people who should be given a break or help just because of who they are, the heroes of their own personal stories, but I have heard it all before. Not heroes but spear-carriers, they are just ingots being pushed through the machine, a series of interchangeable ID numbers and a range of familiar predictable behaviors. I’m not sure how much this process of discovering their cog-ness is a valuable lesson for their future lives and how much it is a sign that this system is a fucked-up one.