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Schedule task force nears plan

The provost's Task Force on Course Scheduling has met mixed reaction from faculty and students in its effort to suggest possible models to reform the academic schedule.

Edna Andrews, chair of the task force and chair of Slavic languages and literature, will recommend an array of models to the provost when the committee files its final report some time this semester. Each option is designed to alleviate infrastructural stresses and reverse the trend toward bunching courses Tuesday and Thursday around midday.

The committee has been suggesting a more balanced distribution of classes across the day and the week, and will probably recommend a new system where class blocks would occur at the same time every day.

"We are making a recommendation to the provost that he consider examining the possibility of standardizing the class times throughout the week and also staggering the 75-minute and the 50-minute classes within one another," said senior Graham McWhorter, the student representative on the task force. "That is to say, the 50-minute classes will be nestled within the 75-minute time periods every day of the week."

Departments may also be asked to limit the number of classes they offer in peak time slots.

"There are really more guidelines than constraints right now--suggested spreads but they don't have any teeth to them," said Registrar Bruce Cunningham, a member of the task force. "I'm sure that... there would be some specific guidelines [in the proposal], basically just the fact that the departments need to follow them."

Andrews said the committee's report might not be filed until the end of the semester. Any change enacted by the provost would not likely go into effect until the academic year 2004-2005, at the earliest.

In the meantime, the committee has been gathering feedback from faculty members and undergraduate students, and will make a formal presentation to graduate students next week. The response has been mixed, at best, for some of the models presented to the faculty and students.

The committee presented one such model at a January meeting of directors of undergraduate study. History director of undergraduate studies Kristen Neuschel, who attended the meeting, said it was "very open and frank," with a number of professors voicing opposition to the idea of slotting one set of 75-minute classes for Monday and Thursday, and another set for Tuesday and Friday.

For departments in the sciences, engineering and modern languages--which tend to favor more frequent class meetings--the proposed model proved problematic because both sets of twice-a-week classes would clash with classes meeting Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

"Not all professors are adamant about it, but some professors simply feel, for pedagogical reasons, a longer class period when you're trying to teach science classes just winds up having to include too much material," said physics director of undergraduate studies Joshua Socolar. "It's just useful to teach it in smaller chunks... and to be able to meet with the students more often."

Many professors use Friday as a day to focus on research and other scholarly activities such as meetings and conferences, and some complained that the proposed model would unnecessarily constrain their time.

"How are we supposed to participate in our own scholarship if we have to punch in the clock five days a week?" asked John Thompson, chair of the history department. "The proposal that we saw was inimicable to the purpose of a research university. It looked like it was designed to make us into some sort of community college."

Andrews acknowledged that different professors and departments have varying needs regarding class schedules, and the model presented at the directors of undergraduate studies meeting was one of many, but she said the task force will advocate the retention of Friday as a class day.

"We would not say to the provost, 'Who needs classes on Friday? Get rid of them!'" Andrews said. "We do need them."

McWhorter, who made presentations to the Duke Student Government Academic Affairs Committee and the General Assembly, said student feedback was also mixed, but for different reasons. He said many students "had it pretty good" with their classes concentrated around midday Tuesday and Thursday, and some would not desire more classes in the mornings or on Friday.

"Students would react somewhat negatively to the changing class times," he said, "but in terms of compensation for that, we get a greater choice of academic classes which will suit all of us favorably."

Long before the task force was commissioned, in 2001, Thompson and Chair of Political Science Michael Munger had devised an alternate scheduling proposal. Their plan would have created parallel 75-minute blocks Monday and Wednesday to alleviate overcrowding during peak times Tuesday and Thursday. Thompson said he thought that plan was to go into effect this semester.

"We were assured that everything was going well. I thought it was solved," Thompson said about his proposal. "Suddenly it was gone, suddenly there was a task force."

The provost commissioned the task force to undertake a comprehensive review of course scheduling-the first in at least 30 years, according to the charge.

"I think really what happened were there were some proposals with tinkering with the current schedule," Cunningham said. "The provost instead ordered this task force to take a look at the whole thing to see if we can overhaul the whole system, or is it good the way it is."

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