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Bureaucracy and the academy

As I prepare for my final 7 a.m. bout with ACES, I realize that over the years these registration windows have been geared as much toward satisfying graduation requirements as they have my intellectual curiosity.

Along with (and at times more than) the content of classes, we are driven by the contributions they make to fulfilling a matrix-or nowadays, completing a list. This phenomenon contributes to an administrative orientation, and detracts from an academic one. We are here to study and learn, but also to go through a set of bureaucratic motions along the way.

For example, you would think that a class titled "Problems in Philosophy of Science" would be a slam-dunk STS-albeit as a transfer course.

But instead of being given the benefit of the doubt, I had to submit a two-page memo, complete with attachments of course readings, to get awarded this "Mode of Inquiry." It contained "Supporting documentation that is relevant to my request for STS coding as it relates to 'Focus on science and/or technology but interface with society addressed consistently,' pursuant to part (3) of the 'Required Documentation' section of the 'Form for Requesting Modes of Inquiry Coding for a Domestic Transfer Course'" (my words).

Apparently this was sufficient to establish my summer course as-beyond merely an interruption of my pajama-clad online poker career-an adequate critique of the science-society relationship.

(As it turned out, I would have STSs coming out the ass for the next couple of years, so this was all pretty pointless. Although I did consider that the memo might have been a creative ploy to prepare me for work as a regulatory attorney.)

The argument that curriculum requirements cause students to step outside their comfort zones into fields or disciplines they otherwise wouldn't is compelling. Indeed, I'm in a great class right now, selected from a list of ALPs, which I probably would have missed had it not been designated as such.

But Curriculum 2000 strictures, more than effectively "exposing Trinity College students to a broad array of course work in a variety of academic disciplines," encourage us to strategically game the system. Anecdotally, I would say that stories like my lucky ALP are outnumbered several fold by those touting a particularly easy fulfillment, or an efficient "matrix-filling" class.

And the fact that graduation requirements cause us to enroll in classes we wouldn't take voluntarily is not an inherently good thing. A fellow senior recently said of a class, "It counts as ALP, Writing and it's a seminar.. I was going to take it no matter what it was." Is this really the best motivation we can think of to participate in an academic forum?

Even within the confines of the Curriculum 2000 language and framework, there is inconsistency and irrationality.

At the end of this semester, I will have fulfilled the two-part "Research" requirement. One class assigned two short papers, neither of which required a terribly significant amount of outside research. The other bases the final grade solely upon a 20-25 page independent research paper conducted over the course of the semester-but initially had no "Research" designation in the ACES system!

I pointed out to my advisor that this seemed like a mistake. At first he told me there was nothing to do; course designations are final once the course begins. Luckily, he seems to have some clout in the department, and was able to jump through (or go around) the necessary bureaucratic hoops, and get my class designated appropriately.

This points to a phenomenon among faculty that mirrors students' tactical matrix-filling. The rules create incentive for strategic teachers to put extra effort into having their classes designated attractively. Others, who don't worry as much about filling the class roster to the brim, may not pay attention to the bureaucratic regime, and thus not invest time in getting whatever "credit" may be appropriate.

This is completely understandable on their part: I doubt many academics have long dreamed of navigating a bureaucratic process in order to prove to administrators that their work fits within a rigid set of categories and designations.

The result is that classes which may be the most edifying, inspiring-even cross-disciplinary-are not necessarily the ones chock-full of CZs, EIs and QIDs. There is an inevitable tension between the classes and professors we are most drawn to, and the ones that do the bureaucratic trick.

President Richard Brodhead has encouraged students to make the Duke experience their own. I respectfully submit that the most important aspect of this is that selection of classes not be governed by a set of inflexible, arbitrary and ultimately meaningless acronyms and abbreviations.

David Kleban is a Trinity senior. His column appears every other Tuesday.


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