More extensive course descriptions would benefit professors and students alike

| Staff Columnist
(Erin Mitchell | Student Life)

(Erin Mitchell | Student Life)

The only official pieces of information available to all students when choosing classes are a short course description that rarely changes from year to year and numerical course evaluation scores. Other information comes from unreliable sources, such as friends who have taken a class (sometimes from a totally different professor) and Web sites like

I believe this information is woefully inadequate and makes it very hard for students to make important decisions regarding what classes to take. While we all have requirements we have to fulfill to graduate, one of the joys of being a college student is being able to take a class totally unrelated to one’s major or focus just for fun. In addition, many majors require only a certain number of electives to complete, leaving exactly which classes to take up to the students themselves. Thus, the academic part of our college experience is largely shaped by the classes we choose to take. As an economics major, my education could be very different from that of another economics majors because of a few clicks on​

WebSTAC each spring and fall. The importance of choosing classes cannot be overstated, and students ought to have a better idea of what they are getting into when they register for classes.

I would first like to applaud last Monday’s staff editorial requesting that syllabi for courses be posted online in order to assist students in choosing courses. I think that it is a great idea to improve upon the serious lack of information that is available to students when they choose courses. I would also like to suggest that an additional measure be taken. I propose that when courses are posted on WebSTAC each semester, each listing should be accompanied by a short description written by the professor who will be teaching the course next semester.

What would this accomplish? It would make students aware of possible differences in a given professor’s teaching style, grading style and philosophy when teaching the given course, compared to previous iterations of the same course. A professor’s description would also let students know what really will be taught, instead of a stock course description that sometimes poorly describes the course.

In large introductory classes like calculus and chemistry, the classroom experience may not differ greatly from professor to professor, but in upper-level elective courses, the same class taught by two different professors may not even seem like the same class at all. This is not necessarily a bad thing—intellectual diversity rarely is—but as a student, it would be nice to be made aware of this possibility. This simple addition to the course listings would make choosing classes much easier, and it would reduce the number of mistakes (often followed by dropped classes) that students make.

Signing up for a class amounts to an agreement on the part of the student to tens of hours of class, homework and studying over the course of the semester. In addition, all of the Wash. U. professors I have encountered take their teaching very seriously and devote significant time to their courses. Knowing this, is it too much to ask professors to take 20 minutes to summarize their courses? Professors might even be happy to do this, knowing it may lead to more motivated students.

No professor wants half of their class to drop out in the first several weeks simply due to an inaccurate course description that they may not even have had control over. Simply put, additional course descriptions would benefit professors and students alike, and implementing one would have minimal cost. I hope this suggestion is heard by the relevant administrators and is given some serious thought.

  • Jerome Bauer

    Please support a legally binding distinction between service courses, which may be freely assigned to other faculty, and signature courses, which remain the intellectual property of their originators, and may not be so freely assigned. Please support cross-enrollment and the right of faculty to move our courses to other universities if we so choose, in the best interests of our students and faculty. Why not give everybody more choice? Why not respect each other’s labor?

    Please support Lecturer’s Policy reform, here and everywhere. Please support a real career path, culminating in tenure, for teaching, service, and research, in any order of OUR preference. Please support an autonomous College and University College (evening school). Please support benefits, including especially health insurance, for contract adjunct lecturers who teach at multiple schools.

    Please see “the case for lecturer’s policy reform,”

  • Jerome Bauer

    This is a good idea but it will have to be voluntary. Some faculty, especially those without job security, may prefer not to post syllabi online or share them too freely with colleagues, lest this make it too easy for our courses to be assigned to somebody else. A skeleton syllabus written by the professor could be posted, but you ought to show up for class to get the real thing, especially if it is a thirty page multitrack syllabus like most of mine (always printed at my own expense, by the way). I claim intellectual property rights to my signature courses and course materials, and all faculty should have that right.

    Concerning course descriptions, faculty have their own websites, whether they use them or not. Before my ArtSci website was taken down, I posted extensive robustly linked course descriptions for all my classes, including long and short versions, and the original versions in case of censorship (e.g. “Fundamentalisms East and West”). There was always a link in the official course description to the course website, and we were free to link the brief official description to a site describing in detail what we were actually doing.

    I also flyered extensively for all my classes, at my own expense, and I always had multiple versions of a flyer, to attract students with diverse interests. This worked very well, though it was labor intensive.

    This should be voluntary. Faculty initiative should be encouraged.

    Lecturer Dr. Jerome Bauer
    (who taught more than twenty courses at WashU for pay and pro bono, from 1999-2007, and still teaches here, for modest tips, free to the unemployed, without pay or benefits…)