It’s fourth week and everyone is trapped. The chance to drop that one class you had doubts about has passed. As you find yourself completely lost when you start studying for that upcoming midterm, you know there’s nothing you can do about it, unless you’re willing to accept the dreaded W on your transcript.
But this nightmare scenario does not exist at nearly every other university in the country. Among our peer institutions, Chicago stands the exception to the rule.
Everywhere else, students can get a real taste of a class until they are forced to drop or tough it out. At Harvard, students can drop during their seventh week and at Columbia during sixth week. It is important to point out that both those schools are on the semester system, but sixth-and seventh-week deadlines still give students time to take a midterm and really get a feel for a class. The only school even close to the U of C is Stanford (also on the quarter system), and they get until the end of the fourth week, which is good enough to take a midterm or write a paper in a majority of classes.
But this isn’t only about other places having it easier than we do. We’re used to that. This is about giving students as much information as possible. Everyone can provide an anecdote about a class that morphed into something they could never have expected after third week, where a seemingly benign “take home quiz” ended up being a 10-15 page paper. Also, by third week, the schedules of many students are still not completely set and it’s difficult to judge how they plan to balance their lives in and out of class. If the University pushed the deadline to drop a class to the end of fifth week, fewer students would end up withdrawing and taking a W at each quarter’s end.
If the University is unwilling to even grant us this, they should at least acknowledge the extreme burden they are placing on us by providing us with some, or any, information about a class before we register. A couple of sentences in the Course Catalog just don’t cut it. Someone really crafty could search through old syllabi on Chalk, but many classes don’t utilize Chalk, and if they do, they block access to old syllabi. The departments at our school could easily gather syllabi from professors and post them online. It also would not be unreasonable to require professors to post the syllabi for their classes the week before classes begin. This would make shopping for classes a lot less stressful and a lot more streamlined for students.
Pushing back the deadline will give students the opportunity to challenge themselves without undue apprehension. The threat of a W can push many to immediately drop a class after mediocre performance on one problem set—without even having a chance to comfortably see the improvement another week or two might bring. If we want students to truly explore the life of the mind, we have to allow them to do it safely, lest they abandon the beauty of mathematics because of the permanent stain a W can have on a transcript.