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The Unfathomable Mind

By Amy B. Mcintosh

The obvious questions after the Office of the Registrar released the list of the largest ten spring semester courses (actually 11 due to a tie) last week are ones like what makes a course like Humanities 9b, "Oral and Popular Literature," attract 667 people, twice as many as took it last year, or why did Natural Sciences 4, "Natural Selection and Behavioral Biology," lose 240 people from first semester? In short, what makes a course popular?

For some courses on the list the answer is easy. Economics 10, "Principles of Economics," has been the largest fall course for five years, and it keeps its hold on first place in the spring automatically because it is virtually impossible to drop the course. Chemistry 20b, "Organic Chemistry," which drew 365 students this semester, is a perennial pre-med favorite.

But this semester's list has some surprises. Five courses in the humanities made the top ten, and two of those are in fine arts. From a different angle, the list also contains five General Education courses, all lower level except for Social Sciences 151, "Crime, Human Nature and Social Organizations."

Edward T. Wilcox, director of the General Education program, said yesterday that the large number of Gen Ed courses on the list could mean the concept of Gen Ed is working. Since these courses are supposed to have a broad appeal to students in many fields of concentration, they should, in theory, have the largest enrollments.

But Wilcox admitted to some surprise at the enrollment figures for this term. Referring to the "unfathomable mind of the undergraduate," he said he had no firm theories about enrollment trends.

"It's an expensive trend, though, when we don't predict correctly," Wilcox said. Unexpected enrollment jumps or declines mean headaches for Wilcox, who is responsible for Gen Ed course budgets.

Wilcox does have a theory about the popularity of lower level Gen Ed courses, however. He said he thought students taking Gen Ed courses outside their fields of concentration want courses with other non-concentrators. Lower level courses promise to provide a less-competitive atmosphere for students from a variety of disciplines.

"A Fine Arts concentrator who is uneasy about the Nat Sci requirement wants a lower group course where there is some assurance he is not going to get torn to pieces," Wilcox said.

What Wilcox is talking about is gut hunting--finding easy courses that require a minimal amount of work while offering a respectable return in grades. And, preferably, courses that keep the student interested as well.

This year's replacement for last year's biggest spring gut, Humanities 103, "The Great Age of Athens," appears to be Hum 9b. Students cited minimal requirements and a reading list that includes science fiction and old ballads as reasons for the course's popularity. And Hum 9b also has the reputation of being an all-around good course.

Another way to take a course that promises to be interesting, but not very easy, is to take it pass-fail. This could explain the popularity of the two Fine Arts courses on the list, Fine Arts 13, "Introduction to the History of Art," and Fine Arts 171r, "European and American Art of the Last 100 Years."

Ninety-seven of 252 students in Fine Arts 171r and 149 of 390 in Fine Arts 13 have pass-fail status.

Does all this mean that because Nat Sci 4 lost 240 students from the fall that it isn't the gut it was considered last year? Possibly. Some students who dropped the course complained about their fall semester grades.

But other students said they never planned to take the second half anyway, or that they were disappointed by a change in the scheduled professor.

What it all comes down to in the end, perhaps, is that undergraduate course choices really are unfathomable.

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