Every year during undergraduate, i would race to University Hall to pick up a copy of the latest course catalogue as soon as it was released. My best friend and i would sit in couch covered coffee shops over tea/juice and circle classes that looked interesting. The classes were ordered by departments with cross-references made. Each class had a full description under the title and professor. There was this glorious rush of all the things that we could learn and we obsessed over that book. The beginning of each semester was filled with the enthusiasm of rushing around on campus seeing if the classes lived up to their description.
Inevitably, some of the classes would be cancelled, change times or otherwise not match the promise of their description. Because of this and the cost of publishing those catalogues, most schools went digital.
There is nothing nearly as delectable about surfing terribly organized webpages looking for classes by title/professor only, having to click twice to find a description that is never there, a syllabus that is never submitted on a website that is often unavailable for this or that reason. Not only has searching for classes lost its joy, it’s outright irritating. I automatically skip over surfing the disciplines that don’t seem at all related – things like French or geography or art. And thus, as i learned last semester, i miss critical classes that would have been beyond interesting. But to find them in the sea of titles would never work. It takes 1 scroll-down bar, and at least 1 click to get to each discipline. You have to scroll down to grad-level classes (or click to next pages). And then click on every class whose inane title might actually be relevant. That’s a hell of a lot of clicks for nothing. After looking at 50 or so classes, i’ve given up.
But i found a new method! Of course, it will drive all of the pro-digital folks crazy because it’s just as flawed as the original tree-killing one. Now, instead of dealing with the hellish page, i go to the bookstore the day before classes. I take a notepad and walk through each aisle of textbooks. I don’t pay any attention to what discipline i’m in – i just look for things whose titles look interesting or whose authors i know i should read. Ooh – 3 Bourdieus, must be good, write down class number. I came out of the bookstore with 10 potential classes and then looked those up on the hellish website. They were in departments i never would’ve guessed (and some that i would’ve). I cut out all the classes that took place before 11AM or have 3 meeting times cause i know better. At this stage, it’s seminars all the way. And voila, i have class choices.
The funny thing is that this route is in theory far more unpredictable. There are inevitably classes with readers instead of books or where the professor forgot to order the books. But i found more interesting classes this way in 30 minutes in the bookstore than i did with probably 1 hour spent in online frustration. And i feel as though i have a general understanding of the topology of classes.
Now, this doesn’t mean that online course catalogues can’t work, but they need to be improved. Desperately. First off, it should be hyper simple for professors to upload their course books. In fact, they should upload it to the same system that orders it and puts it online. The course readers people should also connect all items there to the class because you know they have to document it somewhere since they call for copyright on all of those items. Given complete data, I should be able to search for authors that I want to read, not just professor’s names. I should have a little interactive system that shows what classes I’ve taken and shows me the topology of classes available, including a recommendation system. I should be able to surf the classes by similar content, across disciplines. I should be able to see the whole landscape, not just the terrible hierarchy of departments and numbers and navigate without a bazillion clicks. And dammit, i want a PDF that i can download and print out incomplete. Let me kill my own tree so that i can have the joy of sitting in cozy couches with a friend and cider, surfing all of the possible things i could take. Make the digital do more than my paper version ever could, but let me have my paper joy too.