Frankly, planning the perfect schedule is no joke. When I need to choose my classes for the school year (and I always know when this is; it’s in my calendar), I really, really need to weigh out my options. I log onto Visual Schedule Builder and I begin to optimize my schedule. I think through all of my choices very seriously. I have to. Because, as you, I, and Principal and Vice-Chancellor Suzanne Fortier all know, education is no laughing matter.
For Fall 2020 and Winter 2021, I think I have two requirements left. To be honest, I don’t know if I actually do or what they even are. I should probably see an advisor, but that process seems daunting. Anyway, I glance at the requirements and, then, I comb through the entire list of all offered classes in all departments—I have electives, you know—and I do this one-by-one. I place everything into a spreadsheet: Professor, professor’s RateMyProfessors rating, the time slot, the room, and a ‘Have I taken a class with them before?’ checkbox, which, honestly, is an important barometer. And, thus, I begin my yearly task of putting together two lists of classes: First, the ones I really want to take, but for which I won’t end up registering because, you know, “Reserve Closed,” and second, the ones for which I will sighingly settle and ultimately take.
Now that I will be in my final year of my degree, I consider branching out. I will take one English class, one Psychology class, and I have room for some electives each semester. Professor Will Straw, the James McGill Professor of Urban Media Studies, knows that when he teaches, he can open students’ minds to new information.
“I really think it’s important to introduce students to things they might have never seen or thought about before,” Straw wrote in an email to me, I mean, to The McGill Tribune. “I’m lucky to be in a discipline where I get to teach things that interest me anyway, so I hope I can communicate some of my own enthusiasm to the students.”
Straw, for example, will teach the same three classes he taught this past school year: COMS354: Media Studies of Crime, which I took; COMS361: Media and Culture of the Night, which aligns with his current research; and a graduate-level class. (The topic remains undecided.)
“I [taught] COMS 361 last year for the first time, since most of my current research is on cities at night,” Straw said. “They say that the first time you teach a course, you don’t have a clue, the second time, you correct your mistakes, and the third time, you get stale. I believe that about the first and second times. I’m hoping it isn’t true about the third.”
I liked Straw’s “Media Studies of Crime” class this semester, and I am not just paying him a compliment for his help with this article, or, you know, because an A on my final paper would be nice. He tells me that he has taught the class far more than three times. It’s a three-hour lecture, though, which I should say is not my preferred length of class. They really throw a wrench in the middle of my day, or my week. I think I have a shorter attention span than most, and I prefer some symmetry in my schedule. I look at Visual Schedule Builder, and I find that COMS 361, offered in the Fall, is twice a week: Tuesdays and Thursdays at 10:05 am. For some, like Professor Ross Otto of the Psychology department, 10 is an early start-time.
“I had an 8:30 in the morning a couple of years ago,” Otto said. “That was terrible. I’m not a morning person. I would say four o’clock would be ideal for me, because then you’re done for the day.”
Four o’clock is not ideal for me. Why would it be? I am a morning person, and I often seek out morning classes. Straw sees an upside to an early schedule.
“I always have found, when I’ve done [an 8:30 lecture], that getting up so early is kind of energizing, and when it’s over and you still have much of the day left, it feels like a gift,” Straw said.
In fact, one English class I am eyeing begins at 8:35 and ends at 9:55 on that same Tuesday-Thursday schedule. I wonder whether I will be able to make it from there to Straw’s class in time. I once had a class in Sherbrooke 688 and then immediately had to get to the Education Building, and it was hell, man. Professor Trevor Ponech, Chair of the English Department, knows that this is on the top of my mind.
“I don’t know whether students think very much about the actual classrooms,” Ponech said. “I do think that the proximity of one room to, you know, another course room probably is a factor. I know people don’t much like going back and forth between, you know, really distant buildings, especially in the winter. I hated that as a student.”
I hate that as a student, too. Ponech recalls a time he taught a class in the Education Building, which, location-wise, is not ideal, and, well, it was made worse by construction. My predicament seems easier. The English class is in the Arts building; Straw will be teaching in Stewart Biology. Ponech and I agree that this travel isn’t that bad, though it’s not good. Stewart Biology does have the only Second Cup on campus, and we McGillians have a shortage of good food and drink options on campus. Anyway, this year, I took PSYC 433: Cognitive Science in Stewart Biology with Otto, whose office in 2001 McGill College is practically on the other side of campus. That travel can’t be fun.
“We have no choice,” Otto said. “We get our teaching schedule, it gets made, usually a year in advance. And then at some point right around then, [...] they have some magical algorithm that figures out the room assignments. So, if you're unlucky, you get sent to Stewart. [...] If I had the choice, it would be, ‘I prefer just walking down the hall.’”
I look at another English class I had eyed. It conflicts with COMS 361. But, this new class is in Leacock. Interesting! That’s exactly like what Otto had said about walking down the hall; the travel time from the Arts Building is practically nothing. I make note of that in what is now an increasingly complex spreadsheet. Putting together a schedule has turned out to be a lot of work. It takes a lot of effort—not unlike getting good grades in the classes themselves— to determine which classes would be a good fit in my schedule.
“I think there [are] these kinds of practical issues where [students are] like, ‘Are the tests fair?’, ‘Are the assessments fair?’” Otto said. “To zoom out, there's this larger question, right, of effort allocation. So, one thing I've noticed teaching a lot, right, is you have a bunch of little assessments, students seem to like that because then they can prioritize things they need to prioritize. It's not [...] all or nothing each assignment. So I think that's important, [...] that they feel like they have many chances to bring their grade up or down, based on their sort of own motivation or effort level.”
And effort level varies, not just class by class, major by major, program by program, but, for many, it’s even a matter of day by day. A class in the late afternoon, for me, means I’m unlikely to put in as much effort as when I am energized and ready to learn.
“While everyone says early mornings are rough, the end of the afternoon, when students are tired and hungry, can be just as much of a challenge,” Straw wrote.
I agree 100 per cent: I know I don’t want to be hungry—look out, world, if I need to eat—so I look to schedule a lunch break if I can, and, if I can get to lunch hotspots like SNAX or Soupe Café, that’s even better. We already know about my love for Second Cup. I avoid the cafeterias; I avoid Quesada. Those are out of my way; who has the time?
I also rule out a few more things: First, I rule out three consecutive classes, practically at any point during the day. Two back-to-back is fine, I guess, but they better be close by. Any more than two? I think I’ll fall asleep. I then also avoid any class that begins in the 12 pm hour. I can eat lunch at 11:30 and I can eat lunch at 1, but any later and I think I’ll get cranky. The problem is that everyone wants to teach during those hours: I mean, come on, professors just have to do research, don’t they?
“Everybody wants to teach Tuesday-Thursday,” Ponech said. “That way, you know you’re going to get three days a week for other stuff, for doing research, and for preparing your courses and marking. The really prime real estate is Tuesday-Thursday between 10 am and 4 pm. That’s the prime real estate.”
The real estate itself—that is, the room—matters immensely, too, though students and professors alike have little control over that, if any. Ponech prefers a room with windows. I like good legroom when possible, and it rarely is; in the case of a giant lecture hall like Leacock 132, give me aisle access and room to dash out at the end without needing to talk to anyone. (Some rooms, unfortunately, force me to socialize on my way out far more than I’d like.) Some rooms, though, even hold sentimental value for people.
“I got my BA at McGill back in the ‘80s, and the first class I ever had in [Frank Dawson Adams Auditorium] was [what became ENGL 275: Introduction to Cultural Studies],” Ponech said. “The first time I ever taught at McGill when I was hired as a professor was 275 [...] in that very same room [....] So, I have a particular fondness for that room [....] It’s not a fancy room by any stretch of the imagination.”
There are a lot, and I mean a lot, of not-so-fancy rooms around campus, with falling ceilings and shoddy technology. There are also a decent number of not-fancy classes—the kind of classes with boring subject matter and tough evaluation processes—and it becomes my job to decide which to take and which to skip. While professors decide what I learn, I do have some semblance of control over my education. That control exclusively resides about where I learn. I have rooms I don’t like, travel times I’d rather not bother with, times I’d rather be eating lunch, so many factors, and only one year and a required number of classes to go in my education. It’s time to take some deep breaths. Relax. It’s only my future. And, anyway, none of this will matter by the time the Add/Drop period rolls around in a couple of months.