The bottom line: the elective poll exists because we are not able to offer enough small, elective courses each semester for every student to take every course he or she wants or needs, particularly lab courses.
Why is this? The answer lies in a combination of numbers, our philosophy about how best to teach you, and the breadth (or narrowness) of your interests in biology. Our situation is not unique; Biology departments in most liberal arts colleges like F&M face the same issues.
Here are the factors that contribute to the situation at F&M, plus some background about each of them:
The number of majors served by our department has increased substantially over the last 15 years. This is in part due to the introduction of new interdisciplinary majors, including BFB, BMB, Public Health, Environmental Science (ESc) and Environmental Studies (ES). A new major in Bioinformatics is also in development. All signs point to increasing numbers of departmental and interdepartmental majors served by Biology, and, thus, to increasing pressure on our electives.
We have 13 tenure-track faculty positions in Biology. This is a healthy size for a Biology Department in a college like F&M. The Biology department has increased in size by two full-time positions in the last decade. Nonetheless, the ratio of majors to faculty (and thus majors to number of electives that can be offered) has increased.
We have required 9 biology courses for the Biology major for over 20 years. The majors curriculum was modified in 1992 to become the 4 core/5 elective system you know. Prior to then, 5 core courses and 4 electives were required, and students did not begin the major until the fall of the sophomore year. The new curriculum starts a semester earlier and provides more flexibility in elective choices for majors. Nearly all Biology departments in colleges like ours require at least 8 biology courses (plus additional courses in chemistry, physics, and math). The number of required biology core courses varies from 2 to 6. Most colleges constrain elective choices in some way – e.g., by requiring every student to take at least one course each in categories like “Cell & Molecular Biology,” “Organismal Biology,” and “Ecology & Evolutionary Biology.” The Biology faculty believe that requiring 5 electives is important for all Biology majors, particularly since 2 of the 5 electives may be taken in the form of Independent Study (Bio 390, 490), Directed Readings (Bio 391), or a combination of these specialized, one-on-one courses. We do not constrain elective choices in any way other than the requirement that 4 of them be lab courses (next point) and that one of them be a Biology Writing course (BWR).
We strongly believe you learn biology best (and enjoy it most) in the lab and field, where hands-on, experimental, investigative work with living organisms (or parts thereof…) and advanced instrumentation develops your practical skills as scientists and prepares you well for graduate school, professional school, or the job market. Traditionally, all electives for the Biology major were lab courses. The Bio faculty decided in 2001 to allow one of the 5 electives to be a non-lab seminar. The reason for this was two-fold: (1) some advanced courses we wanted to teach were better-suited to a seminar format, and (2) it was important for us to offer more general education courses, particularly Foundations courses. Offering some seminar electives made it possible for us to offer more Foundations courses. Most colleges like us allow both lab and non-lab electives to count toward the biology major, so our policy of allowing one seminar elective is not unusual.
We strongly believe that advanced courses should not be large. The reason is simple: you learn better in smaller courses, particularly courses with intensive laboratory and field components. Most of you expected to be able to take smaller classes and interact extensively with your professors when you decided to attend a liberal arts college like F&M. For many years, we have set elective enrollment caps at 16 students. Our experience is that this is the maximum size for effective teaching in the lab and field, particularly for investigative, experimental work. (Note: We allow labs in the core courses to exceed 16 for pragmatic reasons. The demand for these courses is higher than for most electives, and it is important to accommodate students who wish to enroll in the core courses, particularly in Bio 110 and Bio 220, as they explore their interests in Biology, complete requirements for other majors or PHA, etc.).
The introduction of F&M’s new general education curriculum in 1997 required that the faculty offer enough Foundations and First-Year Seminar courses to meet student needs across the College. All departments are expected to contribute to the general education offerings. Biology faculty have worked toward contributing their share over the last several years while trying to maintain adequate support for the Biology major and the growing interdepartmental majors (BFB, BMB, PBH, ES, ESc). These multiple responsibilities have sometimes made it difficult to offer enough elective courses to meet the requirements for all Bio, BFB, and BMB majors to graduate with the expected number of electives.
The nature of our core has two impacts on elective pressures in fall versus spring. First, the core ends with a fall course (Bio 305, Genetics) that you need to take as a junior or senior. Consequently, there are fewer open slots in most of your schedules for fall electives than for spring electives (which is why we try to provide more electives in spring each year – at least 7 in fall and 8 in spring). Second, the core’s disciplinary breakdown causes an asymmetry in elective topics in fall versus spring. Because our ecological/evolutionary faculty teach in Bio 110, most of the ecological/evolutionary electives are offered in fall. Similarly, the organismal (Bio 220) and molecular (Bio 305) faculty who teach in fall offer their electives in spring.
This imbalance between fall and spring topics can reduce student access to desired electives. For example, students interested in ecology or evolution have fewer choices in spring, while students interested in molecular and organismal biology have fewer choices in fall. Students who want molecular or organismal courses tend to wait until spring to take most of their electives, and thus the demand for the spring courses is higher than what it would be in the absence of the asymmetry (or if student interests were broader – see the next point). We could potentially fix this problem by changing the core, but doing so would generate a large set of other curricular and staffing problems. We are working on other ways to reduce the imbalance at this time, but it cannot be eliminated completely.
You know how popular some electives are and how difficult it is to get into them because of their popularity. An important reason for this is that many of you have relatively narrow interests in biology. You are generally more interested in animals (and especially vertebrates) than any other kingdom, and there is a strong interest in human biology. Across the biological hierarchy, more of you are interested in cellular and molecular biology than in disciplines like ecology and evolution.
Why emphasize this? Some of the frustration you express about getting the electives you want stems from these skewed interests. We understand where your taxonomic and disciplinary interests come from (we like human biology, too!). However, every semester, some electives are filled to overflowing with long waiting lists while others attract far fewer students (often less than 10, particularly as first choices). There is nothing “wrong” about wanting to know a lot about human biology, or in having taxonomic favorites among the five kingdoms, or in being more intrigued by some biological processes than others. But there is an important difference between having favorites and actively disliking, or being “bored” by, other taxonomic groups and biological disciplines.
We believe it is essential to your perspective as a biologist and your maturation as a practicing scientist (basic or applied) that you appreciate and enjoy learning about all kinds of organisms and life processes. Whatever your career goals, our hope is that you will strive to be a broadly knowledgeable biologist with no biases in what you regard as important and worth studying in biology. The broader your interests, the more the diversity of our electives will appeal to you.
Once you engage wholeheartedly with a discipline, you’ll realize its meaning and significance, and you will see more of the connections that link all the kingdoms and disciplines of biology in both basic and applied ways. For example, evolution and population genetics matter hugely to medicine, as shown by the rapid development of disease-resistant pathogens through heavy use of antibiotics. Soil bacteria and fungi strongly affect plant growth and the quality of human foods. Epidemiology is based in part on fundamentals of population biology, interspecific ecology, and biogeochemistry. The biochemistries of human nutrition and toxicology are influenced by the evolution of plant defense against herbivores and pathogens. Global climate change impacts on humans – and on our attempts to solve the potentially huge problems substantial climate change could produce – will involve the physiology, biochemistry, and molecular biology of human bodies, crops, wild species, parasites, and pathogens in interconnected webs of cause and effect.
We believe it is our responsibility – especially at the undergraduate level, and particularly in a liberal arts college – to offer a broad majors curriculum that covers all the fundamental disciplines of biology. This has become more difficult for a small college department as biology has exploded over the last several decades into a huge field with numerous new subdisciplines and interfaces with other sciences. A variety of biological disciplines and courses that used to be taught routinely in liberal arts colleges are no longer offered. Increasingly specialized training at the graduate level has made it even more important for undergraduates to be broadly educated in biology, since this is the last time most of you will have an opportunity to sample so many biological fields, taxa, and processes in your coursework and see how they are all connected.
This philosophy – plus our hope that you will appreciate and enjoy all kinds of biology – means we are reluctant to narrow our elective offerings to match dominant student interests, particularly for specialized career preparation. We do take student interests, including career goals, into account to a certain extent when we decide which electives we can and should offer across the years. But our commitment to a broad curriculum for everyone, including majors whose taxonomic, disciplinary, and career interests are in the minority, has to be balanced against serving the dominant career interests. All of our electives are relevant to all biological careers in one way or another. They all develop your knowledge and skills and help you become a broadly educated person and informed professional.
Put all these factors together, and you can see why the elective poll is important. Since we cannot provide enough elective course slots for every student to take every course he or she wants, the only fair way to maximize the match-up between students and desired electives is to ask you what you want/need every semester and then allocate elective course slots through a rational system of priorities. The alternatives – a randomized lottery system, or a first-come, first-served priority system – are poor options. Our elective poll is not a perfect system, but it is the best way we have found to get you into the courses you want under the constraints and philosophies described above.
Elective poll forms are prepared and made available through Google on-line forms in advance of the college-wide, two-week Advisement/Pre-Registration period every semester.
All first-years, sophomores, juniors (and seniors in the Fall) are invited each semester through the Biology Department Office to submit a poll via Google forms. Majors studying abroad are contacted through e-mail by the Biology department academic coordinator so they can take part in the poll if they wish.
Students have about one week to complete the poll, including several days after the Advisement/Pre-Registration process begins.
The deadline for submission is clearly noted in all communications. It is the student’s responsibility to meet the deadline.
No poll forms are processed until the submission deadline has been reached, and no priority is given for forms turned in early (i.e., it is not a first-come, first-served process). However, poll forms submitted after the deadline are marked “late” and are processed only after all other students who submitted forms on time have been placed in electives. Therefore, it is crucial that you submit your poll form (electronically only) by the deadline.
The academic department coordinator collects all submitted data (via Google on-line forms) and produces a master spreadsheet for the department chair that includes the following information for each student: (1) student name; (2) graduation year; (3) major; (4) how many electives are requested for the following term; (5) how many electives have been taken already; and (6) elective choices (1-5).
The department chair develops tentative admission and wait lists for all elective courses in consultation with the faculty, using all information provided on the poll forms.
Tentative admission and wait lists are posted outside the Biology Office before the deadline for campus-wide, on-line registration [date and time are specified in the poll instructions].
Students must initial these posted lists if they still wish to be in the course, or add their name to their desired wait list. If a student moves up on the wait list, the course instructor will contact them. This must be done by the date and time specified on the poll instructions – usually a few days after the tentative lists are posted.
After the initialing period is over, the department chair works with faculty to finalize course admission lists. Once enrollment permission lists are confirmed, professors will enroll students in permission-only courses during the registration period.
The following general priorities apply in placing students into electives:
The decision on which students are admitted to an elective when the number requesting the course exceeds course capacity is based first on the priorities and then on the special considerations described above. After this, if there are still more students who want a course than the number of slots available, and they have equal priority and special considerations, then admission is determined by a random draw.
Steps for Placing Students into Electives
The following sequence is used by the department chair to allocate elective course slots to students:
Every attempt is made to get students into one of their top choices. But this is usually not possible for everyone, given the number and kinds of electives being offered, student demand for some electives and not others, and the priorities and considerations described above.