Twice a year, and a few times in between, I’m expected to advise students on the courses that they should take. At first my excuse for not feeling very qualified was that I hadn’t been a faculty member for that long. By year 2, I was requesting course enrollment data from the registrar, and mapping network diagrams of “people who took X also took Y”. That way I could at least make plausible recommendations. For the first year I was at SI, there was also a site, “rankSI”, where students could rate and comment on courses and professors. Though it was at times painful to look at the harsh criticism, it did provide useful insights. Then it became flooded with spam and went away (btw, I think having CourseRank, a Stanford project that Hector Garcia-Molina is involved in, here at UofM would be great).
It all boils down to a feeling that it’s the students, and not we the faculty who have the inside scoop on courses. Ages ago, while getting my PhD at Stanford, I took pretty awesome courses in CS, stats, EESOR and physics, thanks to recommendations from other students. And I would be able to recommend those courses, because I spent many hours toiling through them.
But now I take no courses. I may know that a colleague is a good researcher or a good speaker, but do I know things about their courses past what is listed on the syllabus (if that)? Sometimes, a bit, if an instructor boasts about an activity, or an advisee mentions their experience with a course. An even bigger challenge comes when students from other departments ask me about courses similar to mine, but in their department. Or students from my school asking about courses elsewhere… I then try and remember what other advisees had told me, or sneak a peek at my not-overly-useful network diagrams. But mostly I tell them “ahem… have you thought about talking to other students?”.

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