"What am I going to take?" is the burning question for everyone during shopping period. The good news is that there is an endless number of interesting courses, from AAS to WWS; the bad news, of course, is that they're all scheduled at exactly the same time. Whoever said that "Time is nature's way of making sure that everything doesn't happen at once" had never seen the pileups on MW and TTh at 11 a.m.
There's another group who worried about this question a few weeks ago, people that we all see but don't really notice. In the back of almost every medium to large class is a collection of students who don't fit the 18-to-22-year old demographic of the typical Princeton undergrad; indeed, many of them look more like grandparents (or, as my wife observes, like me.) These are the community auditors.
I had never heard of community auditors until five or six years ago, when someone asked if a couple of them could attend my class. The ground rules were simple: auditors had to sit at the back and say nothing (just like regular undergrads). In fact, it's a bit more complicated than that — they have to stand in line, way before the semester starts, to sign up for the one or two courses they want, hoping that the auditor quota won't be reached. They also pay a not inconsequential fee of $120 per course.
Ever since, I have had a few auditors in each of my classes. They are readily identifiable by age, though not all are "senior citizens," but they are also distinguished by a degree of regular attendance and attentiveness not always achieved by the younger generation. They are, to a man or woman, remarkably nice people, accomplished, eager to learn and great fun to talk to. Some have become good friends, an unexpected but wonderful benefit.
When I first encountered community auditors, it occurred to me that I could audit courses too. In theory, there might be time to audit one course each semester, though in practice it usually only works in the spring. It's been pretty easy to disguise myself as a community auditor; indeed, I was even carded once in POL 380 by a clipboard-carrying lady who was weeding out interlopers. ("Faculty," I whispered, and she left me alone.) By now I've audited half a dozen courses, not only filling in some of the giant holes in my formal education, but also seeing how gifted teachers do their thing so well.
One gets a different perspective on the educational process by sitting in the back instead of standing at the front. It's easy to estimate what fraction of students cut classes, by counting empty seats over the semester or by noticing which familiar faces show up only infrequently. One can see what's happening on the laptops whose screens are hidden from the instructor. (There's some diligent note-taking, to be sure, but also a lot of equally diligent emailing, chatting, game-playing and random surfing.) One can monitor the student diet, or at least portable components like bagels and coffee. And one even gets hints of social life by observing the whispered conversations, the continual checking of cell phones and the occasional semiprivate public displays of affection. "Multitasking" is the most positive spin one could put on these lecture-hall activities, and not surprisingly, those who sit further toward the back of the room seem to pay less attention to the front and more to the distractions.
Sleeping in class, however, is more easily seen from the front. Some narcolepsy is caused by boring lectures and lecturers, but it's also true that most students are in the middle of four years of major sleep deprivation, and class is the only time to catch up. So I'm pretty sympathetic to those who doze off — I've certainly followed suit in some late afternoon seminars.
But what about those who just never show up? It has often surprised me how frequently people cut classes. An individual Princeton course retails for $4,125 (a startling figure that you can verify on the Continuing Education website). It's not a meaningful computation, of course, but consider: if a course has 24 lectures, that's about $170 each, which is more than pocket change. It would seem like a Good Thing to go to every lecture and pay attention at least some of the time. Failing that, is it better to surf and sleep in the back of McCosh 10 or in the comfort of one's own room? Good question. Maybe we should ask the community auditors. I think they have it figured out. Brian Kernighan is a professor in the Department of Computer Science and is a Forbes faculty adviser. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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