The Limits of Choice

Just a short postscript on the question of choice: It was very funny with the selection of the Wahlpflichtmodul, because there were a lot of considerations that suddenly occurred to me that had not in the first place to do with my preferences regarding the subjects offered. For starters, I suddenly had the desire to be in a different course than my programming partner. Working with him has its advantages, but usually means I feel dependent and slightly patronized, and I just wanted to try something different. Simply selecting different courses seemed a nice excuse for doing that without causing offence. Fortunately, our preferences didn’t correspond anyway. His favorite course is called “The software project”, is being offered by our software engineering professor, and sounds much like software engineering, part III (we get two mandatory parts anyway, this term and next term). Certainly the professor is a virtual guarantee for this course being relaxed and enjoyable, but there is probably a comparatively small chance to learn exciting new things there. Yet sometimes I think that’s just what my programming partner prefers–knowing a few things (particularly Java) well rather than a lot of things superficially. There is something to be said for this approach, no doubt, but I am quite different there.

My own preferences, as I said, were rather a negative selection. For instance, some professors have the reputation of being difficult, so that rules out some things. Then, most Wahlpflichtmodule come with oral presentations, projects, or seminar papers, but some stick to the traditional model of written exams. And we have already done so many of those that I won’t have another if I can positively avoid it. That was some more courses off the list of possible choices. So in the end I was stuck with three priorities, only the first of which I had selected out of interest for the subject. That course was called “Advanced programming concepts” and would have involved studying a programming language of our choice other than Java and presenting it to the class by way of live programming. I found that a great idea–as I said before, I am rather fond of languages–but I was not at all sure about the professor. He too had a reputation for being at least very demanding. The preference for the concept of the course though prevailed. My second choice, conversely, was entirely because of the professor, namely our Math 101 and graph theory teacher. Her course offering (model transformation) was rather abstract. My third priority was a course on computer graphics, exclusively for the fact that it was being taught in English. As I said: I love languages.

Then a few hours before the deadline something make me think. I recalled that the students counsellor had mentioned that only about half of the courses advertised would actually take place, because there was a minimum requirement of 10 students participating. I suddenly wondered what would happen if all three of my choices were so unpopular with my co-students that they would fail to get the minimum attendance. And that was really quite possible, for the very facts that made my first and third choices attractive to me (languages other than Java and German) conceivably could make them unattractive for many others, and my second choice sounded really very abstract. Unfortunately, with our system there is no way of seeing how many students have registered themselves for a course, or submitted priorities. So I hurriedly contacted my peer group over our messenger platform and asked them their choices. Turned out there was a single one each who had selected my first and my third choice, and none had registered for my second.

I was suddenly faced with the possibility that I had not selected any valid choice and would end up randomly stuck into a Wahlpflichtmodul not of my own choosing. I could imagine quite some where this would be singularly unattractive. So in the last few hours before the deadline I threw out one of my choices (the second, since it seems nobody at all was interested in it) and replaced it with one that most of my peers had selected as well: A course on “adaptive systems”, offered by a highly contentious professor: Some pronounce him the greatest teacher they have ever met, others say they would never attend another course with him. So another negative and somewhat risky selection. But at least of this module I could be sure it would actually take place.

And I think that was a rather good idea. Because when the actual course allocation appeared in the computer system two days ago, I had been placed in this course in spite of it being my second choice, which makes it rather likely that my first choice didn’t meet the minimum attendance requirement. I definitely know so about my original second choice (the professor was, understandably, rather put off by this). The graphics course is taking place though, but frankly, I am more interested in artificial intelligence. So yes, I may have ended up in this one had I placed it second, or stuck with my original choice. But I am fine with how this turned out. Particularly since our entire peer group is in this course, solely excepting my programming partner, who got into the software project module that was his first choice. Seems I got my wish, after all.

But I do wish they would (a) offer a lot less courses, so those that are being offered have a better chance of actually taking place, and (b) show the number of people who have registered a choice for a course in the computer system, so we know we are not wasting a priority on a pointless selection. Without that, the choice is really rather limited by secondary considerations.


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