Web Exclusives: On the Campus

October 11, 2006:

A Point of Guidance

By Christian R. Burset ’07

As they arrived on campus, a primary task for members of the Class of 2010 was trying to distill the University’s course offerings into the perfect four-course semester. The University provides a network of faculty and peer academic advisers and residential college staff. But students looking for another perspective can turn to the newly renovated Student Course Guide, a compilation of student-written evaluations that considers everything from the quality of lectures to workload.

“We don’t think it takes the place of academic advisers, nor does it take the place of informal conversations,” USG academics chair Caitlin Sullivan ’07 said. “I do think it’s a valuable resource.”

The Undergraduate Student Government has produced the course guide for decades, first as a paper publication and later online. I shied away from a history class when a review blasted the professor as “[r]ude, condescending, arrogant” and advised me to “be prepared to be belittled and humiliated as a stupid undergraduate who knows nothing.” Much better, I thought after scanning another review, to study with “one of those rare professors who does his utmost to help students.”

With a reputation for candid advice (how many faculty advisers can really tell their freshmen to avoid a colleague’s course “at all costs”?), the guide has become an essential item for students.

But last year, technical problems paralyzed the popular service, preventing USG staff from adding new course information or reviews. The task of reviving the guide fell to Sullivan, who launched a design competition. Joseph Perla ’09 – who now serves as the SCG’s webmaster – submitted the winning proposal, which he created three short days after the competition began. In less than a month the USG had launched an initial version of Perla’s design.

The easy-to-use guide attracted some praise from students. A Daily Princetonian editorial applauded the project as evidence of “a [student] government that works.” But the quick creation of the new course guide meant that some old problems remained, and a few new ones were created. Most critically, Perla wasn’t able to transfer the old guide’s thousands of student-written reviews into the new site. Students have already contributed dozens of new reviews, and the new guide includes links to the old site’s evaluations.

But SCG user Jen Edelstein ’09 said that until the new guide gets fleshed out, it has little benefit. “There’s nothing on there,” Edelstein said. “And the reviews on the old site are often so old they aren’t applicable.”

Perla acknowledged that much remains to be done. “There are so many possible improvements that I will be busy at least until I graduate,” he said.

* * *

THE PRINCETON THESIS, University administrators often remind us, offers seniors many opportunities.

Among them is the opportunity to make painfully simple errors. My first junior paper had 591 periods, 640 commas, and more than 11,000 words – each with the potential for an embarrassing typographical slip or grammatical misstep.

Last spring, the USG began offering upperclassmen a way to alleviate this annoying aspect of independent work. Thanks to a new proofreading service offered through Point, the USG’s Web portal, frantic upperclassmen can now browse an online list of undergraduates who have volunteered to be an extra set of eyes for their independent work.

USG Vice President Rob Biederman ’08 came up with the idea after helping a senior friend with her thesis.

“I felt that as a sophomore with a relatively lesser workload, it was my Princeton duty to help,” Biederman said in an e-mail. “It’s a nice way to give back.”

Biederman and USG webmaster Dan O’Shea ’09 set up the service on Point last spring. About a dozen students, mostly freshmen and sophomores, volunteered to help scrambling juniors and seniors check for stray words and missing punctuation.

“I really like thinking about grammar things, using ‘which’ vs. ‘that’ – that kind of thing was fun for me,” said reader Katherine Epstein ’08, an Ecology and Evolutionary Biology major. “I thought it would be a good way to get some perspective on how to write a thesis.”

Only a handful of juniors and seniors took advantage of the program last year. The service was launched too late to be very useful to the Class of 2006, Biederman said, but the USG planned to publicize the program heavily as this year’s juniors and seniors work on their independent projects.

O’Shea and Biederman both said they planned to use the USG’s proofreading service when they had to complete their own independent projects.

“I'd feel guilty asking a friend to proofread for me as a favor,” O’Shea said, “but if someone is interested enough to volunteer, it seems like a win-win to me.” P

BursetChristian R. Burset ’07 is a history major from Bernardsville, N.J.

Photo by Hyunseok Shim ’08