Carolina crunches the numbers
and starts over again – at 101

published in Carolina Alumni Review, November/December 2006

Where does an old course number go to retire?

If I visit Boca Raton in the coming months, will I find Econ 10 sipping a pina colada on a chaise lounge at the timeshare he bought with Statistics 11? Is Geology 11 rock-climbing in California, skiing in Aspen?

I imagine Math 31 sitting at his computer at 8 a.m., checking his investments and snickering about all the journalism students he tortured through the years. (I also imagine him lonely and bitter, but that’s my own thing.)

French 2x, of course, is sunning herself on the Riviera and still making fun of all those Southerners trying to speak her language. Poli 41 is president of his active-living community association, looking to gerrymander tee times for himself and his buddy, PUPA 71. And I’d bet my swim test that Chem 11’s wife wishes her husband would find part-time work as a Wal-Mart greeter and just get out of her hair for a while – literally. She’s had enough already of the color treatment experiments, even if they are organic.

Yeah, it must be difficult to be all washed up, forced out by a younger, sleeker, sexier model. And I do feel sympathy for the gang that gave more than 100 years to the task of organizing college students’ days into a set of numbers as lovable as your Uncle Gus and as rational as my crazy Aunt Marge. But listen up, Old Numbers: As of fall 2006, you’re through. You’re done, like Tom Cruise and Paramount.

The old scheme, in place for more than a century, was an almost accidental numbering formula that gave Carolina some of the most unusual course numbers in higher education. But for the past decade, it also was one of the least efficient and least elastic, preventing faculty and departments from displaying Carolina’s offerings in their entirety.

So this fall, the University unveiled the best new numbering system a college education and a 20-person committee of academics can think up, a traditional scheme of 101s and 102s that solves the space issues for the foreseeable future. But students and other inhabitants of campus have found that sending a family member off to a retirement home isn’t as easy as it sounds.

The integers and the odyssey

Course numbering systems are the ugly stepchildren of college curriculums. Nobody thinks about them, really, until they get crow’s feet around their eyes, bunions around their toes and a little too much paunch around the middle. This is especially true of a 213-year-old university such as Carolina, where some of the original course catalogs consisted of subjects such as Horace, Sallust and something called fluxions – which, frankly, sounds like a serious medical condition.

In fact, when Hinton James first came to Chapel Hill, there were no course numbers at all. There were barely even any courses – a handful that were referred to by topic only. Eventually, the antebellum University was fixed this way for different reasons; preventing the expansion of course offerings kept the curriculum rooted firmly in the classics and pruned of the dangerous practical knowledge associated with Northern pursuits – you know, the kind of wickedly squirrelly thinking that gave us the steamship, the telegraph and the railroad.

“There was a distrust of the kind of inquiring habit of mind that went with the sciences,” said James Leloudis ’77, associate professor of history and author of Schooling the New South: Pedagogy, Self, and Society in North Carolina, 1880-1920. “They would look at contemporary politics and social movements, and they would say that the danger is that same kind of inquiring of mind had produced the great ‘-isms’ of the day – the worst of which, of course, was abolitionism.”

But there’s nothing like being on the losing end of a Civil War to change your mind about an economy built on commercial agriculture and industry – which is exactly what Kemp Battle and other trustees of the University had in mind when a new UNC, modeled on the German research university with an electives system similar to Harvard’s, reopened after the Civil War in 1875, Leloudis said.

It helped that, nationwide, predominantly ecclesiastical boards of trustees at universities were being replaced by highly generous corporate leaders, marking a trend away from religious-based curricula into the secular studies. At the end of the 19th century, “there’s an explosion of knowledge in other fields as well,” Leloudis said. “This is the point at which social sciences emerge as academic disciplines.”

Not long after this explosion of knowledge, and the introduction of campuswide graduate programs in 1886, the volume of courses became a bit unwieldy. To keep the order, UNC course catalogs began to number classes in individual departments rather commonly, as though they were making a shopping list. Indeed, the grocery list system – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 – is essentially the same system under which Carolina students always have operated. The English 1: Rhetoric and Composition that Thomas Wolfe ’20 presumably took was the same English 1: Composition and Rhetoric that students in my 1991 freshman class took (although it was changed in the mid-’90s to English 11).

How, then, did the traditional introductory classes in some disciplines wind up as 10s or 20s or even 53s or 71s? The educational expectations of students changed as the times did, and some courses, along with their numbers, just disappeared. A look through the old course catalogs (dating to 1821) shows that, in some cases, one class would be combined with another and given the next higher number available. In the 1930s, the University also began to define how numbers could be used, causing further shuffling. Numbers 0-49 were reserved for introductory courses; 50-99 for juniors and seniors; 100-199 for advanced undergraduates and graduate students; and 200-399 were for graduate students only. The digits that were used then just stuck, like gum on an old shoe, until today. That’s the same numbering system that’s on the back of your college transcript – the one that became a casualty on Aug. 23, 2006.

“When they created the research university in the late 19th century, they essentially created the place that we know today,” Leloudis said. “The place we inhabit is far larger, more elaborate, more complex; but, fundamentally, it’s the same institution that was created after the Civil War.”

No room for oysters

It’s the “larger, more elaborate, more complex” part that began to bother faculty members about a decade ago. When you add thousands more students and grow a curriculum to 10,000 courses to meet their study options, a numbering system that makes way for fewer than 100 undergraduate classes in each discipline begins to look like it dates to 1875.

“The provost was starting to get phone calls from departments on campus, saying, ‘We’ve really got to do something about our numbering system,’ ” recalled former UNC registrar David Lanier ’72, who retired last summer after 24 years in the office. “They’d tell us, ‘We’re getting ready to create a course, and we’ve run out of numbers.’ ”

Our dearly departed system actually was even more limiting than the setup indicated. Numbers 0-49 were reserved for freshman and sophomore classes – the introductory work – while 50-99 were supposed to contain only junior and senior courses, even though that was a rule that many departments could not afford to follow.

Beyond that, courses in the 90s were reserved for undergraduate research and special topics. “So basically,” Lanier said, “because no one was using numbers below 10 for standard courses, either, the entire undergraduate offering had to be numbered between 11 and 89 – about 80 numbers that you could use for a whole undergraduate curriculum. That’s definitely a problem.”

Naturally, the larger departments were struggling the most, English and history among them. Last year, the English department listed 102 separate courses for undergraduates; history logged 98.

“We started to have to use things like letters at the end of the numbers,” said Daniel Anderson, director of undergraduate studies in English and an associate professor. “So we would have one course that would be a contemporary literary theory course, and that would be English 90. But then, if someone wanted to focus on, say, feminism or historical aspects of that, it would become 90B or 90C. And then, in the course catalog it would be even more confusing because English 90 would be described in a generic way that didn’t always line up with the newer, letter courses.”

Further complicating matters for students, Anderson said, was the confusion about whether 90A, B or C fulfilled the same curriculum requirement that the original English 90 did.

Lanier understood the problem – he struggled with it himself. When organizations such as the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools came for an accreditation visit and asked how many writing courses UNC had, or how many undergraduate research or special topics courses, “we’d say, ‘We don’t know,’ ” Lanier said, “because they’re just randomly numbered.” Still, embarrassing as that was, he was a little busy during his tenure moving the University registration system out of the gym and online to jump into overhauling the cobwebbed numbering program.

And then in 1999, the University began planting the seeds of a revised curriculum that would replace the one that has governed students since 1983. Tom Tweed, current chair of the religious studies department and then-associate dean for undergraduate curricula, began asking faculty what was broken and needed fixing in the curriculum. What he got were pleas from faculty members to change the numbering system, too.

“We got curious. So we asked more people,” Tweed said, ” ‘Is it a problem for you?’ And the response we got was, ‘Is it?’ ”

So, in the midst of the largest curriculum change in more than two decades, the University, at former Provost Robert Shelton’s behest, decided to rip the whole bandage off at once and undo what was done a century ago. Proving once again that there is no navel too esoteric in higher education into which to gaze, in 2003 the Course Renumbering Committee was born, a 20-person group led by Lanier, complete with its own Web site (regweb.unc.edu/official/training/crc/).

The group did what all good committees do: They looked at what other universities used for numbering systems. Lanier found that UNC’s wasn’t that odd; in fact, several other institutions used the same one, including the University of California system, Duke, Maryland and Stanford.

In the end, however, the committee selected a new scheme that’s certainly more traditional and popular among universities. It expanded the range for undergraduate courses and doubled the number for introductory classes. Numbers 100-199 are reserved for intro classes, and 100-399 are for undergraduates only and must be numbered progressively in each department. Numbers 400-699 are advanced undergraduate and graduate courses, while 700 and above belong solely to the graduate school.

Unless a student is taking a first-year seminar (50-89), no one will ever enroll in a double-digit course again.

After 6,000 undergraduate courses and 4,000 graduate courses were converted in time for this fall’s new scheme – an extraordinary amount of work that Tweed said no one could have imagined – the early reviews among faculty are positive.

For example, instead of being hidden as a special topics in literature course, English 486, “Environmental Literature” – with a section that touches on the culture of oysters – is in plain view. And we can all be thankful for that.

“Everybody knows we teach Shakespeare,” Anderson said. “But there are a lot of other things we do that weren’t so readily apparent. Now it is clear. What it’s done is made the courses that are on the books more accurately reflect the innovative work the teachers have been doing.”

Many departments, religious studies among them, found that they did not have a “true 101” course already on the books and ended up creating one, causing Tweed to think that “something as mundane and pedestrian as renumbering, when linked with revising the curriculum – which, of course, is about profound questions about what it means to be an educated person – all led us to seriously rethink how best to educate Carolina students.”

“With a great deal of caution, I can proudly say that I think the new scheme is better.”

Take a number

Academics find it easier sometimes to see that big picture, while they’re inside those small navels, than the rest of us do. On the one hand, it makes sense to switch to a more common model – to, as Anderson pointed out, “correspond to what people were doing elsewhere in the nation.” It seems to make more sense for other graduate schools reading our transcripts, who may have wondered if Biology 11 was a remedial course. The new system also certainly helps the crowded number problem for both undergraduate and graduate courses by expanding from 400 slots to 1,000. And, of course, new Carolina students will feel a little more included in the joke at cocktail parties when someone refers to a basic skill or knowledge as “Real Estate 101” or “Cooking 101.” (You never hear anyone say, “It’s just Relationships 31, man.”)

All of that said, the rationality of the new system doesn’t mean the rest of us non-faculty and non-administrative types have to like it. As alumni, we’d probably be OK with the old system for another 100 years for the sake of tradition. You try to cover up the crow’s feet with a little Oil of Olay, maybe. You buy a hideous pair of comfortable shoes for your bunions. You buy elastic pants for your paunch. Anything to keep from messing with our memories.

And some upperclassmen who returned to school this fall wholeheartedly agree.

The new system has put a damper on that time-honored tradition of asking around for the easiest – uh, best – teachers to take. “Freshmen will ask you,” said Courtney Adams, a senior English major,” ‘What teacher did you take for English 120?’, which is an introductory course. And you’re like, ‘I never had to take English 120, but if you can tell me what it was last year, I can help you.’ I mean, nobody refers to introductory courses by their topic names.”

In other words, you wouldn’t accost someone on the path and say, “Excuse me, but who do I take for British Literature: Chaucer to Pope, please?” Adams said the transition could have been smoother if the administration had given upperclassmen printed conversion tables of the new numbering system, instead of referring them to a Web site in which translations are listed.

“I mean, if you’re on Franklin Street, you can’t really just open your laptop and start converting course numbers when someone asks you a question,” she said, proving that even the wired generation likes to keep things simple occasionally.

For all of its warts, the old system was accessible to student life. If you heard someone referring to a paper they had to complete for 21, you could place money on the fact that it was History 21. If you overheard someone in line at Lenoir say that they got a D on an assignment in 53, it was most likely Journalism 53.

The new scheme, with its 101s and 102s, has more uniformity – and no more originality. We’re no longer linked by the strange secret society that was our numbering system. We’re just like everybody else in the country. And, well … that’s kind of inconvenient and unnecessary to some folks.

“I guess, for freshmen, it might be an easier system,” Adams said, sighing. “But I didn’t feel like it was too difficult to deal with the letters, you know? I mean, H means ‘honors.’ It was a little obvious, I guess, is what I’m saying. I just don’t see the point of changing it.”

Although his department is certainly benefiting from the changes, Leloudis, who also is director of the Johnston Center for Undergraduate Excellence, said it won’t be a piece of cake for administrators, either. They must have two curriculums and two numbering systems in mind for the next three years, until this year’s sophomores graduate.

“Either one of them is complex enough,” Leloudis said. “But to try to hold two in your head simultaneously is a bit of a challenge.”

The challenge already has arrived for some advisers, said Adams. “When we went to see our advisers, the academic worksheets we were used to still had the old course numbers on them, and a lot of our advisers would refer to the new numbers. You’d have to translate between the two.”

And even though business major Sam Shepard is a junior, it might as well be freshman year for him. “Business is a two-year program,” said Shepard, “and you have juniors and seniors who are working with two different sets of numbers. This guy will call it 105, when it’s actually 402 to me. Also, every single professor on the first day of class tells the students, ‘This is what the class used to be called, and there’s a solid chance I might call it that several times this year.’ ”

Still, Shepard said, he’s not losing any sleep over the transitional bumps. He figures it’s probably a faculty thing, and, well … what can you do?

“Every school is going to have its own system,” Shepard said. “To me, it’s all pretty arbitrary. It’s just a number.”

That’s probably what student Lucius J. Polk would have said were he alive today. In 1821, as he pondered leaving behind Chapel Hill for the real world, he wrote a poem called “College Rules” that strove to keep all the important nonsense that goes along with higher education in the proper perspective.

Now we are freed from College Rules,
From common place book reason,
From trifling syllogistic schools,
And systems out of season:
Never more we’ll have defined,
If matter think or think not,
All the matter we’ve to mind,
Is see who drinks or drinks not.

A toast, then – paraphrased from History 16 (Early Modern Europe) – to all of our numbered memories:

The system is dead, y’all. Long live the system.

This article Copyright 2006 UNC General Alumni Association.