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Situation: My university has an online course registration system. Students (including me) choose courses in the system and submit their requests at certain time.

Sometimes, the course information is not detailed enough. A lot of course information in the catalog contains no or unreasonable prerequisite. For example, no prerequisite is listed in the information of a MATH 4000-level (fourth-year) course about real analysis. Another example is that a CSCI 4000-level course about cloud computing has a very minimal prerequisite course (something like an introductory OS course).

I am not sure whether it would be rude to email the lecturer in advance, asking whether there is any prerequisite not stated in the online system. While I am feeling OK to ask the lecturer if none of the “effective prerequisite” is stated for a 4000-level course (as I believe there must be some), I feel a bit sorry in the second case because it appears that I don’t trust the department’s course director and I chose to, in some sense, challenge the lecturer.

I did send an email asking the prerequisite of the cloud computing course. Initially I expected the lecturer to require me to have some basic knowledge about, e.g. graph theory, database system etc. He replied to me that there is no other prerequisite, though. For some other reasons I decided not to take that course, but I think similar situations may appear in future.

Any help is appreciated.

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    Perhaps explain what "4000-level" course means, I presume fourth year, but I'm guessing. – user2768 Sep 4 '18 at 7:11
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    I did this once and got an annoyed response "If it had any other prerequisites, they'd be listed." Most people should be fine with it tho – Azor Ahai Sep 4 '18 at 16:47
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    What exactly is your goal? Are you worried they'll kick you out because you "don't fulfill the prerequisite"? Or are you worried it will be too hard because it will be designed with the assumption that everyone took a certain course that you haven't? – Trusly Sep 5 '18 at 2:06
  • I do this at the beginning of almost each semester. Up until now, I have gotten responses to almost every one of my mails, so I do not think there is something wrong in doing that. – onurcanbektas Sep 6 '18 at 10:01
  • @user2768 yes you’re right...my university uses a 4-digit course code system. – tonychow0929 Sep 6 '18 at 13:14
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I wouldn't phrase it in terms of "effective prerequisites". But it's certainly fine to discuss with the professor whether you are adequately prepared. You could visit their office hours, or send an email:

Dear Professor So-And-So:

I am interested in taking your course MATH 4321. I see that no prerequisites are listed, but I was wondering what background knowledge is expected, and whether I'd be ready for this course. I've taken related courses X, Y, Z and feel comfortable with the material from those courses, and have also had some experience with topic Q. Does this seem sufficient? If you can recommend specific topics to review, or additional reading, I would appreciate it. Or, if there are other courses I should take first, that would also be helpful to know.

If you like you can attach a copy of your transcript.

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    Conversely, I have had success with getting away with not having taken explicit prerequisites. The message is much the same: I noticed prereq ABC, I've taken X, Y, Z which I think is similar, is that sufficient and if not, would it be possible to do independent reading over the summer to prepare myself? For a lower-level course (like 200s-level), that is sometimes sufficient. In both cases, it's a similar fundamental idea: the prof knows best, and it's okay to discuss your specific case with them. – yshavit Sep 5 '18 at 19:09
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    @yshavit: Thanks for pointing this out. Indeed, the professor almost always has the authority to waive prerequisites, and as you say, they are often willing to do so if you make a reasonable case. – Nate Eldredge Sep 5 '18 at 20:12
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Think about this from the lecturer's point of view. If you are the lecturer, would you rather:

  1. Have a student email you about what the prerequisites are and whether she meets them, or
  2. Have a student not email you, enroll, then find out she cannot understand what you are saying at all?

I think most reasonable people would prefer #1. If you are concerned about overpressing and appearing rude that way (e.g. responding to your CS professor with "are you seriously saying this level 4000 CS course has no prerequisites except this very basic OS course??") then you could also ask for details such as the textbook used or perhaps look through homework/tutorials/past-year exam papers, and gauge the level of the course that way.

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Its worth noting that some universities attempt to automatically enforce pre-requisites either by machine or by administrative review at the time of enrollment. Some professors may not want formal prerequisites because they can create administrative barriers to enrollment for a student that may have all the necessary knowledge without having some specific course listed on the transcript.

I smacked into this problem from the other side as a student at a University that administratively enforced pre-requisites and where the professors tended to list them explicitly and exactly. I spent a lot of time running around getting professors to sign forms authorizing me to take classes without having the formal prerequisites and it was annoying for me, my adviser that had to process it, and the professors.

With that said, I think asking about "effective prerequisites" using those words might either seem a bit of a challenge to a professor or possibly confuse them as to exactly what you mean. I suspect asking them what prior knowledge is assumed or asking for recommended prior reading is likely to get a positive response.

You can also probably get some idea of whether the class is too advanced or not by flipping through the textbook. If the first couple of chapters make sense you are probably fine. If you encounter unfamiliar terminology and concepts you consider difficult in the first couple of chapters then you should either wait on the class or do some independent study first.

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    +1 for "You can also probably get some idea of whether the class is too advanced or not by flipping through the textbook." When I was in college this seemed obvious to me, and I grew up in a fairly rural area (before the internet) and thus was probably a lot less knowledgable about certain things than many others (such as the fact that test prep for ACT and SAT tests was NOT confined a few percent of students who were rich and had private tutors and such). For this reason, I find it curious that this isn't done more often, or at least an explanation in the question for why this didn't work. – Dave L Renfro Sep 4 '18 at 17:56
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    That said, I think in this particular case the OP is more concerned about what appears to be errors in the on-line listing of prerequisites, but I'm not entirely sure of this interpretation. And if that's not the case, then maybe simply googling for a recent syllabus for the course is all the OP needs to do, rather than trying to find a copy of the textbook. (University bookstores are not as stocked as they used to be, especially regarding textbooks from past-taught courses.) In spite of all this, Nate Eldredge's answer seems best to me, at least for the math course. – Dave L Renfro Sep 4 '18 at 18:04
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Sometimes, the course information is not detailed enough. A lot of course information in the catalog contains no or unreasonable prerequisite.

Many courses are self-contained and should be accessible to any student that has studied the discipline in preceding years.

I am not sure whether it would be rude to email the lecturer in advance, asking whether there is any prerequisite not stated in the online system.

Suggesting that the lecturer was too lazy to list prerequisites is rude. Asking whether there is any reading that they would recommend is not rude, and should be encouraged.

The main idea is to ask for recommended reading, rather than required reading, because the latter invites conflict by implicitly suggesting that the lecturer didn't list some required reading, whereas the former invites a friendly reply.

I did send an email asking the prerequisite of the cloud computing course. Initially I expected the lecturer to require me to have some basic knowledge about, e.g. graph theory, database system etc. He replied to me that there is no other prerequisite, though.

You seem sceptical of your teachers, possibly unnecessarily.

TL;DR: Course information should be assumed correct; incorrect information isn't beneficial. Asking for additional reading should be encouraged.

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    If OP doesn't necessarily fit the profile of the typical student who would be taking said course, I think it's perfectly reasonable to ask. OP doesn't say what 4000 level means, but if it means 4th year course, and OP isn't a 4th year maths major, there could be implicit prerequisites that OP lacks but every 4th year maths major would have. In this particular case (real analysis), it would be very typical for the course to have no logical prerequisites, while still being practically incomprehensible to someone without the appropriate mathematical maturity. – SolveIt Sep 4 '18 at 13:55
  • Presumably, the online course registration system doesn't support registration of such students. Such students would probably be contacting staff directly and possibly attending informally, e.g., a fourth year physics student might attend courses (without registering) for fourth year maths students (possibly after asking the instructor whether they mind). – user2768 Sep 4 '18 at 15:15
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    "Presumably, the online course registration system doesn't support registration of such students." You assume the course registration system is infallible. – JAB Sep 4 '18 at 16:27
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    @user2768 most systems only go by the prerequisites. My college only used previous courses. For this reason many courses had somewhat irrelevant lower courses as prerequisites as they were required for those majors anyway and it ensured that people weren't taking the courses with absolutely no background in the field. – The Great Duck Sep 5 '18 at 3:45
  • @JAB I wrote "doesn't support," that's a form of failure. (As I mentioned, the system is limited, e.g., as per the fourth year physics student that I mentioned.) – user2768 Sep 5 '18 at 7:59
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I've actually had one of my students start asking this of professors when they enroll for courses. Many courses have implicit background classes - and for graduate classes, there is often an assumed background in the field. Memorably, he had a class where the lecturer frequently began statements with "As you will remember from your undergraduate coursework..." - something of a problem if you didn't have said coursework.

Emailing the professor to discuss your background and chances of successfully doing the coursework has, in my experience, been highly productive.

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