Excluding presidential elections, legislative redistricting is undoubtedly the most important event in American politics. If state legislators work diligently and craftily during redistricting, they can pretty much put state politics on autopilot for the next 10 years, for district lines can annihilate their partisan opponents. In this, they are quite similar to Harvard students during shopping period.
The decisions that you make in the next week have similar consequences for your upcoming semester. The four or five numbers you list on your study card will color everything, both academic and otherwise, that you do for the next 17 weeks. Yet a surprising number of students approach shopping period with reckless abandon. Like the unwitting partisan who overlooks the gravity of redistricting, these students risk a torturous sentence to a hell of their own making. Hence, a systematic approach to shopping period is needed.
Unfortunately, those who need such advice most are the ones for whom it is least effective. Truly effective shopping requires a group of older and wiser friends and a comfortable knowledge about the FAS system. First-year students typically have neither. (Some may have upperclass friends from high school.)
First things first: Toss the Confi and the CUE guides in the trash can. The former is an unreliable, if amusing, collection of essays on certain classes. These essays are no more than one student's opinion, and that student probably has as much in common with you as Adam. The latter seems more reliable, but typically relies on pitiably small samples from which one can extract little conclusive evidence. It gives two important pieces of information (class size and reading list) but both are easily discernible during shopping period.
With those two books out of the picture, the next step is easy. Disregard the "workload" or "difficulty" of a class. Use the course catalog to narrow classes into two genera relative to you: interesting (very small) and uninteresting (very large). Next, take the first genus and divide it into two species: difficult and easy. Now, start making calculated decisions about how much you want to read and write this semester. The worst mistake you can make during shopping period is to enroll in an uninteresting class because you've read or heard that it is a "gut." You'll hate the lectures and section, despise the reading and have no enthusiasm, which is the key to good grades and a fun semester.
Here we see the first-year problem again: Without course guides, word of mouth advice becomes precious, but many first-years have no one from whom to take advice. There is a simple, though not easy, solution to this problem, first-years. You obviously know your interests, so divide your courses accordingly. When you go to class during shopping period, similarly interested people surround you; approach older ones until you find a like-minded junior or senior who will give you advice. This may seem awkward, but it works, as you will see in December.
There is the short version of a successful shopping period: Narrow classes according to interest, and then consider difficulty. Yet this necessary step to an enjoyable semester is not a sufficient one. Smaller, but not unimportant, factors come into play as well. The obvious one is the time your class day will begin. Good courses (excluding introductory level math, science and language) are hard to come by before 11 a.m., a time which seems reasonable. If not, well, that's a personal problem.
A less obvious consideration is the length of your class week and the days of your classes. Most students have between 10 and 15 hours of classes per week. (If one is senior with enough time on one's hands to write an editorial about shopping period, one can get by with seven hours.) Friday is a horrible day for class: When you're in a bar late Thursday night, you don't want class on your mind. Monday is only slightly better for the same reason. So Tuesday-Thursday classes are best, with Monday-Wednesday classes a distant second. Whatever you do, schedule all of your mandatory sections on either Tuesday or Wednesday. By doing so, you effectively create a five or six day weekend, since you needn't attend lectures if in a pinch or out of town.
Nevertheless, scheduling sections on Tuesday or Wednesday is light-years less important than getting a good section leader. Only by talking to friends who have taken the class can you do this. Once you find the name of a good TF, find her after class. Tell her you've heard rave reviews about her and must be in her section. She will accommodate you.
Finally, talk to professors in your potential classes. Harvard mythology unfairly portrays professors as prima donnas, who despise teaching undergrads (or in the words of former professor and now Sen. Phil Gramm, "slopping the hogs"). This is almost uniformly untrue. The vast majority of professors enjoy talking about their courses; it is, after all, their passion in life. Just make an appointment or write an e-mail to discuss your interests, concerns or inquiries. You will get thoughtful and informative responses.
And if you find a way to avoid the anathema of lotteried courses while maintaining the structure of shopping period, please e-mail Dean of Undergraduate Education William M. Todd (todd@fas). As thousands of us will soon see, this is the most worrisome aspect of our system. Solving it would allow careful undergrads to kick back, pop a cold one and light a cigar on study card day, just as the most wily state legislators do after redistricting.
"Schedule all of your mandatory sections for either Tuesday or Wednesday so you create a five or six day weekend."
Thomas B. Cotton '98, a Crimson editor, is pleased to be a sagacious senior.