Save Shopping Period

Dean Kirby's preregistration plan will reduce students' opportunity to evaluate courses

Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby has expressed strong interest in introducing a limited form of preregistration for College courses. If these plans are implemented, shopping period—one of the small but important gems that make Harvard a unique University—will be seriously jeopardized.

Courses and professors, more than any other factor, define the undergraduate experience. Students can only evaluate professors by sitting in on their classes; reading the CUE Guide alone is a poor substitute. Harvard has long claimed to encourage quality teaching from the Faculty, not just good research. Yet preregistration, by attempting to corral students into choosing courses sight unseen, would reduce the opportunity for students to search out these engaging teachers. This persuasive reasoning has underpinned shopping period for generations.

Even if preregistration is not binding, having to add and drop courses will always create a barrier for students who want to switch classes. Preregistration would also discourage students from visiting a wide range of courses during the first week of classes, resulting in students taking less risks with their course selection and sticking to safer, impersonal intro-style classes. And preregistration would encourage professors to start teaching actual course material from day one, making it difficult for students to catch up if they join the class in the second week.

Even worse, preregistration would almost inevitably encourage caps on the number of students allowed to take popular classes. The new system, by providing tentative enrolment numbers before students actually start attending class, would lull professors into thinking that their class size is predictable. It would discourage professors from making arrangements to hire last-minute TFs—which would be a disaster if a popular class’ size were to unexpectedly boom due to any variety of reasons. Many students choose some classes based largely on word-of-mouth, and sometimes, after hearing of a particularly talented professor, more even attend the second lecture of the year than the first. And certainly, between preregistration and the beginning of the semester, certain subject areas can mushroom in popularity after a watershed event. If students had preregistered for classes last year before Sept. 11, those tentative enrolment numbers would have drastically underestimated the demand for classes relating to the Middle East or terrorism. If there are no last-minute TFs to accommodate the extra students, the easiest thing for the professor to do would be to lottery the course.

We recognise that there are problems with the current system. Professors often have difficulty in finding TFs at the last moment and those that are found are often unprepared and overworked. But the quality of section leaders can be improved in many other ways, and we are willing to suffer through slightly worse sections if that means being taught by more vibrant and engaging faculty. After all, it is Harvard’s great professors that drew us here to study.

DISSENT: Preregistration Helps Students

Despite shopping period’s benefits, there are clearly many problems with the current system. When a class is larger than expected, professors often waste time finding a larger classroom and hastily selecting extra, less qualified TFs. In some circumstances, when a course’s enrollment exceeds its projected size, the professor lotteries that course, to the detriment of students. The Staff completely ignores these problems.

A nonbinding preregistration system would capture the best of both worlds. Students could indicate their expected plan of study a few weeks before the start of each semester, giving professors plenty of advance time. To facilitate their course selection, the CUE Guide, as well as each course’s syllabus, should be readily available online before the deadline for preregistration. In this way, students would be provided ahead of time much of the knowledge usually only available during shopping period, and their choices would be more accurate, allowing the registrar to select more appropriate classrooms and professors to hire an adequate number of TFs. And there would still be no barrier to switching classes over shopping period.

This nonbinding registration would alleviate many of the problems associated with shopping period without creating new ones. It would better serve professors, TFs, the registrar and, most importantly, students.

—David M. DeBartolo ’03 and Jasmine J. Mahmoud ’04