Shopping period is a term that the sadly-departed Suzanne Pomey and Randy Gomes might have associated with the weekend following a busy spell of larceny, but to most Harvard students it implies the week following a lazy break over intersession. And although the partners in crime soon discovered the expense of buying hi-tech equipment, Harvard’s shopping period allows the intellectual consumer to pick up limitless freebies. Well, syllabi. But these free handouts offer a priceless insight into the muddled psyche of Harvard academics.
All of these syllabi inevitably contain the section entitled “Course Requirements and Grading.” Normally the temptation is to gloss over this portion, with only the briefest of asides to one’s neighbor—“No midterm: I’m in” or “A paper during reading period: see you later.” Alas, while scanning the particulars of the class’s requirements, rarely do we challenge the overwhelming assumption on which the grades are divvied up. For the mistaken—if understandable—belief in the desirability of continuous academic assessment, where a multitude of different factors contribute to one’s final grade, lies at the root of many of the current problems with undergraduate education at Harvard.
The benefit of the Harvard system as it now stands is that it is extremely difficult for any individual student to get left behind in a class. There are plenty of opportunities to display a degree of ability and thus to obtain a reasonable grade. The emphasis is on consistently attending lecture and, more importantly, section and assiduously completing the frequent assignments. With decent notes for exam review and papers or problem sets of the requisite length, a very respectable grade is a near-certainty. In this way hard-working students are rewarded, and those who are unwilling to put in the same levels of effort as their peers are duly penalized. Of course there are exceptions to the rule—but that is the underlying philosophy behind continuous assessment. Attendance and attentiveness are at a premium; idleness is the ultimate crime.
Unfortunately, this philosophy is riddled with flaws. The constant grind to produce work means that students are left with less time to digest what they are reading—or sometimes even to read it at all. For example, my junior history tutorial last semester required weekly exercises to demonstrate the skills of source identification and provide detailed progress reports. Yet once I had finished producing the three utterly worthless pages of weekly drivel to demonstrate just how hard I was working on my project, there was no time left for meaningful work on my final paper. Quantity was the watchword of the class, not quality. And it was hardly a one-off. Response papers and their ilk (including the ubiquitous ID sections on examinations) are banal wastes of time for college students. They encourage eager students to spew out the half-digested content of a book in a response paper or to echo their professor’s lectures in their midterm or final; they surely do not force them to think for themselves at all.
The grade awarded for attendance and participation is the most foolish aspect of the current system. It is simply ludicrous that students should be coerced into going to class or contributing in section. If they choose not to attend a valuable course meeting, that is their loss. Alternatively, if a professor gives tedious lectures whose content can be more enjoyably gleaned from a book or if a teaching fellow leads facile and useless discussion sections, why should intelligent students be forced to waste their precious time solely to prove themselves committed enough to merit a good grade? A Harvard education should be about challenging the brightest students of their generation to realize their intellectual potential. And that can only come about when professors cut down on the quantity of pointless class requirements in order to increase the quality of meaningful work produced.
The current curricular review should provide such an excellent opportunity for the Faculty to reexamine their aims for undergraduate education. With any luck, they will acknowledge that it should not be, as it is now, an endless series of worthless hoops for students to jump through en route to that prized Harvard degree. Critics of cutting back on the frequent progress checks in the current system might well argue that the changes could result in higher grades for students who cut corners and do not put in the effort of their peers. But so what? Challenging bright students to produce important work—not penalizing their lazier peers—should be the ultimate goal of a Harvard education. It is more important to nurture those students who show flashes of individual insight than to engineer a system where talent is subordinated to graft.
As it stands, those students who put in the most hours per week get the most out of any given class, at least on their all-important transcripts. However, it becomes clear upon closer examination that this is a system better suited to a second-rate grade school than what is supposedly one of the country’s very finest universities. It results in an education where regurgitation is prized over inspiration, shortchanging students and faculty alike.
Anthony S.A. Freinberg ’04, a Crimson editor, is a history concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.