What They're Not Telling You

Preregistration won't make graduate students better teachers. It won't help advising. It will end shopping period as you know it.

Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby is selling preregistration as all things to all people: financial security for graduate students, stable enrollments for professors, better advising and teaching for undergraduates, all while preserving undergrads’ ability to move between courses during the first week of the semester.

But Kirby is playing a huckster’s game. While the benefits to professors and graduate students are real, those for undergraduates are mere illusion.

After hawking his preregistration plan for months, Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby is probably a little tired of being challenged at every turn. So when he opened the floor to questions at a dinner for senior gift volunteers last month, Kirby had a zinger close at hand. A student stood up and said he didn’t understand why, “given that it is so opposed by undergraduates, you are entertaining the idea of preregistration when it will reduce the power of shopping period.”

“Probably because I’ve lost my mind,” Kirby shot back. As Kirby described it, the study card that will be due the semester before classes begin will only be a preliminary document. Students will still be free to add and drop classes once the semester begins. “I certainly don’t want to undo shopping period,” he said. “I just want students to give us a good sense of what courses they might take next semester so we can better predict enrollment.” “Nobody is being forced,” he said. “What are we going to do, tell the campus police to force you to enroll?”

But Kirby sees preregistration through rose-colored glasses. He says it will alleviate problems ranging from poor advising to inadequate section teaching, while easing the administrative burdens on professors and guaranteeing the incomes of graduate students. All this while preserving the flexibility undergraduates expect in the first week of classes. But the benefits to undergraduates are unlikely to materialize, and shopping period will remain in name only.

“The downside is of course for the students,” says Loeb Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures Maria Tatar, who teaches Literature and Arts A-18, “Fairy Tales.” “It’s very faculty-friendly legislation.”

Kirby rode into his job with a mandate to reinvigorate undergraduate education. But as many professors argued at Tuesday’s Faculty meeting on preregistration, his first policy change as dean will benefit professors and graduate students at the expense of undergraduates’ flexibility and freedom.

Almost every administrator besides Kirby interviewed by FM—seven in total, including Kirby’s own staff working to implement preregistration—said that switching between classes will be more difficult if preregistration takes effect.

Courses with lotteries, applications or otherwise limited enrollment will almost certainly fix their enrollment before the semester begins. If you didn’t preregister, it will probably require someone who is in the class dropping out—and even then you might not be eligible.

Students will still be able to add organic chemistry at the last minute, and both Social Analysis 10, “Principles of Economics” and Moral Reasoning 22, “Justice” will always be able to squeeze in the extra person. But if you shopped “The Warren Court” and decided it would make a great fourth class, or you thought about taking a photography class or an oversubscribed history seminar, forget it. The doors to those courses will have closed long ago.

As a result, it will encourage a system of competitive preregistration, where students register first and foremost for the classes they think they will have trouble getting into, instead of the classes that would be their top choices. “There are real constraints on how many people can be accommodated, so I can see why people would do that,” says Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education Jeffrey Wolcowitz. “I hope they don’t.”

This system will be especially restrictive for first-years. Although they won’t have to preregister for their first semester at Harvard, first-year students will arrive to find that everyone else has preregistered and some classes will already be full. Kirby plans to set aside a certain number of slots in fall courses that lots of first-years tend to take, but this will probably serve to limit, not to expand, the number of courses that first-years will be able to take. Spots will be set aside for them in large classes with predictable first-year enrollments—Computer Science 50, Justice, Chem 15, Ec 10. But smaller courses that a first-year or two might occasionally want to take won’t have slots.

Preregistration will establish particularly high barriers to entry for first-years in classes with special admission requirements, such as Music 180r, “Performance and Analysis,” a seminar course on chamber music taught by Robinson Professor of Music Robert D. Levin ’68.

“Because the course only works by audition, there’s a problem. People who want to take Music 180 in the fall will have to audition in the spring. But what about freshmen? The fact is, we don’t accept anybody until we’ve heard everybody,” Levin says. Under preregistration, this won’t be an option. Levin will have to chose his cellists before he’s heard next year’s Yo Yo Ma ’76. Subsequent to FM’s interview with him, Levin came out strongly against preregistration at Tuesday’s Faculty meeting. “This is practically, really, aesthetically repugnant...it really doesn’t serve the goals of education, it serves the goals of the administration,” he said at that meeting. According to his colleagues, Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 is also privately opposed to preregistration and believes undergraduates will end up as net losers under the plan.

Preregistration gives priority to the students who signed up for the course earliest, which is arguably more equitable than taking the names of every student who showed up for the first class of the semester and throwing them into a hat—which Kirby describes as a “game show” where some students are admitted and others are rejected for arbitrary reasons. But it doesn’t preserve shopping period. The central feature of shopping period is that there is no penalty for waiting to sign up until you’ve seen the professor, whether you just walked into a course on a whim or have had it on your plan of study since you were a first-year.

Despite the very vocal opposition to preregistration at Tuesday’s Faculty meeting, many Faculty members aren’t shedding any tears for shopping period. A few administrators say privately that some faculty like preregistration precisely because they’re hoping it will kill off the notion of shopping for classes. They don’t like feeling like a commodity to be traded around on the sudden impulses of the market. This sentiment is nothing new—an article in The Crimson from the 1950s described faculty complaints that shopping period forced them “to use up all their good jokes in the first week of class.” They don’t like trying to keep students’ attention as the students stand up in the middle of lecture and head for the door. Several Faculty members complained of “impulse shopping,” as if undergraduates were selecting their classes with the same criteria of flash and pizzazz they might use to pick out a new pair of jeans. These professors envision a more sober, a more reflective course selection, where the professor’s annoying habit of inserting the phrase “as it were” into every other sentence isn’t nearly as important as your deep and abiding interest in biblical history. They believe that when it comes to selecting courses, acting on your impulses is a bad thing—that you shouldn’t drop a course because you have a funny feeling that you won’t enjoy listening to that professor drone on day after day for the next three months.

Kirby makes four basic arguments in favor of preregistration, but the two most compelling ones have nothing to do with undergraduates.

Reducing Logistical Hassels

The main hurdle for professors under the current system is the inability to predict course enrollment. When professors expect a few dozen students and hundreds show up, it’s a mixed blessing. While it’s a testament to their popularity, it also means they have to scramble to interview and hire more teaching fellows, schedule rooms and order lab supplies. When these logistical hurdles cannot be met, the course has to be lotteried, which is why preregistration will make it easier to get into some large, frequently lotteried classes—as long as you sign up for them in advance.

Kirby is personally acquainted with this frustration. In the spring of 2002, the Core office predicted Kirby’s class on contemporary China, History A-74, “Contemporary China,” would have 50 students. About 170 enrolled, and Kirby had to hire teaching fellows at the last minute. It’s an experience he brings up frequently when discussing preregistration, an idea that has been kicked around since the 1970s, but only gained steam when Kirby made it a personal priority after he was chosen as dean.

Yet it’s not clear that these logistical considerations represent an insurmountable hurdle. Lecturer on the Study of Religion Brian C.W. Palmer ’86 teaches Religion 1528, “Globalization and Human Values,” which unexpectedly became the course with the second-largest enrollment at Harvard this semester when 522 students enrolled. “We were astonished and a little bit overwhelmed. [But] we managed to bring things together so that our troubles were largely invisible to the students,” he says. “People say that preregistration has administrative advantages, and it does. But if we were able to organize 29 sections for this course without preregistration, then I think the administrative burdens are not insurmountable.”

Improving Advising

Concentration advising has been the perpetual underperformer in undergraduate education. Senior surveys consistently find that students are dissatisfied with the quality and availability of the advice they received at Harvard.

One of the least convincing arguments Kirby and his staff offer in favor of preregistration is that it would improve advising because conversations with advisers will take place months before course enrollment. They won’t be as pressured as conversations during the first week of the semester, Wolcowitz says, because advisers currently must have so many conversations with so many students on a tight deadline before study cards are due. Yet it seems that Wolcowitz was confusing cause and effect. Meetings with advisers are hectic during the first week of classes because study cards are due at the end of that week. If study cards were due two months beforehand—in the middle of midterms—those conversations would likely be just as hectic, as everyone waits until the last minute to have them.

Wolcowitz says that these meetings would be spread out over two or three weeks before study cards are due, and therefore advisors would be less busy. Of course, this doesn’t do much for the root causes of problems with advising—departments who still don’t assign an individual adviser to each student and instead rely on walk-in advising “office hours,” advisers who don’t know enough about the relevant courses and advisers who don’t know enough about the student whom they are advising. And, it relies on students and advisers not to procrastinate (during a busy time in the semester) and to get those advising meetings done early.

Moreover, preregistration forces advisers to recommend courses for next semester without the benefit of knowing how their advisees did the semester beforehand. This is another area where first-years are hit especially hard, since they need advising the most and their advisers will have no grade reports to assess their progress by the time they sign up for classes in November. The adviser will have to make a judgment as to whether a student should start organic chemistry in the spring semester without knowing whether the student sailed through Chemistry 15 in the fall or failed the class. While advisers will have access to upperclass transcripts, without shopping period, their students will be more reliant than ever on the embattled concentration advising system, which has been criticized by Lewis and Kirby themselves.

Preparing Teaching Fellows

Of all the arguments for preregistration, the one that is most often presented to undergraduates—not by coincidence—is that they will benefit from teaching fellows who are better prepared for the courses they are teaching. This was the main thrust of Kirby’s pitch for preregistration to senior gift volunteers, and it was presented to the Faculty on Tuesday as the main motivation for preregistration. “The primary goal is to improve instruction,” Wolcowitz told the Faculty. But just as a company’s slogan can aim to conceal its greatest weakness, Wolcowitz’s claim that undergraduates are the reason for preregistration rang hollow to many of the faculty in attendance Tuesday.

“If someone is hired in the second or third week of the semester, it takes them a while to catch up, and that’s an inevitable negative consequence of the system we have now,” Kirby says.

Yet while fluctuating course enrollments may be a serious annoyance to professors, most agree that they are able to hire qualified teaching fellows anyway, who excel even if they missed the first class of the year. Teaching fellows are capable of reading syllabi at home, and can make up the first staff meeting of the course with the professor.

Professor of Biology and of Geology Charles Marshall, who teaches Science B-57, “Dinosaurs and Their Relatives,” knows something about hiring teaching fellows a week into the semester—his class was over-enrolled by 115 students this semester. While he supports preregistration, he managed to insulate his students from the confusion of making additional hires at the beginning of the semester. The teaching fellow who was hired late “caught up very quickly, and is doing a superb job.”

But Kirby has a much more ambitious plan for teaching fellow preparation: he wants to get graduate students working for a course before the semester even begins, perhaps by re-reading the books or attending weekly meetings with the professor that start the semester beforehand. This plan depends on graduate students working for free to prepare for the class ahead of time while juggling their studies and other teaching commitments. Most professors interviewed by FM said they would not expect graduate students to start work on a class before the semester began.

“It’s not realistic to think the Faculty are suddenly going to start training TFs in the middle of the semester,” says Tatar. “The busiest time of the term for us is midterm, so when you’re in the midst of a course, it just seems to be totally unrealistic that we’ll be thinking about what’s way down the road.”

Kirby’s plan requires that individual Faculty members take the initiative and force graduate students to prepare before the semester begins, a plan that would require an unprecedented degree of faculty cooperation. University Hall will also require their cooperation getting their syllabi and course descriptions online a full month before the current deadline, so that students will be able to have something to go on when they choose their classes; faculty will “be encouraged” to return more graded work to students earlier in the semester so students will have a better sense of what their grades will be like when they select courses; they will also “be encouraged” to be as flexible as possible on enrollments to allow students to switch classes. But if the faculty don’t cooperate, students will pay the price.

And the smart money isn’t on University Hall. The Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) has relatively little authority to coerce tenured Faculty members to do anything: University President Lawrence H. Summers once complained to Newsweek that Harvard was incapable of ordering blackboard erasers in quantities greater than six without a faculty committee. Every year, University Hall has to browbeat delinquent departments to get their course descriptions in for the course catalogue. When the Core Curriculum was instituted in the late 1970s, each Core area was supposed to offer 10 courses every semester (in 1997 that number was raised to 12). But some areas of the Core, like Moral Reasoning, have rarely met those numbers, because the Core office just can’t get enough faculty to agree to teach Core classes. If FAS’ decentralized bureaucracy can’t get professors to follow through on universally supported initiatives, it’s unlikely faculty will step up to the plate on something they oppose.

Securing Graduate Student Incomes

Faculty and students have been fighting over “shopping period” and the accuracy of enrollment predictions ever since students first started regularly adding and dropping classes, when Charles W. Eliot, Class of 1853, was president of Harvard. But according to Secretary of the Faculty John B. Fox Jr. ’59, the modern tug of war over preregistration dates to 1977, when a group of Faculty members, concerned about the disorder of shopping period, proposed a system of preregistration. This failed, in part because of student resistance. Since then, the issue has come up again every few years or so—most recently in 1992 and then again in 1995.

Each time preregistration has been discussed in the 1990s, graduate students have brought the issue under scrutiny. They have the most to gain under a system of preregistration, and they suffer the most because of undergraduates’ shopping, because their employment and their income is often dependent on whether a certain number of undergraduates showing up to take a certain course.

“For these TFs, it’s the month of hell,” says Felix V. Elwert, a graduate student in Sociology and a representative on the Graduate Student Council. “We’re talking dozens of TFs running around not knowing where their money is coming from,” he says. “It breeds utter insecurity for many graduate students.”

This time is no different than the others—graduate students have been a major force pushing for preregistration. The first public mention of preregistration this year was in a Graduate School of Arts and Sciences pamphlet, “Transforming Graduate Education at Harvard,” that stated a preregistration system as a goal.

Administrators (and graduate students) say that Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Peter T. Ellison has been a major proponent of preregistration, and they credit his persistence and an eager dean of the faculty with making preregistration a possibility.

Ellison minimizes his role in pushing for preregistration. “I haven’t been the one pushing for preregistration, although I’m delighted that we are finally going to go in that direction and eager to help it work. Our present system is simply no way to run a railroad,” he writes in an e-mail.

But someday, FAS administrators may look back on the halcyon days of yore when graduate students were hungry and desperate for teaching jobs. Right now they are worried about a disturbing trend—the steadily decreasing numbers of graduate students willing to teach classes.

“It may be the proposal for preregistration is a clumsy attempt to solve a deeper structural problem, which is that thanks to increased financial aid for doctoral candidates, the pool of potential TFs has shrunk considerably in recent years,” says Palmer. Many of the kinds of financial aid that doctoral candidates receive these days prohibit them from teaching—outside agencies that are giving grants want graduate students to spend all their time on their research, not teaching undergraduates.

As a result, professors are increasingly turning to individuals outside the University to teach classes. Sometimes these individuals are graduate students at nearby universities. Sometimes they are otherwise qualified to teach. But it is much harder to hire them at the last minute than it is to hire a Harvard graduate student at the last minute, which is another reason, according to Wolcowitz, that FAS needs preregistration.

Kirby was blindsided at Tuesday’s Faculty meeting by an unexpectedly vocal turnout of faculty opposed to preregistration. But it remains unclear whether this means the measure will fail: critics of the plan, including students, recruited heavily among the Faculty to get individuals to speak out against the proposal. Kirby, apparently confident in an easy victory, had only one person speaking on his behalf. Those numbers could change by the time the Faculty votes on preregistration sometime in April.

But already, there are signs of proverbial rats jumping off the ship. Summers has told students for months—and as recently as three days ago in a Kirkland House study break—that they should forget about opposing preregistration and instead focus on making its implementation as palatable as possible. However, he gave much greater attention to criticism of the plan after Tuesday’s meeting. “I think obviously in light of the sentiments expressed, there is going to need to be a lot of consideration in what we do in this whole area,” he said. “As I suggested to the Faculty, it’s very important that we appropriately balance the clear importance of flexible student choice with the need to have rational academic planning.”

If preregistration is voted down in April, it will be a major victory for undergraduates, but a bigger defeat for Dean Kirby. It’s hard to imagine Kirby’s predecessor, Jeremy R. Knowles, who religiously built broad consensus before he brought an issue to the Faculty floor, presiding silently over slings and arrows as Kirby did this week. That Kirby has political lessons to learn should be no surprise; deans frequently find themselves in controversial battles early in their tenure. But that a dean with an undergraduate education mandate chose to pick a fight that so clearly pitted students against professors and sought to paper over the differences is a more substantial cause for concern for all corners of FAS.

Jannie S. Tsuei and Meghan M. Dolan contributed to the reporting of this story.