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.