Close Up Shopping

Harvard should eliminate shopping in favor of pre-registration

The announcement passed fairly quietly a few weeks ago: Next spring, students will be asked to pre-register for courses months before classes begin. Their selections will remain non-binding, but they will give the College a clearer sense of who will take what class going into shopping week.

This is a step in the right direction toward curing the large logistical flaws caused by shopping period. But it doesn’t go far enough to make course selection easier on everyone involved. The best solution is to scrap Harvard’s peculiar institution entirely. That’s right; shopping period needs to go.

As it is today, shopping is incredibly inefficient. The registrar seems to have a knack for wrongly guessing a given class’s enrollment, leading to a complex room reshuffle during the first week. In addition, many classes must scramble to find extra Teaching Fellows, a slow process that can delay sectioning and the syllabus. These TFs are also frequently underqualified, drawn from a subdiscipline barely relevant to the class. The current pre-registration plan hopes to cut down on this initial chaos—which cost Harvard one million dollars last year—but eliminating shopping would end it definitively.

It’s an open secret that many professors and administrators dislike shopping, but its demise would bring clear benefits to students as well. For example, the Coop would never be without a book you need because it would know exactly how many to order. In fact, the Coop’s prices are already so steep in part because they don’t know how many books they will be able to sell—so they insure their profit with a higher price tag.

Pre-registration would also eliminate the need for the lotteries that constantly shatter students’ plans the day before study cards are due. Under pre-registration, gone would be the pressure of unearthing a fourth class at the 11th hour. Personally, I find this the most compelling argument against shopping: For me, the most stressful week of the year isn’t reading period, and it’s not exam period; it’s shopping period. In course selection as in life, ignorance of what’s ahead is far scarier than even the most dreaded known commodity.

For all these costs, shopping period doesn’t even return a benefit—only a perceived one. If the claim is that pre-registration will result in more dissatisfaction with classes, we should remember that shopping is imperfect as well: Very few students can say that they have liked every single class they have taken at Harvard. Pre-registering would not lead to a rash of unhappiness any more than it has at the thousands of other schools with no shopping week—many of which are notoriously happier than we are.

But there’s still valuable information to be gleaned from shopping, right? There is information, all right, but almost none of it is reliable. You don’t need a scientific study to show that first impressions are often inaccurate, and it’s no secret that professors gussy up their first week of lectures to attract more students. The only real truth to be gained is the professor’s lecturing ability (a poor instructor usually can’t just conjure up superb rhetorical skills for a week). That might be something, but it’s far from the only factor that goes into taking a class. In fact, lecturing ability is far from the only factor that goes into a professor’s teaching ability. The guy may be great to listen to, but he may not grade fairly, answer his e-mail, or be a generally responsible human being. The best way to know this is to ask the people who have taken the class before—in other words, to check the Q Guide.

Instead, though, shopping puts too much weight on the one criterion of charisma. Students should be making their decisions on more overriding considerations, like their interest in the subject. Conveniently, these are considerations that a student can research through a medium other than shopping. The reading list? That’s online. Course goals? Also online, often in the same detail that the professor spends on it for an hour on the first day. “Does this class have a midterm?” Why, yes, if you had looked online, you’d know that, now, wouldn’t you?

Instead, shopping encourages students to show up to a class uninformed and ask such questions, whose answers are plainly available on the syllabus. Like shopping week as a whole, it’s a waste of teachers’ time and ours—except unlike shopping week, at least it doesn’t actually harm us in the process. Shopping period may once have been useful, it’s true—back in the days before syllabi could be posted online or that questioner could e-mail the professor instead. But today, much more information beyond a one-paragraph course description can and must be made available several months before a semester begins. We should take advantage of that—and abolish the shopping period that it has made obsolete.

Nathaniel S. Rakich ’10, a Crimson editorial copy editor emeritus, is a government concentrator in Cabot House.