Save Our Time

Harvard students often complain about lacking time: not enough time to sleep, study or join extracurriculars. Meanwhile, we live in a university with a time of its own. With “Harvard time,” we are allowed to arrive to most events and classes seven minutes late. Jokes about “running on Harvard time” notwithstanding, the system is shockingly efficient. When, as The Crimson reported last spring might happen, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences eliminates Harvard time, the school will be making a grave mistake, and those complaints about the lack of time will get far worse.

The new system comes as the University prepares to facilitate the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences’ move to its Allston campus in 2020. “Harvard time,” however, is far more than just a unique facet of Harvard that should be relegated to history. It maximizes the efficiency of students’ schedules. It minimizes potential conflicts between classes and extracurriculars. It should survive the move.

The historical origins of our seven-minute passing time are hazy. Its earliest mention in the archives of The Crimson seems to be in 1951. Yet its entrenchment on the campus is clear. That classes begin seven minutes late is taken as a given. Meetings are expected to start on Harvard time as well. For lunch plans or interviews, one will typically see “beginning on time” as a notifier that the normal fashion will be broken. Nostalgia, however, is not a good enough reason to save our quirk of scheduling. Efficiency is.

The ingenuity of Harvard time is in allowing meetings and classes to be placed back-to-back, endlessly. By building in an assumed passing time at the start of everything, we can put our classes and extracurricular meetings in blocks abutting one another. The new class scheduling system adopted by FAS changes all that. It staggers expanded 75-minute class blocks with 15 minutes of passing time in between. It also offsets times for classes on the Allston campus. The inefficiency it will produce is illustrated by comparing schedules before and after the change.

Ordinarily, 12 hours is the least amount of time spent in class per week for a full course load, given the normal minimum of four courses meeting for three hours each per week. Right now, one could theoretically fit all four classes on just Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., leaving the entire rest of the week free. Those 12 hours include passing time. Harvard time facilitates this. Though, of course, many courses do not fit these standard lengths and time slots, considering the minimum is helpful.

Under the new system, those 12 hours expand to at least 17 hours and 15 minutes, including passing time, assuming professors use the expanded time given for lectures and sections. Under the new system, putting all classes on the same days would now consume a 10:15 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. block three days a week. Compare that to the 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. block under the old system. Even if we take out the extra time spent in class (three hours), the new system wastes two hours and 15 minutes per week, just in the time between classes. This might not sound like much. It is.

Harvard College has about 6,700 students. Each semester, they spend about 13 weeks in classes. If you multiply this by the two hours and 15 minutes wasted per week, the new plan will destroy, each semester, the equivalent of more than 22 years of student time—22 years wasted by building in a time block between classes. Economics professor N. Gregory Mankiw would be horrified at the opportunity cost.

It does not end there. The College has more than 400 student organizations. They meet frequently, often in the evenings, typically working around the schedules of their members. A glance at many students’ Google calendars—blocked off in their typical, color-coded fashion—will reveal the extent of this involvement. Here the inefficiency continues.

If you think scheduling events is challenging now, just wait until classes are structured in 75 minutes blocks interspersed with longer seminars, offset Allston campus classes, and blocks of 15 minutes for travel between classes. Chaos will ensue. You will long for the simple days of our 53 minute meetings beginning after the seven minutes of Harvard time. Club meetings will push further into the evenings and weekends, trying to escape the creep and expansion of the academic schedule. Irregular class start and end times will make those doodle polls and when2meets ever more ubiquitous and maddening.

In sum, everything will get harder. Those lunch plans with friends? Try juggling staggered 75 minute class blocks at random times. Even students in SEAS will see little benefit. Walking to the Allston campus from the Yard will take, according to Google Maps, about 20 minutes. The new system builds in travel times of 45 minutes before and 75 minutes after Allston classes. What are you supposed to do with 15 minutes spent waiting in a classroom for class to start? Better for the Allston classes to start, perhaps, 15 minutes after the hour, operate on Harvard time as normal, and allow everything to work accordingly.

Your meetings, lunch plans, and study time reap great benefits from Harvard time. It is so much more than a quirky facet of our school. It is an ingenious mechanism for allowing flexibility in scheduling and for minimizing wasted time. As ugly as its :07 start times and 53 minute periods may seem, its effect are truly beautiful. Harvard time will be sorely missed.

Caleb J. Esrig ’20 is Crimson Editorial editor in Quincy House.

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