`Now What Exactly Is the Core?'

Ijust met my new concentration advisor, and he seems like a nice guy. I just wanted to get that out of the way, because after my co-advisee and I established his niceness, we were asked a few questions whose inaneness I have rarely seen surpassed.

"Moral Reasoning? Is that a department?"

"No, it's a Core requirement."

"Oh really? Now what exactly is the Core?"

Can we say "needs a briefing?" I wanted to ask him, in my brother's favorite suburban high school-ese, "Advise much?"


It is not my advisor's fault. He just arrived from Berkeley and appears to be a friendly and potentially helpful person.

But in terms of advice on good classes, thesis topics and advisers, a concentration plan or anything else I need help with in the academic labyrinth that is Harvard, he might be a nullity.

And the saddest thing is that in my two-and-a-bit years at Harvard, I have never received any advice worth the name. My sense is that the College advising system is based on the premise that people driven enough to get into Harvard probably selected a thesis topic in utero and haven't shifted since. Bad premise.

Students would probably avoid a lot of mistakes if the College actually sent knowledgeable people to tell first-year students more than "make sure you take Expos and see you next semester."

First-years don't know which classes are likely to be lotteried, which classes they might want to take for an "academic relaxation credit" (read: gut), which classes are notoriously difficult, etc. etc.

The savvy and the anal usually manage to find out, but the middle-of-the-road, average member of the Class of 1997 probably does not. At least not until the midterm of doom falls on his or her head somewhere in the middle of the semester and our first-year friend retreats to Room 13 in shock.

And, as my experience this year demonstrated, the concentrations are not much better on the nurturing-and-briefing front. My tutor last year, a person who regarded me as a hopeless bourgeois Philistine not worthy of his golden words, limited those words to "make sure to take statistics."

I took statistics as well as a number of fairly random classes which gave me few clues about where I want to be a year from now. And a really bad gradepoint average. Really, really bad.

Certainly, as a sapient individual I take responsibility for my curricular mistakes, but some wisdom at the right time might have saved me the pain. I am paying too much for classes here to be wasting that money. I could have a Lexus, for God's sake.

My resident house tutor last year--a chemistry student at MIT, I believe--never even met me. His often-visiting friend from another college actually helped me out more by directing me toward the laundry room my first week.

I'm not sure exactly what I would like from an effective advisor, perhaps because I have never had one.

Inside knowledge about which classes are good, which classes are lotteried, which professors really care, which seminars will take first-years and people in other concentrations, and which faculty members are potential seminar leaders and thesis advisors are a few ideas. Undergraduates have little institutional memory, and cognizant advisors could supply some.

I would also like stronger pre-professional and pre-graduate school academic advising: Do English majors who want a Ph.D. know they should probably have two languages? Do they know what they need to take to pass the GRE?

Pay attention, Harvard. Those whom the news reporters euphemistically call "top officials" are gearing up to fleece another generation of willing donors. They're seeking $1 billion in the name of undergraduate education.

If undergraduate education is really worth that money, perhaps it would be worth the effort to guide students toward the right sources for that education.