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A True Guide to Concentrations

By Adam I. Arenson

Elite seminars, with no room for falling behind. Lots of students, with room either to hobnob your way to great opportunities or to spend a Harvard career away from the books. Lots of hours in lab that just aren’t worth it. We all carry around such stereotyped versions of Harvard concentrations, built on hearsay and snap evaluations. Wouldn’t it be great to have a pithy summary of concentrations with actual numbers behind it?

As first-years agonize through the last few weeks of making that fateful decision, some help, at least, is on the way. Following a proposal by Undergraduate Council President Paul A. Gusmorino ’02, the Committee on Undergraduate Education (CUE) and other pieces of the College administration are in the planning stages of a Web portal for concentrations. In his draft proposal, Gusmorino accurately notes that “in choosing a concentration, students are asked—perhaps for the first time ever—[to] choose between two or more deeply held interests in a serious way.” Using the portal “to better direct them to existing resources,” the effort will help student choose and love a concentration, providing a place where current concentrators, unsure first-years and prospective transfers alike can participate in Q-and-A exchanges and compare concentration details—like courses offered and average course size—in the effort to find the best match. While there is some benefit to all existing information placed at the distance of a mouse-click, there is far more to be gained through a more ambitious project, modeled on the CUE’s Course Evaluation Guide, that could provide real insight into the lives of sophomores, juniors and seniors in each concentration.

The lessons to be gleaned from the impact of the traditional CUE course guide are important ones. Only slightly less difficult than picking the ideal concentration for four years is choosing the correct courses semester to semester. For many, the CUE’s guide is a godsend; it allows them to sort out energetic and responsive professors from less inspiring ones, to get a handle on a course’s workload, and to build a shopping list which will yield a pleasurable semester that balances a four-course workload with aplomb.

It clearly takes a lot of courage for professors to place their courses before such unruly evaluators as us students, but they too find rewards: instructors receive valuable advice and can even pledge in the CUE course guide’s pages to turn a course for the better after bad rankings. If ranked too easy, the course will often begin with a stern warning that requirements have been beefed up; hence CUE ratings help regulate the student-Faculty relationship and get across some more delicate feelings, amid the anonymity of aggregated responses.

The CUE course guide succeeds because of the wealth of information it provides: an aggregate evaluation of the professor, the TFs, the workload. The subject matter is used differently by each student, to their own goal. Moreover, the numbers are built on something students can trust: themselves and their peers.

The same should be done for concentrations. Sophomores and juniors currently make their way through concentrations without being solicited for responses, and thereby suffer (or rejoice) from their concentration in silence. Hopes and fears may go unmentioned. Are the tutors too distant? The workload more than expected? Senior tutors or mental-health professionals may get an earful from a fed-up student, but that information is not registered, and more students are condemned to fall into the same traps.

Administrators do get some index of student satisfaction from senior surveys, but the data there contained is, “I’m sorry to say, very limited,” according to Dean of Undergraduate Education Susan Pedersen ’82—probably about as much as you can expect from a survey that serves as bribery for graduation tickets. Instead of this carrot-and-stick approach, the same apparatus as exists for the course guide should be brought to the task.

I think students and Faculty would benefit most from a true concentration CUE guide—one that is built from hundreds of responses. Send each upperclass student an evaluation form through University mail. Ask them to rank their experience as a concentrator so far: overall happiness, workload and teaching quality, as well as advising, breadth of courses offered, access to tenured Faculty and ability to pursue interests. Special interests of the study’s supervisors in the College—from use of the Web to opportunities to study abroad—could also be included.

Anonymous reports, sent back to University Hall, would provide a dramatic portrait of what it is like to move, year by year, through Harvard concentrations. Gusmorino has suggested that “mini-essays” from concentrators and information from senior surveys should be included in the proposed concentration CUE guide, but it seems the whole proposal is stuck in an early planning stage. This project should be a serious priority, with a budget to staff it over the summer, just like the CUE’s course guide. Maybe then all the stereotypes can be dismissed—or at least confirmed with hard numbers.

Then first-years will really know what they are getting into.

Adam I. Arenson ’00-’01 is a history and literature concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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