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A Modest Proposal


By Sue Meng

As part of the merry band of seniors who still have a Core to go (in my case, Science B, which I have been successfully putting off since freshman fall) I have spent most of shopping period wandering from the wilds of The Biology of Trees and Forests into the Cretaceous Period of Dinosaurs and their Relatives, which, however you say it, just ends up sounding funny. Between elbowing my way into the Origins of Knowledge (does it ever seem that the entire campus is trying to fulfill the same Core requirement you are in the same semester?) and squinting at the Dinosaurs professor, who from my seat perched in the back row of Science Center B, seems light years away, I am trying to stealthily calculate the comparative workloads of six “integrative exercises” versus a ten-page term paper. So far I’ve arrived at no conclusion beyond the fact that the Dinosaurs professor, as a friend aptly observed, sounds exactly like Crocodile Dundee.

This is no way to choose one of my last classes at Harvard.

It seems like a twisted sort of irony that out of a course catalog 910 pages long I am trying to choose haphazardly between four classes—one of which I have to muster up some measure of enthusiasm for. And although this semester I am finally able to venture beyond the History and English departments into the unexplored territories of Religion or History of Art or VES, I’m stuck instead rounding out the last of eight approaches to knowledge—approached, yes, attained, no.

Some administrators reading this column may shake their heads in exasperation at the umpteenth senior writing the umpteenth editorial about a situation which is the obvious result of four-fifths bad planning and one-fifth unadulterated procrastination. I like to think of it as denial. Mixed in with bad planning and procrastination is the hope that somehow, next year, some new course will be offered that will offer respite from watching leopards mate with half of the freshman class. And lo, that class appears and while you warm your hands on the corner of the radiator allotted to you in a room that seems to include your entire (well-thumbed through) facebook, you realize that Harvard is suffering a bad case of overpopulation or else you are once again having that nightmare in which you went to the University of Michigan and the faculty-student ratio is 1:150.

That the University has whittled Core requirements down to seven (alas, three years too late) is a hopeful sign of increasing flexibility within the Core (i.e. there is now less of it). The success of the freshman seminar program is a sure sign that students and faculty alike thrive in the small classroom environment that nurtures creativity and fosters debate. Why not extend such a program to senior spring?

Bemoaning the lack of space and time in which to write our theses one night, my roommate and I came up with the idea of an alternative spring option for seniors writing theses. Instead of cramming the thesis into a three course workload, in which snippets of time would be etched out to write a few lines, seniors could enjoy an extended reading period, and then choose from among a palette of “senior seminars” for the remainder of the spring. These would be seminars open to all seniors but limited to 12-15 each, on topics that would allow more specialization within concentrations or broader explorations in less familiar fields. The program would be a radical reconsideration of the options available to seniors in their last semester, allowing them to take advantage of small-group interaction with professors with the benefit of having already studied individual subjects in depth.

Or, a better idea might be to make the last semester a different sort of time altogether. Instead of halfheartedly attending courses while suffering from the symptoms of PTSD (Post-Thesis Stress Disorder), seniors could make better use of their last semester to reap the opportunities of the course catalog without the narrowing burden of requirements. By carving out the spring as a time for seniors to carry out an independent project, or finish their theses, or participate in seminars or pursue reading projects with professors, the final semester would become a culmination of a four-year education, a natural extension of coursework done in large lecture classes and cores, and an opportunity to focus on a deepening or a broadening of ideas that have been sparked along the way. And as for requirements still to be met, I suspect that we procrastinators would seriously rethink our game plans were such a spring installed as a hallmark of a Harvard education.

It seems to me that one of the great tragedies of our undergraduate years here is the sense of unused potential. Here, in the company of extraordinary minds doing extraordinary work, we are so little exposed to learning in its fullest capacity. Instead of time spent choosing a class based on petty variables (how much the sourcebook is, the date of the final exam, the entertainment quotient of professors, e.g. Crocodile Dundee, above, and Brian Palmer of Religion 1528 fame who must be Woody Allen’s alter ego) how much more gratifying it would be to choose from seminars which so piqued our intellectual interests that everything else would become incidental?

Many columns that critique Harvard’s approaches to teaching and learning begin or end with the phrase, “world’s greatest university….” Rather than an affirmation of fact, I think the use of the phrase is a poignant expression of the sense of disparity between what is and what can be—why it is that the caliber of our educations falters behind the caliber of our libraries, our professors and the caliber of our own minds.

Sue Meng ’03 is a history and literature concentrator in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.

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