Shop ‘til You Drop?

Instructors should hold course lotteries early

I received the email with great anxiety. “UPDATE: SPU 27-Science and Cooking Lecture Sept. 7,” the subject line read. Hooray, an update! Finally.

My excitement was, however, unjustified. The email wasn’t much of an update at all. I didn’t receive any information about my status in Science of the Physical Universe 27, “Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to the Science of Soft Matter,” Harvard’s most hyped science course, even though it was the penultimate day of shopping period.

The email, from the Program in General Education, instead emphasized that attendance in the main hall for the day’s lecture would be capped at 350, lest we commit a fire code violation. It was a gentle reminder to the aspiring chefs: If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen. Students could not leave early; the class was not meant for shopping. Wait, really? Then, why didn’t we know yet whether we’d received a spot in the course?

This email exemplifies a troubling flaw in Harvard’s shopping week. For sure, there is much to applaud about this period. Giving students the flexibility to try-before-they-buy allows them to tailor schedules to interests. However, the uncertainty of shopping week is exciting only in the opportunity to choose from the courses in which we have the option to enroll—not in the stress that many students endure as they await lottery results for certain courses. To reduce this externally imposed anxiety, all instructors should lottery courses after the first class period.

Shopping week inevitably induces stress. Most obviously, students weigh the opportunity costs of various schedules. They don’t want to buy course materials and start studying until they’ve confirmed their courses, but they can’t start work until they’ve done so. They must plan their textbook purchases and work schedules carefully, especially since the COOP has a small window for returning textbooks, and hours of reading put into a class are non-refundable. It can be a nerve-wracking process.


Thus, late lotteries heighten anxiety in an already hectic week. For classes as popular as “Science and Cooking” and the other myriad courses with insufficient spots for students—such as “The American Presidency” and many concentration tutorials—instructors should hold lotteries within one day of the first session. Such a short window of time may, unfortunately, exclude certain students who don’t know about a course. To include as many of those students as possible, all lotteries should be available online until the night after the first class meeting. But despite any potential drawbacks, an early-lottery system will enable students seeking spots in popular courses to know where they stand early in the week. They will be able to cross one anxiety off their first-week-of-school to-do list.

There will be outliers—those who are accepted to a course but realize they are unable to take it, or those who learn about a class after the lottery occurred. In those cases, there can be, as there often is, a waiting list. But, under the current lottery system, everybody who enters a lottery is effectively on a waiting list, and it’s a tense experience for these students.

As students, we know that we will probably be one week behind in our homework once shopping week is over. It’s a stress we are willing to accept for the opportunity to craft an enriching schedule. But, some of the other stresses are unnecessary. Classes that hold late lotteries? They’re damaged goods, and it’s time students demand a refund.

Elizabeth C. Bloom ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Currier House.