With the introduction of pre-term planning in the fall of 2010 the College hoped to alleviate many of the woes of shopping week and improve administrative efficiency. The tool would allow for a rough estimate of class size in the succeeding semester and would convert the guessing game of how many teaching fellows to hire and how large of a classroom to allocate into a more exact science. However, since its introduction more than a year ago PTP has neither eliminated problems with course selection nor achieved many of its initial goals.
This is not to say that PTP should be eliminated. Rather, the College could take simple steps to improve the tool and its application. Harvard’s shopping week is a unique feature with benefits to students that far outweigh the costs to the College. Nonetheless, the very nature of shopping makes it difficult for the College and the administration to adequately predict class enrollment before the semester begins. This difficulty could be ameliorated with improvements in PTP.
Allowing students to pre-term plan over J-term and then again over the summer would result in more accurate and useful data. Under the current schedule, PTP for spring classes is due in early November, nearly two months before the semester ends. With papers, exams, and problem sets all due at this time, it is often not a priority for students to create a tentative schedule for the next term’s courses. In a more stress free environment, PTP can be a useful tool for students as they begin to think about their plans of study.
The difficult and byzantine structure of the PTP tool is an added hassle that deters students from taking it seriously. The tool is inconveniently located on a separate webpage from other course planning tools and does not allow users to lay out their upcoming semester in a schedule. Often it is slow and confusing. Navigating the page is not an easy task either and the time students spend inconvenienced is often deducted from time spent on picking classes.
The College should approach PTP more holistically. Instead of simply looking at the results of online PTP, administrators should include a wide range of information. Courses that meet General Education requirements, concentration requirements, and have a high Q score are likely to have high enrollment. Even if the current system itself does not predict this outcome, the College should understand that PTP is not the only way to gauge potential enrollment. Life Sciences 60/Government 1093—“Ethics, Biotechnology, and the Future of Human Nature”—is a good example of this. Students did not select this course in the PTP tool in particularly large numbers and therefore the class was placed in Sever Hall. On day one, the class was so large it had to move to Sanders Theater. With high Q scores, famous professors like Michael J. Sandel and Douglas A. Melton, and the potential to fulfill many government, gen ed, and life science requirements, the College could have easily predicted such a class would far exceed the number of students that PTP predicted for its enrollment.
Even after PTP might be refined, as is necessary, the College should still be prepared to adapt during shopping week. There was a time when PTP did not exist. Classes moved around and TFs were hired or fired. Unfortunately, the introduction of PTP has seemingly made the system more rigid. This means that classes that were not planned and shopped in similar numbers are often lotteried, as in the case of Life Sciences 60. The class, after being moved to Sanders, was cut down to 150 students.
PTP does have a necessary function at Harvard, and simple fixes can improve its accuracy. Such improvements would be beneficial to both the College and to students at little to no cost.