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Harvard Government professor Stephen D. Ansolabehere’s course Government 1360: “American Public Opinion” is a typical class filled with young and eager undergraduates—but there is at least one exception: Robert “Bob” Karp ’61, who has returned to the College at age 72.
Karp is one of many individuals who audits courses at Harvard through a system in which Harvard affiliates— after obtaining permission from the course’s instructor—can attend a class without receiving grades or actually being enrolled in the University.
The process of being permitted to audit a class, however, is an informal system that varies between each of Harvard’s schools. Because of the ambiguities and inconsistencies, many auditors, and even professors, say they are unsure about how to formally audit a class and act on their own interpretations of the policy.
At the College, there are basic requirements for those who wish to audit a course: one must be either a student enrolled in any school of the University, an individual holding a teaching appointment in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, or the spouse of someone with such a teaching appointment.
No official record is kept of past or current auditors of College classes, according to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences' website.
However, sometimes potential auditors circumvent the requirements by obtaining permission from the instructor.
Asked whether he requires his auditors to have some connection to the University, Philosophy professor Sean D. Kelly said, “No, but often people will volunteer that, and sometimes we have people visiting from other colleges.”
Indeed, Kelly’s criteria for auditing is of his own making.
“My personal view is that I’m happy to have people who want to learn things in the class,” Kelly explained, “as long as it doesn’t affect the experience of the students who are enrolled.”
For Kelly’s courses, the process of obtaining permission is quite simple: “They just ask, and I say yes.”
College spokesperson Rachael Dane referred questions on auditing to the FAS website.
The Kennedy School follows a similarly lax procedure for auditing.
“Auditing is an informal process, and it is done independent of the administration,” Ben P. Sunday, a customer service specialist in the Kennedy School’s enrollment services office, said. “You contact the professor directly, and there is no record of your participation at the registrar. It is purely at the discretion of the instructor.”
At the Divinity School, by contrast, there is more formality to the system. According to the Divinity School’s website, anyone from the general public can audit a course as long as they obtain the instructor’s permission, fill out an application, and pay the $550 fee for a one-semester course.
The Divinity School also has a specialized program in which full-time ministers who live within 50 miles of HDS can audit classes at a discounted rate.
A Beloved System
Despite variations across the University’s schools, auditors and professors alike have praised the auditing system.
Karp graduated from Harvard College in 1961 and worked for urban renewal agencies and private development companies before retiring. When he “semi-retired” at age 72, Karp said he wanted to remain active.
Upon retirement, Karp started volunteering through Harvard's Phillips Brooks House Association, tutoring prisoners for the high school equivalency test. While volunteering for PBHA, Karp said he heard he could audit classes free of charge because he is an alumnus.
The first courses Karp audited was about inclusion in the classroom. On the first day of classes, Karp went to the class and asked for the professor’s permission to audit.
“He was very clear that I could audit on the condition that I participate in the class and that I do some of the reading, and I said, ‘That’s fine, that’s why I'm here,’” Karp said.
Karp has been auditing classes for five years now, and is currently enrolled in Ansolabehere’s Government 1360.
“Bob is exactly the sort of auditor I like to have,” Ansolabehere said. “He brings fresh insights and takes the class seriously.”
“The professors make a point of knowing people’s first names,” Karp said. “They made a point of saying that ‘When I ask questions in class and want you to participate they’re not trick questions and I’m not going to put anyone on the spot.’”
Ansolabehere praised the diversity auditors bring to the classroom.
“I encourage the auditors to participate fully,” he said. “They bring different experiences and perspectives.”
Karp said he appreciates school more now that he is older.
“I was sort of casual about going to class, more than casual,” he said. “Now that I’m not paying for it I feel uncomfortable and guilty when I miss a class.”
Despite the popular conception that many auditors are of older age, some undergraduates also take advantage of the chance to audit courses that may fall outside of their main academic interests.
Julia M. Ernst ’18 said she has audited a handful of courses in addition to her regular course load.
“Whenever a friend tells me of a class that they are loving a lot, I tend to go with them,” Ernst said. “I’ve been going to one of my good friend’s poetry classes, and it’s been awesome.”
According to Ernst, in her experience auditing courses, professors have been very welcoming and encouraging of students sitting in on their classes.
“It’s nice to remember that there are so many different areas of study at this school,” Ernst said. “Even if I’m an engineering concentrator… it’s super refreshing getting to participate or even just listen to people talking about poetry or talking about the economics of global health, or whatever subject they’re focusing on.”
Despite praise for the auditing system, the lack of clarity and consistency in rules across the University has deterred some auditors from raising questions about the process.
Although Karp has enjoyed auditing several classes, he said he hopes he is not violating any College rules concerning auditing courses that would prevent him from being able to sit in on classes in the future.
“It’s a great great opportunity to be able to do what I’m doing and I hope I’m not violating any University policy,” he said, adding that the lack of clarity in the system made him nervous. “I’d rather take my chance on forgiveness rather than permission,” Karp said. “I don’t want somebody to say no.”
Ernst voiced similar concerns regarding the lack of clarity in the auditing process. While it is rare for her to ask for permission to audit a large lecture course, Ernst often speaks with the professors of smaller courses she chooses to audit.
“I haven’t actually formally audited a class,” Ernst said, although receiving a professor’s permission to audit his or her course technically, according to the FAS website, is sufficient to formally audit a course.
Ansolabehere acknowledged that there are drawbacks for auditors.
“Auditors typically do not get the full benefit of the course, as participation in projects and writing papers seems necessary to have a complete learning experience,” he said.
Still, the ambiguities implicit in the auditing process has not stopped people like Ernst and Karp from capitalizing on the chance to take Harvard courses free of charge.
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