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'Technical Difficulties' Delay Expos Sectioning for Freshmen

Freshmen waiting for placement in Harvard’s mandatory expository writing program found their schedules thrown into uncertainty after the online system designed to assign class sections experienced “unexpected technical difficulties” late Saturday night.

The freshman expository writing program, known as Expos, used to be required for all first-year students, and about half the freshman class still enrolls in Expos each semester. Students list their preferences for sections covering topics across a range of disciplines, and are sorted accordingly.

Leah C. Marsh ’19 described her “frustration” with the delayed sectioning process, which she said complicated scheduling for other courses. Sectioning was pushed to Sunday evening.

“I had to section for two other classes over the weekend,” Marsh said. “Because some of the Expos classes are Monday-Wednesday, some are Tuesday-Thursday, I had to think what are the odds that I’ll get into this Expos section, and then it’ll conflict with this, and so on.”

Planning for other classes was not the only activity complicated by the Expos sectioning delay. Siddhant Agrawal ’19 said he experienced difficulties in scheduling his work hours for the week.

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“I have a job in the library. I have to plan my schedule for the library and for my math class,” Agrawal said. “Given that I didn’t get to know about which Expos class I’m taking, it’s kind of rough to plan out my week.”

According to Faculty of Arts and Sciences Registrar Michael P. Burke, the sectioning tool malfunction arose in part due to a “data issue” made worse by high usage of the same sectioning system across several large classes.

“The ground kept shifting,” Burke said. “You’re trying to eliminate conflicts so you can put students into a section, and at the same time another class was running [the sectioning algorithm] with 400 students.”

Burke emphasized that Harvard’s IT department is looking into preventing further glitches, and that his office is working with the Harvard College Writing Program, the office responsible for administering Expos, to consider alternative ways to section the course.

“We would certainly look at when things are run, when the deadlines hit, and what resources are on hand at the time to mitigate any problems,” Burke said.

Some students said they would have preferred if the sectioning process had been carried out earlier in the week to make course planning easier.

“Expos is a mandatory class that you have to take, so why not get that… out of the way so you can figure out the rest of your classes?” Matthew P. Bartels ’19 said. “I understand that problems do happen…I just think that there has to be a better way to do it.”

The possibility of earlier sectioning is being considered, according to Burke, although administrative hurdles remain for that sort of change.

“Speaking for myself, it would be terrific if we could figure out a way to do this in advance of courses’ starting,” Burke said. “That’s obviously something we’d have to work out with the College, the FAS, the Writing Program, and everybody else.”

—Crimson staff writer Jonathan G. Adler can be reached at jonathan.adler@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanGAdler.

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