As Faculty of Arts and Sciences Registrar Michael P. Burke detailed at a Graduate Student Council meeting last week,University administrators continue to pursue alternatives to shopping week, a longtime staple of the Harvard academic experience in which students are allowed to try out classes without commitment in the first week of the semester before enrolling. At the meeting, Burke floated the possibility of implementing pre-registration for courses that would include digital materials for students to watch in lieu of shopping week.
We are sympathetic to the challenges shopping week poses to faculty and graduate student teaching fellows. For faculty, not knowing the exact size of one’s class until the end of shopping week can be frustrating. For graduate students, the situation may well even worse. Not knowing one’s exact terms of employment until a few weeks into the semester can be a significant source of stress. Nevertheless, due to the overwhelmingly positive effects of shopping week for course enrollees, the University must keep shopping week.
From that perspective, shopping week is one of the best parts of Harvard. Indeed, shopping week epitomizes the ideal of a liberal arts education by allowing students to explore a variety of subject areas. It allows for students to quickly realize what subjects do not interest them, rather than go through the process of formally dropping a course.
Shopping week has allowed students to make thoughtful choices about what classes they are taking. Sitting with a professor and a group of students and experience in an actual classroom gives students a comprehensive understanding of the course — its pace, its social dynamic, its pedagogical style. Particularly in math and language courses, where leveling and pace can significantly impact a student’s ability to learn efficiently and confidently, shopping allows students to pick the option best tailored to their prior skillset.
First-year students would be particularly impacted by the elimination of shopping week. Uninitiated into the informal network of information about instructors and their courses, they would be at a severe disadvantage in selecting courses that fit their interests and needs. Freshmen, above all, are at a prime moment to explore, make mistakes, and try classes that would seem fundamentally out of character, but that could end up engendering Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana’s famed “transformational experience.”
Eliminating shopping week would also disproportionately harm students who have physical accessibility concerns. Shopping week allows many of these students to work out the logistics of which classes are easier to access, and summarily account for this in course selection.
The replacement Burke proposed to the Graduate Student Council, an early registration system with a “digital” shopping week, would be far less helpful than the current model, as courses’ representations online may not accurately display what it’s actually like to enroll. Even if there are lectures to watch online, there is absolutely no replacement for experiencing a class firsthand.
Moreover, Harvard’s online enrollment platform does not work particularly well even in its relatively minimal role as of now. The platform — my.harvard — is not only frustrating given its frequent loading problems, but it also tends to be rather confusing, providing little guidance on what exactly it means to “add,” “verify,” and “enroll in” a course. Its search function often fails to return the best results, and the site is prone to crashing. Until the University can sort out these technological challenges, we have trouble believing that a full-fledged virtual shopping program will be any more intuitively and efficiently designed.
If the University wants to alleviate the burden of shopping week on graduate students and faculty without completely disregarding undergraduates, it could send out a mandatory survey before shopping week to obtain tentative enrollment numbers. At the very least, this solution — or a comparable intermediate step —should be attempted before throwing out shopping week entirely.
Because of the role shopping week plays in the lives of undergraduates, the administration needs to more widely consult undergraduate students alongside TFs and faculty. Undergraduates not only have strong opinions about this issue, rooted in real experience, but also the ability to think critically about how to design alternative registration models that maintain the best parts of shopping week while easing the stress felt by their TFs.
Shopping week is no doubt a messy system, one that is neither easy nor stress-free, and yet it is precisely this messiness that makes shopping week so rewarding. Every undergraduate seems to have their own story about stumbling into the wrong room and finding a fabulous course, one that may even lead to a concentration. If Harvard wishes to maintain its commitment to the liberal arts, it should first and foremost reaffirm its commitment to shopping week.
This staff editorial is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.
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Faculty Shopping Week Committee Stakes Out Its Case, Encourages Student Input