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Gen Ed Office Creating New Lotteried Enrollment System As Faculty Criticize Course Caps

Students crowd into a lecture hall in William James to shop GENED 1154: "The Science of Happiness."
Students crowd into a lecture hall in William James to shop GENED 1154: "The Science of Happiness." By Amanda Y. Su
By Molly C. McCafferty, Crimson Staff Writer

As students wrap up shopping week and faculty finalize course enrollments, several instructors in the College’s new General Education program say they are confused and frustrated by a rule capping their classes at 250 students.

At the same time, the Gen Ed office is working with Harvard University Information Technology, the Advising Programs Office, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Registrar’s Office, and the Office of Undergraduate Education to create a “better” Gen Ed lottery system, program director Laura E. Hess wrote in an email Monday.

The offices began developing the new lottery system this summer and hope to debut it in spring 2020. The new system will run through my.harvard and will allow students to rank course choices and “visualize their lottery participation,” according to Hess.

“This functionality should result in most students being matched with their most desired courses, and eliminate situations in which some students get into multiple courses while others don’t successfully lottery for any,” she wrote.

Currently, students must enter separate lotteries for each course in which they wish to enroll.

Hess’s announcement comes at the same time as multiple faculty criticize — and say they were caught unaware by — the Gen Ed program’s imposition of lotteries on large Gen Ed classes.

Per a decision last spring by the FAS Standing Committee on General Education, the Gen Ed office capped its courses at a maximum of 250 students. The Gen Ed office only implemented lotteries on courses for which “past or early enrollment data” indicated interest might exceed 250 students, and professors can choose to impose smaller enrollment caps if they wish, according to Hess.

GENED 1058: “Tech Ethics: AI, Biotech, and the Future of Human Nature” is the only Gen Ed course that has an enrollment cap larger than 250. The class — which is listed in my.harvard as having a cap of 900 — is an “experiment” in increased Gen Ed course sizes, according to Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology professor Amy J. Wagers, who co-chairs the Faculty committee on Gen Ed.

The new enrollment limits come amid a broader overhaul of the College’s Gen Ed requirements which began in 2015 and rolled out this semester. Under the new requirements, students take four general education classes and three departmental classes in the sciences, humanities, and social sciences.

Wagers said in an interview Monday that the caps are meant to increase interactions between students from “different peer groups” in Gen Ed classes.

“While it is conceivable that one could achieve those kinds of interactions in a larger group, it's more challenging,” Wagers said. “As enrollments increase, you have smaller groups that coalesce and then you're less likely to move outside of your normal peer group, and participation becomes harder in the common dialogue of the class.”

Comparative Literature professor John T. Hamilton wrote in an email to prospective enrollees in his course, GENED 1020: “Security” that the Gen Ed program capped enrollment for his course after more students than originally expected attended the first class.

“I'm not entirely happy with the situation, but I have to respect the decision of the Gen Ed committee,” Hamilton wrote.

Psychology professor Jason P. Mitchell, who teaches GENED 1154: “The Science of Happiness,” wrote in an email to prospective students Friday that he has been “supremely frustrated” by the imposition of lottery process, its timing, and the clarity of his communications with the College about it, adding he wants to let “as many [students] as possible” into the course.

“I wish I knew what was going on, but my queries to the College about the timing of the lottery have gone unanswered,” he wrote. “I’m doing my best to open the course to at least 250 students, although I am now being told that Harvard may not have sufficient resources to support such a large enrollment.”

The Standing Committee on General Education first told instructors last spring that they would limit enrollment in Gen Ed courses to 250 students, according to Hess. “Further communications” during the summer and fall “reiterated this commitment,” she wrote.

But Medical School professor Charles A. Czeisler ’74 said he feels the office’s communications with faculty about course caps leading up to the semester were ambiguous. Czeisler said that based on conversations he had with the Gen Ed office about booking a larger classroom for his course GENED 1038: “Sleep,” he believed it would not be capped — and told the several hundred students who attended the first meeting as much.

Czeisler said he asked for a waiver to the rule but was denied and that his repeated efforts to get the cap removed took time away from his course preparation.

“I stood up there and told the students that they didn't have to worry about a cap, and now this cap is being imposed,” he said. “I tried to plead my case in various ways.”

Wagers said she understands instructors’ frustration, adding that “faculty have to be a bit flexible” as the fledgling program gets off the ground.

“We did the best we could to try to inform faculty where we were going with this,” she said. “I understand that email is difficult for people and sometimes the details get lost in an email, and I can understand if if faculty missed those points.”

—Staff writer Molly C. McCafferty can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @mollmccaff.

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