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Shopping Week Blues

Students enter Science Center Hall B on the first week of shopping week earlier this month.
Students enter Science Center Hall B on the first week of shopping week earlier this month. By Kathryn S. Kuhar
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

For all its stresses, shopping week continues to be an integral part of the Harvard experience. As a Board, we never tire of defending it. This year, however, we’ve noticed some particularly glaring issues.

Firstly, my.harvard simply doesn’t work. Over the course of shopping week, students frequently discovered that they would not be able to browse courses, check class times, or complete enrollment logistics due to persistent technical difficulties. Even when the site did ostensibly function, it was brutally slow. That’s a problem. It also bears mentioning that the PDF version of the course catalog students were expected to use in its stead was both less user-friendly and filled with inaccuracies.

Unfortunately, the poor performance of my.harvard fits a broader pattern that one hardly needs software to recognize. It didn’t work this year; it didn’t work last year; and we’re worried it’s not going to work next year, either. That does not bode well for Harvard’s administration, which has been considering new ways of standardizing enrollment and lotterying procedures across courses in a consolidated online system.

The other big story of shopping week has been the new General Education requirements. These too have faced problems. To be sure, we’ve criticized Gen Eds, and even the roll-out of this particular Gen Ed system in the past, but our critique now goes still further: The new capping system just doesn’t make pedagogical sense.

Gen Ed courses are now, with few exceptions, capped at 250 students. While there are legitimate reasons to cap courses, the College’s declared reason for the change — to facilitate more in-class interactions between students of “different peer groups” — is not among them. If the College wants to make Gen Eds an opportunity for greater classroom engagement and an exchange of ideas between students of different peer groups, it should consider making them seminars. In the meantime, surely a 250-person lecture is no more conducive to substantive discussion than the 666-person General Education 1058: “Tech Ethics: AI, Biotech, and the Future of Human Nature.”

Otherwise, the caps are merely counterproductive, serving to prohibit genuinely interested students from trying something new or fulfilling Gen Ed requirements with their top choices. It seems many professors, who tried in vain to expand enrollment to their courses, are raising similar objections.

The lottery system was also extremely disorganized, with students enrolling in a lottery and receiving results for each class separately, making course selection highly unpredictable. We are glad the administration seems to understand the issues and is working on a program that would coordinate lotteries.

And while the administration ponders standardization, we’d urge them to consider instituting a universal sectioning tool. Every class has its own inventive way of sorting students into sections. All of them seem to require students to guess and pray over whether the section they are assigned to will overlap with another section to which they are assigned. In light of the administration’s longstanding argument that shopping week is hard on teaching fellows and instructors, we submit that such a tool would clarify schedules earlier for them, too, as well as students.

Still, in the midst of all this critique, we believe it’s important to praise the innovations that have worked. The revised “Advising Report” functionality on my.harvard has been incredibly helpful in students’ long term planning. That said, given that old non-Gen Ed courses are being retroactively counted toward the new Gen Ed requirements, it would be beneficial for students to have a little better sense of how these decisions are made (as well as how they can be adjusted).

There’s a lot of work to be done to make course selection at Harvard the best it can be. None of these changes necessitate getting rid of shopping week. All of them require the administration to think critically about simple and universal models that prioritize students’ fundamental desire to learn.

And we’d love it if, just for one week, my.harvard could do its one and only job.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It 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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