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Harvard undergraduates traded in-person lectures for online course previews this week, voicing mixed feelings about Harvard’s new take on shopping period, a longstanding scheduling quirk that allows students to sample classes before officially enrolling.
During this year’s virtual shopping window, students spent the week reviewing online course materials compiled by professors, watching the occasional course “trailer,” or attending drop-in Zoom sessions that the Office of Undergraduate Education recommended instructors offer as a supplement to their syllabi.
The pandemic also brought about a shift long sought in some corners of University Hall, prompting students to pre-register for classes. In 2018, Dean of Undergraduate Education Amanda J. Claybaugh wrote to students that the administration was “no longer certain that the benefits of shopping period are worth the costs,” and pitched a switch to early registration.
The Faculty of Arts and Sciences ultimately voted to preserve shopping week until at least 2022 after considering several “in between” resolutions to the debate, but the pandemic has rendered much of that proposal moot for the time being.
This fall’s shopping week began with controversy over a different change, when students discovered that course and instructor ratings, among other information known as Q Guide scores, were missing from class listings on my.harvard.
Despite the initial roadbump, many freshmen — who never experienced shopping period in its original iteration — said they thought the week went smoothly. More seasoned students, however, said they found it lacking in some respects compared to Harvard’s traditional first week of classes.
Sraavya Sambara ’24 said she thought her shopping period — spent considering classes in computer science, life sciences, global health, and the history of science — went “really well.”
Citing organized course materials, accessible professors, and strong advising, Sambara said she felt her course exploration proved fruitful.
“It's really new, but I do feel really well supported,” she said. “Considering that it has to be all virtual, I think it was a pretty good experience.”
Similarly, Angela Dela Cruz ’24 said she felt perusing syllabi and visiting professor-led course previews on Zoom provided valuable insights into the content and format of the classes.
“Visiting the Zoom sessions really helped me see how the professors taught and how they spoke, and whether or not I vibed with how they were presenting the class and the topics,” Dela Cruz said.
However, another student Kendall I. Shields ’24 said she was “confused” about where to find information about these live Zoom drop-in sessions. Shields said she found the introductory pre-recorded videos featuring the professor helpful.
“I think it's really nice when the professor themselves appears in a video because I think a big part of the course is the person instructing it,” she said.
Samyra C. Miller ’21, who has participated in both traditional and early shopping week, said she was perplexed by the inconsistency between the supplemental course materials — live Zoom sessions, drop-in meetings, pre-recorded trailers, and syllabi — different professors chose to provide.
“I've been at Harvard since 2017. I've done shopping week many, many times, and I had some expectations,” Miller said. “Usually, when you are shopping classes, you show up to the class at the time that's listed on my.harvard to pick up your syllabus and meet the professor and then plan your whole shopping week schedule around those times listed.”
However, this fall, Miller said she had to visit the Canvas site for every single class she was considering taking to double check if professors were even offering Zoom previews of their courses and, if so, at what time.
Some departments, as well as the Program in General Education, only hosted special department-wide preview days for all their course offerings, to the confusion of Miller who expected to attend class previews at the listed course meeting times on the my.harvard course catalog.
“I guess I was expecting that since we're so used to having that live time with the professor that every single class was going to be having this virtual Zoom preview to go to,” Miller said.
Despite these inconsistencies, however, Miller said she felt that early, virtual shopping week and its traditional, in-person counterpart provided the same core experience.
“The biggest thing professors do on the first day of class is they go over the syllabus, take questions,” Miller said. “That's essentially what the Zooms were.”
Throughout the week, Miller posted screenshots of course registration and lottery deadlines, meeting times for class previews, and course recommendations on her Instagram story to keep her followers informed.
“I thought it would be important to centralize all the information when everybody is really confused,” Miller said. “I wanted to make sure everybody was on the same page for everything, especially for the first years.”
Evaluating Harvard’s fall shopping week experiment, Miller said she acknowledges there are several advantages to an early course registration period — especially if courses must continue online in the future. These benefits include providing students learning from afar the time to order and ship books; ensuring faculty can adjust course meeting schedules to accommodate the different time zones of enrolled students; and allowing students to solidify their course load before starting classes and get to know professors ahead of time.
“I think because we're not used to an early shopping week, it was an adjustment,” Miller said. “But we are in very crazy times. That means we're having to rethink a lot of the things we do.”
—Staff writer Juliet E. Isselbacher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @julietissel.
—Staff writer Amanda Y. Su can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @amandaysu.
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