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This fall semester did not include a full-fledged shopping week, owing to logistical and safety challenges arising from the pandemic. We understand the necessity of this temporary measure. We sincerely hope, though, that shopping week will not be permanently scaled back — a possibility that the Faculty Council voted to explore in 2018 and is scheduled to receive consideration in the current academic year.
Shopping week is indispensable to Harvard’s mission of providing “exposure to new ideas, new ways of understanding, and new ways of knowing,” and of propelling students to “embark on a journey of intellectual transformation.” Writing as members of different segments of the Harvard community — a current undergraduate and a graduate student teaching fellow — we wish to share our thoughts on the contributions shopping week has made to our educational experiences at Harvard, and on what the community stands to lose if this integral component of the semester is curtailed.
Michael, Class of 2023: Shopping week is more than just an interesting quirk of Harvard; it has had a profound impact on my own academic journey. I am currently concentrating in Archaeology and Physics due in part to the opportunities for academic exploration afforded during shopping week.
I entered college expecting to study physics, and for this reason, it seemed sensible to take a math class in my second semester. Before I officially enrolled, however, I was convinced to shop courses widely. On the Wednesday of shopping week, I found myself on the fifth floor of the Peabody Museum, sitting in a small archaeology seminar. I was enthralled by this first lecture, but I felt conflicted. I recall pacing in front of the Science Center the following evening, unsure whether to enroll in a math course I felt I ought to take, or in an archaeology course I truly wanted to take. I was inspired, though, by one of the principles Harvard represents to me: a foundational appreciation for academic exploration and intellectual curiosity.
I enrolled in the archaeology class and eventually declared Archaeology as my primary concentration. If not for shopping week, I never would have considered that archaeology seminar, and I cannot say where my academic path would have led.
Shopping week also provides students with valuable exposure to fields that are entirely unfamiliar to us, even (and especially) if those fields do not become permanent parts of our academic programs. I recall passing by a friend as she entered a psychology class during shopping week. I joined her, attending a course in a department I had never imagined myself exploring. During that opening lecture, I learned about fundamental aspects of psychology — a subject I never would have encountered otherwise.
Daniel, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences: I must acknowledge that shopping week poses challenges for professors, administrators, and doctoral students. Individuals in these roles prepare syllabuses, assign classrooms, and rush to secure appointments as teaching fellows without knowing course enrollment numbers in advance.
However, there are steps that can be taken to ameliorate these problems — at least insofar as they affect graduate students — without eliminating shopping week. Many third- and fourth-year Ph.D. students in the social sciences and humanities at Harvard must teach two sections per semester in order to receive the full level of “living expense support.” Although these students are guaranteed the opportunity to teach a complete load, they often face major challenges in identifying and securing two-section appointments. Lowering the standard teaching load to one section per semester would make it far easier to satisfy this threshold, even amidst unpredictable enrollments. I imagine that later-term Ph.D. candidates, who are not guaranteed teaching opportunities, would pick up any remaining sections as an optional source of income.
Even without such a solution in place, shopping week’s impact on the quality of undergraduate education at Harvard is far too valuable to give up. The benefits I derived from shopping week during my undergraduate years are similar to the ones Michael has described above. Courses that I visited on a whim at the start of each semester ended up introducing me to new areas of study and challenging me to think in ways I had never envisioned before. These courses were impactful precisely because they were not what I would have chosen on the basis of preexisting interests. Shopping week gave me freedom to forge new paths for myself, but it did so, paradoxically, by allowing me to encounter and be drawn in by topics, questions, and ideas I could not have thought of on my own.
Some of my most rewarding experiences as a teaching fellow have involved working with students who discovered during shopping week that they had the opportunity to take — and that they felt truly excited to take — courses in understudied areas of the humanities. These experiences give me the opportunity to share the topics and texts I love most with students who might otherwise not come across them. For an aspiring scholar, this is the ideal job. By fostering this form of teaching, shopping week helps disseminate academia’s trove of specialized and obscure, yet captivating and transportive knowledge to curious non-specialists.
Michael and Daniel: We believe shopping week is one of the simplest and most concrete ways in which Harvard shows its dedication to its students, but also one of the most important. We hope that it will continue to enrich the educations of future Harvard students, as it has enriched ours.
Michael J. Frim ’23 is a joint concentrator in Archaeology and Physics in Eliot House. Daniel J. Frim ’14 is a fifth-year doctoral student in The Study of Religion.
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