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No Chopping Shopping Week

By Keith Raffel, Contributing Opinion Writer

In September of 2021, 96 percent of undergraduates voted to keep shopping week. How then could a faculty committee recommend only three months later to scrap it in favor of a system of early registration?

Given the committee members’ background, I suspect the recommendation was preordained. As trial lawyers might tell you, if they can choose the jury, they can guarantee the verdict.

Now, I myself have taught at Harvard College and recognize the validity of some of the committee’s concerns. With the in-semester enrollment that shopping week entails, instructors don’t know whether they’ll end up teaching a large lecture class or a small seminar. They don’t know in advance how many teaching fellows they’ll need and whether the classroom assigned needs to be changed. Moreover, if the first sessions of the course are not appealing, undergrads will not take it — and a sparsely populated classroom can damage any instructor’s self-esteem.

Many grad students, as teaching fellows for courses, especially resent shopping week. The committee report quotes one as saying, “The course I was originally assigned to teach was half the size they guessed, so I had to scramble to find another course. As a consequence, I was incredibly stressed for 2 weeks and got almost nothing done.”

Do two weeks of stress for a grad student weigh more heavily than a possibly life-changing course for a single undergraduate, let alone dozens?

I have no doubt shopping week encourages undergrads to explore academic disciplines and broaden intellectual horizons. In addition to having been an instructor at the College, I was also an undergraduate here. A friend of mine from back in the 1970s and 1980s remembers sitting in on a graduate economics course during shopping week. What do you know? He found the material fascinating and realized he could handle it. Without shopping week, he wonders whether he would have followed an academic path that led to a Ph.D. in Economics and over 40 years as a professor with more than 50 publications.

Still, even back in our day, faculty members were trying to eliminate shopping week. This time, though, they seem to really mean it. It’s not because undergraduates no longer want to explore, though. In December, an undergrad Music concentrator told me how she’d shopped Computer Science 50: “Introduction to Computer Science,” saying she’d never have had the guts to try it out without test-driving it first. Now she’s a Teaching Fellow for an advanced CS course. A current student at the Law School told me checking out classes during shopping week “changed my life.” She went on to say, “[I]s it not…the professor’s job to TEACH students? Being asked to do your job isn’t a reason to eliminate shopping week.”

Without shopping week, students will inevitably opt for safe choices and high Q scores in their course selections. I’ll wager pre-registration will mean more Government, Economics, Computer Science, and Neuroscience concentrators. I’ve been a sophomore adviser for the past four years and dread what this will mean to small departments like Folklore and Mythology; Anthropology; Art, Film, and Visual Studies; Music; Sociology; and other disciplines which are often stumbled upon rather than sought out.

So how did the committee come to recommend abolishing shopping week? The original 2019/20 appointees to the committee included six Faculty of Arts and Sciences professors. Not one of them had attended the College and gained the life-changing benefits of shopping week. Presumably all had experienced its aggravations, though. The six registrars, deans, and other administrators on the 2019/20 committee may have dealt with the hassles of shopping week, but they did not have a countervailing experience with it as an undergrad. Additionally, there were two Harvard graduate students on the 2019/20 committee. Over the next couple years, the number of instructors on the committee would dwindle, while half a dozen more administrators — only two of whom had attended the College — joined.

Since only three of the original seventeen committee members experienced shopping week as Harvard undergraduates (the two College students and a Business School professor), one would think the committee would have reached out to a broad swathe of alumni who have the perspective to judge the value of shopping week. But there’s no sign of anything like that in the report. Instead, members contacted “registrars at peer institutions, which have universally adopted systems of Previous-Term Registration.” Since when is homogenization — being like other schools — a reason to change? The College prides itself on its distinctiveness— a Harvard-ness embodied by shopping week. A classmate of mine who interviews applicants to the College uses shopping week to differentiate Harvard from Stanford. In a 2018 survey, 62 percent of undergrads indicated that the existence of shopping influenced their decision to come to Harvard.

The College should be doing what it can to empower students’ intellectual exploration, not limiting it because of administrative burden. Fortunately, the committee’s report is only a recommendation to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Let’s hope the Faculty votes in favor of maintaining shopping week, to foster the exposure of students — as the College’s mission statement puts it — “to new ideas, new ways of understanding, and new ways of knowing.”

Keith Raffel ’72 was a lecturer at Harvard College from 2019 to 2021 and is currently a Resident Scholar at Mather House.

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