Ahead of Previous-Term Course Registration Debut, Harvard Faculty and Staff Remain Divided on New System

As Harvard transitions to a new previous-term course registration model, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences remains split on the system, with some members saying it allows for better course preparation and others saying it limits students’ ability to explore classes.
By Emily R. Willrich and Camilla Wu

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences voted in May 2022 to implement previous-term course registration, starting with spring 2024 courses.
The Faculty of Arts and Sciences voted in May 2022 to implement previous-term course registration, starting with spring 2024 courses. By Ryan N. Gajarawala

As Harvard transitions to a new previous-term course registration model, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences remains split on the system, with some members saying it allows for better course preparation and others arguing it limits students’ ability to explore classes.

In May 2022, the FAS voted to have students register for courses during the middle of the prior term, rather than at the beginning of the semester, starting with spring 2024 courses.

Course registration will open for students on Nov. 1 with a registration deadline of Nov. 15 — more than two months earlier than last year’s deadline for spring course registration. The school required instructors to finalize class meeting times, course descriptions, and class notes by Nov. 1.

Despite protests from students and some high-profile professors, the decision to implement previous-term registration also ended shopping week, a system in which students could attend different classes before settling on their semester schedule.

In an Oct. 12 interview, FAS Dean Hopi E. Hoekstra said that she hasn’t “heard a lot from the faculty” about their opinions on the new course registration model.

“I’m here to learn more about how things are going, but I haven’t heard much so far,” she said.

For German professor Peter J. Burgard, the new system is a welcome change that allows students and faculty to be more prepared and organized.

“I am glad that we are moving to early registration because I believe it helps students plan their curriculum more coherently and thoughtfully,” Burgard wrote in an email.

“I by no means find this too much to ask of faculty,” he added.

Comparative Literature and Classics professor Gregory Nagy also said previous-term course registration requires “more internal thinking about what people learn and how they learn it.”

Zhihan Nan, a Chemistry teaching fellow, said for courses that run several labs and sections, earlier course registration allows the teaching team to better adapt to students’ schedules and needs.

“Previously, the teaching team was usually assembled only one week before the start of term and we were basically immediately thrown into the course,” he wrote in an email.

David A. Beavers, a Government teaching fellow, said the new system is an improvement for graduate student course staff.

“I think it’d be a lot better for grad students to be able to prep in advance for the class,” he said.

Anthropology professor Christina G. Warinner agreed that the new system allowed professors to better coordinate their classes with teaching fellows in advance of the semester.

“Having some pre-enrollment gives us a better idea of how many people might be in the class. Even if that changes, it allows us to really prepare for the class,” she said. “It would allow me, for example, to meet with the teaching fellows early to make plans to get their ideas.”

Other professors shared contrary views, saying the timeline rushes academic staff and students.

African and African American Studies lecturer Timothy Ogene, who is teaching a course with many guest speakers next semester, said the new timeline was “quite a challenge” and that there were logistical issues around scheduling speakers so early.

Harvard spokesperson Jonathan Palumbo wrote in a statement that the University recognizes that many adjustments have to be made during this “transitional year.”

“We are grateful to the faculty and staff who have been working on the Spring 2024 Registration process and continue to gather feedback to improve the experience of both faculty and students,” he wrote.

“This has included regular communications with faculty and students including an outline of timelines and the continued sharing of resources and support services,” he added.

Computer Science lecturer Adam C. Hesterberg said that because the new registration deadline is so close to concentration declaration day, it presents a challenge for advisers who need to hold course registration meetings with sophomores who just declared their concentrations. Under the previous-term registration system, the deadline to declare one’s concentration is now weeks earlier than in previous years, so sophomores declare their concentration before the course registration period.

“We aren’t expecting advisers to meet with all or even most of their advisees in time for course selection advising,” he said.

According to Palumbo, advisers are acclimating to the new timeline.

“The Advising team continues to look at/address processes and procedures to best accommodate these registration changes and best support undergraduate students,” he wrote in an email.

“The Pre-Concentration Advising pilot effort, for example, is designed to make the transition to concentration advising more seamless and effective,” he added.

In addition to logistical challenges, faculty said previous-term course registration inhibits student exploration.

Environmental Science and Engineering assistant professor Marianna K. Linz ’11 wrote in an email that students have largely preferred shopping week.

“The idea that students can make good informed choices about the next term before they have seen the last third of their current courses would already seem somewhat farfetched, but add midterms to the mix and it is hard to imagine they will be able to put in the amount of time reading the Q and talking to friends that they could at a less busy time,” Linz added.

Visual Arts professor Alfred Guzzetti ’64 said he supported shopping week and not previous-term course registration, which has “no advantages and lots of disadvantages.”

“I think it’s a disaster — it’s a terrible idea,” Guzzetti said.

In response to concerns about the removal of shopping week, Palumbo wrote that the decision to eliminate shopping week involved careful consideration. Dean of Undergraduate Education Amanda J. Claybaugh first put forth a proposal to end the practice in 2018.

“There was a very comprehensive review process with a committee whereby our community voiced opinions, asked questions, and worked on solutions — all over a multi-year period,” he wrote.

Despite the changes the College has made to course registration, professor Thomas A. Dichter ’08, a lecturer in History and Literature, said students can create an informal shopping week by trying out different courses during the add-drop period.

“There still is an opportunity to explore and experiment a little bit, and I think that’s really valuable,” he said.

—Staff writer Emily R. Willrich can be reached at emily.willrich@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Camilla Wu can be reached at camilla.wu@thecrimson.com.

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