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The Market for Gems: How Harvard Courses Got So Easy

By Xinyi (Christine) Zhang
By Lucas T. Gazianis, Crimson Opinion Writer
Lucas T. Gazianis ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Currier House. His reported column runs triweekly on Tuesdays.

If you navigate to, you’ll find a list of “the best gems” Harvard has to offer.

The best “Super Gem”? GENED 1179: Psychotherapy and the Modern Self. Looking for a “Hidden Gem”? Try ModGrk BB: Intermediate Modern Greek Culture and Civilization.

For those unfamiliar, “gems” are courses that meet two fundamental criteria: easy grading and low workloads.

Harvard’s course requirements are fairly flexible. Most of our course selection constraints outside of concentration requirements come from the General Educational program, which requires students to take one course in each of four broad categories, and a few distributional requirements. On the whole, students here have the freedom to chart their own academic path.

Of course, it’s no secret that Harvard students often meet these relatively unrestrictive requirements by taking gems. It’s also no secret that they are driven to do so in part by a long-running trend of grade inflation, which makes taking rigorous courses seem too risky. (In the words of professor Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr. ’53, giving “any kind of B is like shoving a knife in the vitals of a student.”)

How do students find gems? How do gems come to be in the first place?

There’s a kind of market for gems at work at Harvard. There’s the demand side (students want to take easy classes) and the supply side (faculty, for a variety of reasons, give students what they want). The result? The proliferation of a culture in which students load on low-stress GPA boosters.

The Student Side of the Market

Seeking easy routes to secure As, students mine for gems.

“I always try to make sure that, among my schedule, I have some classes that I can not worry about getting an A in,” Xinran (Olivia) Ma ’26, a joint concentrator in Classics and Comparative Literature, told me.

Gems aren’t just about the grade. They can also provide “a less intense setting than other classes” that can help balance out demanding schedules, said Bradley K. Baltz ’24.

To meet his requirements, Baltz, a joint concentrator in Physics and Mathematics who is also pursuing a concurrent master’s degree in Physics, has taken five classes each semester, including graduate-level classes, for the past two years. Gems, with their lower workloads, have helped him stay below 50 hours per week of out-of-class work.

Nonetheless, Baltz doesn’t view the gems he’s taken simply as throwaway classes.

“Certainly, an important criteria is just that I can take that class to lighten my workload overall, but I do look for classes that I think I’m generally interested in learning about the topic.”

Ma, too, tries to make sure the gems she takes interest her.

“What I personally want to look for is: Less is more,” said Ma, a Crimson Arts editor. “I’m trying to have a balance between things I need to fulfill for requirements and things that I would enjoy learning.” The best classes, she told me, do both.

For example, Ma told me that she is enrolled in a GenEd about satire, which she described as “pretty gemmy” but nevertheless a class worth taking.

Others have found their gems less conducive to meaningful learning.

Kelly P. Kim ’25, a Crimson Business associate and Psychology concentrator, told me that she is “already kind of half clocked-out” by the time she decides to take on a gem.

“I think what comes with a gem is also the expectation that you’re not as involved in the class and not really retaining as much of the information,” she said.

Kim concluded that gems haven’t been as fulfilling as the other classes she’s taken at Harvard.

“So, in my personal experience, I don’t think that those have been my most enriching classes. I don’t think I’ve learned the most from them,” Kim said.

Kim explained that students are also attracted to gems as a means of social connection. In a course that she said “like half of The Crimson’s Business board is taking at the moment.” “They almost made a community out of taking the gem,” she added.

Students rely on social networks to mine for gems, too.

When course selection time comes around, many students use Sidechat — an anonymous campus social media platform — to exchange information about the gemmiest gems.

For example, in January, I saw an entire thread dedicated to evaluating whether a particular Government class is still as gemmy as it used to be.

“Is gov 1759 actually harder than last year or are people just trolling here?” one concerned poster wrote, to dozens of upvotes.

Another answered: “It is getting harder for sure, I’ve heard it from multiple sources.”

(As a matter of transparency, I’ll disclose: I took Gov 1759. Students have nothing to worry about.)

The Q Guide, Harvard’s course review website, allows students to gem hunt more systematically. Especially because many reviews omit the often-detailed qualitative comments students write about courses, students use course numerical ratings — crucially, the number of hours the course requires per week — to choose courses.

Whether clicking through Sidechat or the Q Guide or sitting in the dining hall, the impression remains: Many Harvard students choose classes on ease rather than fit.

The Faculty’s Gem Supply

It’s clear that students demand gems — largely for their status as easier schedule fillers rather than vehicles of intellectual exploration. But it takes an exchange to have a market. That can only be provided by the faculty.

Students take gems, but professors are the ones who create them, in response to several kinds of pressure.

First, in a market where students choose their classes in large part based on the grade they expect to receive at the end of the semester, they are more likely to avoid professors who grade harshly. This means that professors, if they want to incentivize students to take their class, benefit from falling in line with the College-wide standard.

Mansfield, who, while still teaching, was notorious for his difficult grading, spoke to his own experience with this dynamic.

“Yeah, sure, a lot people will try me out the first meeting,” he said. “And then since I have this evil reputation, they drop out.”

Moreover, some feel that it isn’t fair for students to receive worse grades for challenging themselves to take more difficult classes.

“You don’t want to punish the students who will take your course,” Mansfield said. “It’s a race to the bottom, which is a race to the top.”

Tracey A. Rosen, a lecturer on Social Studies, similarly spoke to a “psychological pressure to inflate the grades” in Social Studies 10, the concentration’s mandatory introductory course, in which lecturers can see the grades their colleagues give across sections.

“No one wants to be the asshole that’s giving really tough grades,” she told me.

For non-tenure-track faculty, the stakes are more tangible: Bad Q scores can threaten job security.

“When you’re applying for a job, you have to put together your portfolio and put down all your evaluations,” she said.

As a result, non-tenure-track faculty “tend to inflate students’ grades because they want to have good Q scores,” said Rosen.“It’s kind of like ‘I’ll pat your back; you pat my back.’”

It’s a vicious cycle: Students want to boost their GPA, which means that faculty face pressure to raise grades and lower workloads.

The upshot? When Rosen arrived at Harvard seven years ago, it was “pretty routine” for her to give out grades of B+.

But since then, “for Soc 10, it’s just A, A, A, A, A, A, A. Everybody’s getting A’s.”

The cycle will likely persist without some form of coordinated action. Rosen agreed with Mansfield that “it’s not fair to punish students just because they have me for a professor.” Both faculty likened the issue to a collective action problem.

“It can’t just be one professor who’s changing things up. It has to be a collective thing,” Rosen said.

Toward A Better Equilibrium

It’s not easy to fix the pernicious cycle of grade inflation and the market for gems it creates. Administrators have suggested several proposals that would help relieve the pressures on students to receive high grades and encourage faculty to grade more honestly.

Some suggest that transcripts could show the average class grade next to a student’s individual grade to indicate the overall rigor of the class. Others say that professors should have grade distribution requirements to tamp down on inflation.

These sorts of structural reforms merit serious consideration, but in the meantime, students should reconsider the way they navigate the market for gems.

In my last column, I explored the dangers of a transactional mindset that emphasizes what a Harvard degree can get us rather than what it can teach us. Gem-hunting — which betrays a desire to minimize time and effort spent on our courses — is an example of this mindset at work.

It’s okay to take gems, of course — many of them are worth taking. Whether it’s to offset more difficult classes or to ease a schedule that involves substantial commitments outside of academics entirely, gems can be a healthy part of a balanced diet.

If, instead of selecting courses based on their intellectual worth to us, we look only for the “gemmiest” classes, we forfeit the intellectual ends of our education. Workload and grading should be two of many factors that go into course selection — not its sole determinants.

Furthermore, there’s one upside of grade inflation worth taking advantage of. Because so many professors grade with their students in mind, students are likely to receive a good grade even in tough classes. That means that students should feel free to take risks, enrolling in classes without worrying inordinately about finding a gem.

In other words, even if grade inflation is undesirable — in many respects, it undoubtedly is — we have an opportunity to take advantage of the freedom of course selection it offers. It’s a freedom we don’t seize enough.

Lucas T. Gazianis ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Currier House.

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