Tuesday, February 05, 2008

More on the Shopping Period

As I mentioned two posts ago, Harvard has an unusual tradition of a "shopping period" -- you don't preregister for a class, but you choose classes after the first week, after you've had a chance to go to a lecture or two and see how you like it.

As a student, I loved it. What better way to get an idea if you'll like a class than to go, hear the professor, check out the syllabus, see who else is thinking of taking the class, etc. It makes choosing classes much more flexible. Instead of switching out of classes you've already chosen without seeing, you choose later. Part of that benefit might just be psychological -- most schools allow you to change courses in the first few weeks fairly easily -- but there is a marked difference between changing your classes and choosing your classes, especially if a student has to fill out forms or get signatures to change a class. The openness of the first week is a real benefit to students. I can understand why something like shopping period just might not be feasible for some very large schools, but I think it's a shame more schools don't do it.

Several years ago, there was a movement by the administration to introduce preregistration and get rid of shopping period. I was on the Committee for Undergraduate Education and the Faculty Council, and when the idea was first brought up I spoke against it, only to find that the issue didn't seem up for discussion; it apparently had been "decided" higher up. (It's things like this that helped make the Presidency of Larry Summers so unpopular, as opposed to some of the supposed reasons popularized in the press.) I was surprised that so many faculty on these advisory committees seemed willing to go along with the idea. It was massively unpopular among Computer Science faculty; we like students being able to choose their courses.

Overall, naturally, students didn't seem to like the idea. The administration's main argument seemed to be that it would allow more accurate predictions of class sizes in advance, so Teaching Assistants (and, in some classes, classrooms) could be assigned more readily and efficiently. (Here's an old Crimson opinion giving both sides of the issue.) This was around a time period where there were murmurs of graduate student unionization, and that might have been influencing the administration's mindset. Of course, nobody in the administration had an answer when I asked what prediction mechanisms they were using now, and if there was any evidence that preregistration would help predictions any. (I wasn't the only one asking this question. This was another reason the CS faculty in particular were against the idea; they saw no reason for it. It's in interesting problem to design an enrollment predictor; one semester, Stuart Shieber ended up running a projects class to find solutions for the problem.)

A funny thing happened, though. The change had to be approved by the faculty, and while I seemed to be a lonely voice with objections in these committee meetings, apparently a lot of faculty didn't actually like the idea. Instead of it being a quick and simple vote like the administration seemed to expect, the faculty meeting was a disaster. Eleven faculty spoke on the issue; ten spoke against it (including, I'm happy to say, me). Quietly, pre-registration was dropped as an issue, and shopping period continues.


Lev Reyzin said...

I was an undergraduate at Princeton, where we had preregistration. However, we could switch our course selections two weeks into the semester - this made the first two weeks very much a shopping period.

Now I am a graduate student at Yale, where we have a true shopping period like Harvard. I don't see students shopping any more at Yale, but I often see overcrowded classrooms and TA headaches.

If many students have a rough idea of what they plan to take, why not have them express these preferences. This also has the added benefit of allowing faculty not to prepare courses all summer long that nobody preregistered for the semester before.

Anonymous said...

lev, the usefulness of shopping period depends very much on how seriously all parties take it. So while you say Yale lets you change your course selections two into the semester (and I think most colleges are like Yale), this isn't really a "shopping period" unless the students and teachers approach it as one. At Harvard, certainly among undergraduates, shopping period is very much taken advantage of, and I think the professors work to accommodate this. For example, Michael says that he prepares special lectures. But if the professors didn't work to accommodate it, or if only a small minority of students "shopped," then actually changing classes becomes difficult because you have fallen so far behind.

In other words, there is a downside to your suggestion.

Anonymous said...

I don't know how the course approval process has changed at Harvard since back when I was an undergrad in the Stone Age, but if I had had to have my course assignments approved by my advisor before the semester and then had any changes approved again I would have felt a lot more restricted to my initial course assignments. During shopping period I went to the first and second lecture of a lot of classes to decide on my specific schedule for the semester.

Anonymous said...

Shopping period continues at Harvard, but so does the absence of any quantitatively based enrollment prediction mechanism like the one Stuart Shieber quite successfully put together using historical data (as I recall, it worked reasonably well on year 10 data about enrollments in all courses, numbers of majors, etc., having been trained on years 1-9). Fundamentally, the powers that were (some of whom were scientists, mathematicians, and economists) didn't believe it could work, even though Stuart demonstrated that it would. So it came down to a power play, motivated in part (as MM mentions) by discussions about the welfare of grad students. When the administration lost the power play, it dropped the entire subject and made no effort to institute a computational predictive mechanism instead. What generally happens in higher education when a problem is dispensed with that way is that it comes back in 3 or 4 years, after there has been a turnover in the administration and everyone has forgotten that the issue was ever considered previously. - Harry Lewis