Sunday, March 11, 2012

Housing Day Midterm

As a sign I just must be getting old, I don't get an issue some students have with me.

Since I've been professing, I hold the midterm for my class the Thursday before spring break.  It's where the exam fits best, and I'm well aware that the Thursday before spring break would unofficially become a holiday if the midterm wasn't there.  This is, already, bad enough for students, in that they now can't leave for spring break until Thursday afternoon.  

A few years ago, however, a new tradition sprung up around Harvard.  Housing Day is when freshman (who live, generally speaking, in Harvard Yard) are told which of the 12 Houses (or big Harvard dorms) they will live in the next 3 years.  Housing Day has become a celebration day, apparently with parties all day for upperclassmen to welcome the new students to their House.  (A Crimson article explains further.)

And, of course, Housing Day falls on the Thursday before spring break. 

The first year or two I heard rumblings, and they've grown louder every year.  When students hear about the midterm, they ask, "Don't you know that's Housing Day?" 

I'm afraid I consider my class "grandfathered in".  I started teaching it well before Housing Day became important;  I don't see any reason for me to change my scheduling to accommodate it.  I'm not sure whether I would be more careful to avoid Housing Day if I were teaching a new class, where I could consider it a constraint from day one. 

But, I admit, I probably wouldn't. 


Anonymous said...

It seems like you 'get' it just fine. And it also seems a petty thing to take such a stand on.

Anonymous said...

I am a student at a Danish university. I do not see why not to follow what the students want, if it does not pose an extra amount of work on you.

Of course, students need to attend the lectures, and of course the professors plan the lectures, not the students. But when all the obvious claims are made, the students want to have a nice time, and the teachers want to have a class with happy students, so personally, I would probably talk to the students about it, and actually ask them what they think is fair?

Besides that, why should an exam ruin a party, I guess the exam is in the mid-day and the party in the evening?

Anonymous said...

+1 for first comment; you get it just fine, you just actively choose to be a dick about a minor scheduling detail that you could presumably easily change. Glad I lived far away from there in my day as a university student.

Anonymous said...

Michael, this is totally incorrect. As paying customers, the students have the right to have some choice in when their midterm is going to be. Besides, new students could care less about the "history" of your class and whether it grandfathered the House day or not. He who pays the piper, calls the tune.

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Anon #2: The exam is in the afternoon.

Anon #1,#3: You seem to think that I have not considered options. I apologize if that was unclear. I have considered changes, and because of other constraints -- including the hard constraint of a week's vacation, and when various lectures cover various material, I feel it would be unsuitable to change the date of the midterm (without making significant revisions to class content). Hence my decision is not made out of "pettiness" or out of an active desire "to be a dick". I simply profess that I view Housing Day as a minor constraint relative to other considerations. But thanks for sharing your opinions!

Anon #4: I assume you're being sarcastic, though you don't have the tag on. (Or at least I'd like to think you're being sarcastic...) But I think you (and Anon #2) are getting to the core question. Am I obliged to maximize student happiness with regard to issues like midterm scheduling, and what is legitimate to take into consideration? As I said, when I started teaching, before Housing Day became a big deal, there was already grumbling by some students who wanted to leave for spring break Wednesday night. Now that Housing Day is here, strangely, that seems to have become less of a concern.

So a question is what activities outside of my class should govern my scheduling. Religious holidays, for one, would. (Harvard doesn't shut down for Jewish holidays; I will avoid or arrange alternatives for exams or homework due dates that interfere with religious holidays that Harvard does not observe as an organization.) Perhaps now that Harvard is in the NCAA tournament, I should take that into consideration, and cancel class on any game days. (See previous statement on religion.) I've chosen to draw the line somewhere before Housing Day.

Also, for any given day, there are issues that arise for a subset of the students. I suppose if maximizing happiness is the goal that I could adopt the utilitarian stance and have people vote on midterm times. (Including, say, times outside of class -- a nice 10pm exam seems convenient for many -- but if you can't make it, too bad.)

Or I could just lead the class I'm paid to teach, and say here's the class day when I'll give the midterm. Seem easier than all this hand-wringing to me.

JeffE said...

Besides that, why should an exam ruin a party, I guess the exam is in the mid-day and the party in the evening?

College students are adults. If they prefer to go to an early party than to take an exam, that is their God-given right as Harvard men and women, and no one is stopping them.

As paying customers, the students have the right to have some choice in when their midterm is going to be.

But they do have a choice! No one is forced to take Michael's class.

(Admittedly, I am assuming that Michael does not employ black-ops ninja types to kidnap people off the streets of Cambridge, take them to an underground bunker, strap them to chairs, and force them to watch Michael lecture on Bloom filters and whatnot, perhaps with a little of the Ludwig Van playing in the background. But perhaps membership on the Harvard faculty has privileges of which I am unaware.)

Anonymous said...

>Hence my decision is not made out of "pettiness" or out of an active desire "to be a dick".

I do believe that you do not desire to be a dick, but, unfortunately, in this case, you are acting like one. The Housing Day activities start the night before when students stay up late with their blocking groups (often to better get to know the people they will likely be living with the next three years). Even if a student studied ahead of time, they would still be faced with the choice of future roommate bonding or getting a good night’s sleep for the exam.

As undergraduate who knew most but not his entire blocking group, this was a nice evening. As I recall, we tried to see who could eat the most saltine crackers in under a minute. The next morning was exciting and fun (a rarity in the general Harvard social calendar).

Put the exam on Tuesday, take one topic off and put that on Thursday. In my day, students (often) showed up to classes on Housing day, just not the most rested.

As for how long you have been doing this, who cares? This is a terrible argument and makes you sound like some old tired professor who is lecturing off his yellowed notes from 30 years ago and refuses to change. After all, the topic hasn’t changed, why should the professor?

As for the capitalists out there who feel the students have a “choice”. If you insist on acting like a dick (with or without an active desire to do so), at least make sure that the students know this during shopping period so that can take this into account before signing up for your class. Perhaps if they like your class and other equally, this will help them decide.

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Anon #7: Just to be clear, I do in fact let students know the midterm will be the Thursday before spring break during shopping period. (Oddly, I think at that point, students are the ones who don't know that that will intersect with Housing Day. I don't either, since I'm not informed in any way when Housing Day will be in advance; I don't know if it's always scheduled this way, or if it's just been how it's worked out the last few years.)

Anonymous said...

I am currently enrolled in cs124, and I am really enjoying the class. As you probably have understood from this year's enrollment numbers, cs124 has a reputation for being a good, challenging and well taught class among the students on campus. However, every year there are some grievances that come up, and this is reflected in the cue guide evaluations that all students give at the end of the semester.

The problem is not that the midterm is on housing day per se. The problem I, and many of my fellow classmates have had, was the following:

Dynamic programming is the topic that is done in the few lead-up lectures to the midterm, and there is one problem set on it. That is all well and good, but your problem sets are of such a size and scope that they usually take more than a week to complete. And that is why you ordinarily assign them as biweekly problem sets, which is well and good.

However, the week before the midterm, the first programming assignment was due, which was time consuming and on par with all your other problem sets. We were then presented with one single week to complete a large DP problem set, due at the very date of the midterm.

The result was that several students had to struggle to catch up on new material and finish a large problem set during a week when midterms abound in other classes as well. Many students were not able to complete the DP problem set satisfactorily before the midterm, and because there could be no feedback on the DP problem sets before the midterm, these students had little time to clear up misunderstandings and rectify the gaps in their understanding before the midterm. It would be nice if the material that was covered on the midterm was material on which we had had some feedback, since to many, the feedback is an integral part of learning the material.

Some therefore felt that instead of cramming everything into the week before spring break, it would be expedient to maybe move the midterm to the Tuesday after spring break so that there would also have been some time to give feedback on the first and only problem set containing a major portion of the midterm material.

That the Thursday also happens to be housing day is just an "added inconvenience" so to speak.

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Anon #9: I would like to thank you for your well-written and cogent argument. You make an interesting and compelling case, and it is comments like yours that make running a blog worthwhile. (I suppose it's already clear I'm more sympathetic to your argument than to the discussion of Housing Day.)

The choice you've suggested is whether it makes sense to give the midterm after spring break. I would like you to know that I've considered that issue. I disagree that this is the right choice, for reasons I'll explain below, but if you feel my reasoning is wrong here, you'd of course be welcome to let me know.

First, in general I think students lose retention of material over spring break -- unless they study. I certainly don't want to force students to study over spring break. (Having once had to take Rabin's take-home final over Christmas break, back when exams were after Christmas break, it's not the sort of experience I want to give to students.) In this respect, I think the midterm after spring break would be unfair to many students (who might have plans over spring break that do not involve my class), and/or result in equally many complaints. Spring break provides a natural break for the class; it seems far better to me to have the midterm before that break.

Second, while it would be helpful to get feedback on the DP assignment before the exam, there's necessarily going to be a lag. We finished DP 3 or so lectures ago; you had your problem set; that set now has to get graded and returned. Just to be clear, you were not getting your graded set back before spring break was over (my TFs, most of whom are undergraduates, also are on vacation). Having the midterm the Tuesday you get back would not solve the feedback problem you raise, it would have to be planned for the Tuesday after that. By that point, we're several weeks beyond DP in the class, never mind the rest of the material. Again, I view this solution as more problematic than the original problem.

(It is also not clear to me that feedback on the homework set provides as significant a delta in the extent to which students gain an understanding of DP as you believe; my take is that it is much less than you suggest. Arguably, that could make a difference in my reasoning.)

In short, I agree with the spirit of your comment that ideally there would be less crammed into the two weeks before vacation. My preference would be to move vacation forward a week, but that's not in my power. The current setup seems to be the best way to satisfy the constraints as I see them. In short, other solutions have equally bad problems, for the students, or, in some cases, for what I intend students to get out of the class. (For example, I could just not give a midterm, but that's not a solution I'm happy with at this time.)

In any case, again, I appreciate your taking the time to craft your comment.

Anonymous said...

I am with Michael. If the students feel strongly about having no exams on housing day, they should make a petition to the administration to make the last Thursday before spring break a University holiday. That would probably be a good solution for everyone. Harassing professors one at a time does not seem a good use of anyone's energy!

Anonymous said...

As a student I sometimes disliked the schedule of certain lectures but I never really complained about that because I was of the opinion that studying is a bit like working except that you do not get paid. So, it's up to other people (usually the professors) to make the rules. Bonding between students is certainly important but can also be scheduled some other time. And regarding spring break: I confess that I don't get this tradition as I'm not American but I don't see what is so important about leaving for a vacation on a certain day. Why not stay behind and use the relative quiet and read a good book from the library or pursue some extracurricular studies, play some music or just get some well-deserved rest from any and all activities.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I also think that pedagogical soundness takes priority over housing day. I can see why students would grumble, as it's far more practically feasible for a CS124 professor to move the exam date for housing day, than for students to get the administration to shift housing day for CS124. It's not something that I paid much attention to when I took the class, but if you briefly explained that your decision to hold the midterm on this particular day was carefully thought out, as you indicate here, then students would probably be more receptive.

Greg Morrisett said...

I used to have the 51 midterm on the same day. I moved it to the Tuesday before to appease the students. But then no one shows up on Thursday. Like Michael, I don't want to force people to work over spring break. But if they aren't going to show up, we effectively lose a class. So I think Michael has made the best tradeoff from a pedagogical perspective.

Anonymous said...

It seems strange to me that there is such an urgency to 'get to know' the people that that you will live with for the next three years. Won't there be ample opportunity in the next three years to do that? I wonder if the kids are confused about what Exceptionalism is all about.

Also, I wonder if there is a 20 year old in Boston who fancies himself stylishly de guerre for referring to you with an obscenity.

Harry Lewis said...

Sorry to be late coming in on this, but I'd better weigh in, since it's all my fault.

When I started randomizing the Houses in the spring of 1996, I encouraged the Houses to organize welcomes for their newly minted members. It was a great thing on which the faculty Masters, the grad student residents, and the undergraduate House committees could cooperate. It especially made those assigned to what were considered the less desirable Houses feel like they were not being exiled to Ultima Thule.

Of course, we are a competitive and immoderate place, and every year the celebrations have gotten more over the top. My favorite incident was during the living wage protest in the spring of 2001, when the president's office was occupied. There were camera crews all over waiting for the cops to toss the tear gas. One day, just a few steps away, the Housing day celebrations happened to be taking place at Memorial Hall. A TV station filmed a HoCo member dressed up as the Leverett House bunny wandering among cheering students, and showed it on the 11PM news as part of the brave students' fight for a better life for Harvard's working underclass.

Some parts of the celebration eventually had to be banned because they involved fire and risk of injury.

It is absurd that this is considered something that has to shut down the college for 24 hours (and god forbid we have the celebration on the next day, since that is the class day before spring break). Few students have more than 2 or 3 hours of classes in a day; they could whoop for the other 20 and still meet all their obligations. Frankly, the Masters, who are all professors themselves, should insist on the posture that Housing day celebrations should not take priority over classes.

There probably is a better date on which to do this, or a better time of day. The College can make it happen whenever they want -- they hold the magic envelopes whose delivery triggers the celebration, so they could deliver them at 5pm if they wanted. I'd suggest a Saturday, actually; why not? The present date is entirely accidental, a function of when freshmen used to pick concentrations, and when spring break falls, which is different now that graduation is earlier in the spring. Move your midterm exam to Tuesday and students might well start leaving town on Wednesday, so these tweaks have to be made carefully.

The bottom line is that this is a game, and students can play it better than professors can. I taught on the Friday before spring break and almost everyone showed up -- because attendance is required and I actually take attendance. I excuse people for any good reason, including athletic competition, job interviews, and weddings of close relatives; I am not mean. But I run the class in a way that you are more likely to learn if you are there, and I tell students at the beginning that that's the deal, and they should not take the course if they regard class attendance is a nuisance. The actual practice matches the claims I made. The social contract seems to be working well (but I didn't teach on Housing day, which was a Thursday).

Anonymous said...

I am not convinced -- Why not move it back to Tuesday and cut one topic from the mid term syllabus? You may argue they won't show up on Thursday. Well, fine. They are at loss.
And, if you very considerate, have Thursday class as a review class or something similar, award extra points through short in-class quiz etc.


Anonymous said...

Personally, I think the major difficulty with cramming before the midterm could be solved by changing around the syllabus. I found that dynamic programming was by far the concept that required most practice, and it seems like it could have been introduced after mergesort (along with greedy algorithms, etc.) before we covered graph algorithms. Graph algorithms are generally easier to grasp and seem more amenable to pre-midterm cramming.

Anonymous said...

Michael, you are a good instructor (I have attended your class), you have written a very nice book, but believe me, you need to loosen up! Don't pick your fights on your blog or anywhere else on the web. Do whatever you want to, just don't say things like "But, I admit, I probably wouldn't. ". You really don't have to prove a point to anyone and especially those poor Harvard students. Talking about why you wouldn't schedule midterm on a certain day is actually futile. I am sure you have 100 times more important things to do. I wish you were more like Professor Harry Lewis. The man commands respect, both because of his expertise and his cool attitude. You are half way through though! Just stop worrying and commenting about such issues. Good luck!

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Anonymous #19: A very reasonable suggestion. :)

Anonymous said...

I think you're a meanie!!!!