Saturday, September 04, 2021

Harvard Shopping Period, Here We Go Again

I was looking at today's Harvard Crimson, and noted that Harvard's shopping period looks ready to be vanished again.  Shopping period is that wonderful Harvard tradition where students don't preregister for classes, but instead they choose classes after the first week, after having a chance to go to a lecture or two and see how they like it.  I encourage students -- and faculty -- to push back against efforts that restrict student flexibility in choosing their classes.  While administrators hate it, I still think it's better for students to avoid strong forms of preregistration.   

In fact, I realized I've been fighting this fight for quite a while -- here's something I wrote about when the administration under Larry Summers tried to get rid of it, from this blog back in 2008, and here's a Crimson article from 2002, where I spoke out against the plan for moving to preregistration that the blog post refers to. 

More recently, in 2018-2019, I found myself on the "Course Registration Committee", a committee that initially seemed similarly designed to find a way to move Harvard from shopping period to preregistration.  But a few of us on the committee made convincing arguments that shopping period had many benefits, and the disappearance of shopping period seemed at least somewhat further delayed, while a better solution was found. 

Then the pandemic.  Shopping period seemed impossible in the chaos, and things were more ad hoc (although there was, last year, a push for "class previews" of some sort before the beginning of classes).  This seems to give an opening to remove shopping period again.   

I'm not saying there aren't ways to change the system to make it better.  I'm not blind to the issues of shopping period -- not having a determined class size before classes begin is problematic for some classes.  I believe the committee people who have continued to look at the issue are trying to make things better going forward.  But the push always seems to be to make a system which is easier for administrators, and somehow correspondingly that is worse for the students.  Students should have the flexibility to see classes and teachers before committing, which to me means either a shopping period, or a structure that allows them to easily change classes for the first couple of weeks with negligible overhead.  I suppose one could design an add/drop system with the flexibility I'd have in mind, but it never seems to work that way in practice -- students end up needing signatures and approvals of various flavors, because (I think) it's in the best interest of administrators to make it hard for students to change classes once classes begin.  (Having 60 people sign up for a class but then having 30 people leave in the first week is possibly worse than the shopping period approach of not having sign-ups before the class at all, but it's a lot easier to disincentivize students from switching out (or in) with a preregistration system, so that problem disappears, at the cost of student flexibility.)  

As an example of a "non-shopping" issue I've seen this semester, first-year students at Harvard first semester are "limited" to four classes.  (There may be a way to get an exception to this, but I understand it would be rare exception.)  So this semester, with no shopping period, first years have to choose their 4 classes -- without seeing them -- and then manage a confusing add/drop process if they don't like them.  The older students generally know how to play the game -- they sign up for 5 or even 6 classes (if they can) and drop the ones they don't like, because dropping is generally easier than adding.  But first years don't have that flexibility because the 4-course rule is enforced at signup.  (I advise some first year students, and this problem came up.)  

I'm sure many non-Harvard people reading this think the shopping period system sounds crazy, and maybe a few think Harvard students are bizarrely spoiled.  Perhaps they're right.  But I found as a student it was wonderful, and shaped my future in powerful ways by encouraging me to explore.  You walk into a class you thought you should take, and find the professor puts you to sleep;  or you get dragged to a class by a friend, and find an inspiring subject you had no idea you would like.  I believe my college experience would have been lessened significantly without shopping period.  

As a faculty member, shopping period is clearly a pain, but I think a manageable one.   Back in 2002-2003, the faculty pushed back against preregistration (see this old Crimson article), but it seems opinions have shifted over time;  many faculty seemed to have moved to thinking it's not worth it, which is probably in their own self-interest.  Having been on both sides, I'm still strongly in favor of shopping period.  I suppose if I ever get into administration I may see things differently.  

I hope there are (younger) defenders out there, in the students and faculty, to push to make sure any changes still favor student choice over administrative convenience, and lead to the best outcomes for students.  

1 comment:

gasarch said...

1) I would think that during COVID with all classes online this would make shopping easier since, without rooms, class size is less important. Though there is still the question of how many TAs there are.

2) There seems to always be a the metaquestion of do we do things that are
good for the students
good for the administrators.

Over time `good for the admin' seems to be winning out.