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Shopping Week R.I.P.?

3.6.18


At its monthly meeting on March 6, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) strongly indicated that it will discard the traditional undergraduate shopping week for course selection each semester in favor of some form of preregistration. In an anticlimactic moment, it also approved language for the Harvard College Handbook for Students that formally installs the system of sanctioning undergraduate membership in unrecognized single-gender social organizations (USGSOs: final clubs, fraternities, sororities)—a move that had been telegraphed last week—and, under the radar, also tweaked rules for “gender-neutral” (mixed-gender) rooming groups. Finally, those attending indicated assent for a new concentration, and heard an unusually graceful memorial to one of their own.

 

Preregistration

Dean of Harvard College Rakesh Khurana noted that during the search for a successor to dean of undergraduate education Jay M. Harris, several faculty members suggested moving away from undergraduates’ right to freely shop for courses at the start of each semester, and implementing some form of preregistration instead. Students have traditionally voiced support for their freedom to shop around, even though some chaos ensues. Faculty members who spoke by arrangement pointed out, variously, that:

  • “shopping” is a sort of consumerist behavior, whereas preregistration might encourage students to take long-term academic planning more seriously;
  • absent preregistration, many faculty members don’t know how many students they can expect, leading to acute problems in lining up sufficient numbers of graduate students prepared to run sections (thus jeopardizing an essential part of the latters’ professional training), and often causing enrollment to be mismatched with the room assigned for the course;
  • the first week of classes becomes, essentially, wasted time, costing valuable instruction; and
  • in the current digital era, compared to even a decade ago, students can discover the syllabus, and often video clips, of a course, and other information in advance, making shopping less essential.

A few faculty members rose from the floor to note that while they generally supported some sort of preregistration, with a provision for students to add or drop courses (thus presumably preserving some flexibility while reducing the wild swings in enrollments that cause the organizational difficulties enumerated above), students enjoy and are entitled to their freedom to choose. Another objection centered on the efficacy of preregistration as an accurate predictive tool, versus, say, algorithms or other techniques that had been advanced for consideration, but never tested out, in prior iterations of the FAS deliberations on this subject.

Three novel arguments were advanced, as well.

First, while accommodating faculty and graduate-students concerns, one professor said, any move to preregistration ought to be a compact with undergraduates—assuring them that they would indeed have access online, in advance, to a current syllabus and other materials for each course—and that they would be subjected less often to being lotteried out of a preferred course, shifted to a remote location, or served with underprepared teaching fellows.

Dean Harris advanced a geographical constraint. With the opening of the applied sciences and engineering facility in Allston, in 2020, a good deal of teaching will be conducted there. Allston and Cambridge will be on different class schedules, as reported, and so, Harris noted, an oversubscribed class in Allston might induce a scramble to find other quarters—no longer easily accommodated in Cambridge given the deliberate misalignment of class hours to allow for students to travel from one venue to another. (Given the number of classrooms planned for the Allston facility, and perhaps the Business School’s willingness to extend professorial courtesy to its new engineering friends with its huge Klarman Hall meeting facilities coming on line, maybe this is a bogeyman.)

Finally, a fine-arts professor who lectures but conducts sections for hands-on, experiential learning in the Harvard Art Museums (as do others in Houghton Library), said that without knowing enrollment accurately, it became impossible to schedule such essential exercises, thus making a mockery of the faculty’s expressed commitment to the best methods of teaching and learning.

No course of action is yet before the faculty, but one will be soon, Khurana suggested. Attention, shoppers: preregistration is drawing near.

 

Final Clubs

The Corporation having adopted a system of sanctions for undergraduate members of USGSOs, FAS’s final action—voting them into the Handbook—was a foregone conclusion, bringing to an end a bitter debate that consumed good parts of two academic years. As reported last week, students will not be required to take an oath affirming their compliance with the new policy, nor will the Administrative Board, charged with hearing cases of alleged violations, accept anonymous tips, nor will the clubs have to self-report on their demographic makeup. The resulting language prompted Gordon McKay professor of computer science Harry Lewis—former dean of the College, and one of the leading opponents of the new sanctions—to wonder how, in fact the regulations were to be enforced. He was told that the Ad Board is largely reactive, and would, in essence, figure it out. Following two minor questions (about whether certain groups were covered, and about whether certain kinds of fellowships were affected), the Handbook language was approved by voice vote.

USGSO debate, finis—at least until the Corporation’s promised five-year review.

 

Mixed-Gender Housing

That vote also modified procedures for “gender-inclusive” housing. Now, rising sophomores, juniors, and seniors can request to form mixed-gender rooming groups, which requests are accommodated on a case-by-case basis.

Under the new language, now in effect, “Gender-inclusive housing is an option that allows students to live in a suite with others regardless of their sex or gender identity.” All participants must voluntarily agree to the arrangement, and complete a contract to that effect. First-year students who wish to pursue the option can do so when they fill out their housing application during the summer before matriculating.

 

Environmental Science and Engineering

Hooper professor of geology and professor of environmental science and engineering Daniel Schrag proposed that the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences be authorized to introduce an A.B. concentration in environmental science and engineering (ESE). In effect, this rebrands, and gives more prominence, to the existing, similarly named “track” within the engineering sciences program, which has previously broken out concentrations in biomedical engineering (2011), electrical engineering (2012), and mechanical engineering (ditto). The move will be clarifying for two-dozen-plus students involved, he said, and will give the field a higher profile.

Outsiders may be forgiven if they are confused about the difference between the new ESE program and the existing concentrations in earth and planetary sciences (EPS, dealing with natural systems: the oceans and atmosphere, geology and geophysics, and planetary science, which need not be concerned with human interactions) and environmental science and public policy (SCPP, which focuses on social science and policy, and obviously does deal with human effects). ESE, he assured colleagues, is engaged with quantitative science, engineering, and finding solutions to environmental challenges raised by the human impact on the planet.

Once that is sorted out, he said, ESE students would have a larger community with their EPS and ESPP peers, making for a better experience for all.

The faculty seemed to assent; there were no questions, and the proposal will likely sail through when voted upon at the next meeting.

 

Farish Jenkins

Faculty meetings obviously engage academic issues and entail legislation, but they usually begin with a Memorial Minute (or several)—brief summaries of deceased colleagues, highlighting their intellectual work, character, and service. An especially deft sample of the genre was delivered in memory of Farish Alston Jenkins Jr., the late Agassiz professor of zoology in the Museum of Comparative Zoology (concurrently appointed professor of anatomy at Harvard Medical School), who died in 2012. (The committee for the Minute was, inexplicably, chaired by Kathleen M. Coleman, Loeb professor of the classics—perhaps a demonstration of Jenkins’s interdisciplinary reach. See coverage of his work with a graduate student, and on a pathbreaking fossil discovery.)

The Minute begins bracingly:

What a wishbone is for, how fish became four-footed, why part of your middle ear once belong to a snake’s jaw—these are some of the conundra that Farish Jenkins solved in over 40 years at Harvard as an anatomist, zoologist, and vertebrate paleontologist.

He’d been an artillery officer in the Marine Corps, and “the precision with which he went about everything in civilian life, from keeping his shoes highly polished to classifying fossils, matched the image of a military man.” Enchanted with Africa, where he did fieldwork as a graduate student, “he led nine tours of Tanzania in support of the charity Focus on Tanzanian Communities.”

For his work on Ellesmere Island, 887 miles from the North Pole (work therefore limited to the month of July), “he found it prudent not to venture out of camp without a Winchester rifle as protection against polar bars and a flask of vodka to reinforce resolve.” While at work:

In the Arctic, Jenkins wore his signature Czechoslovak rabbit-fur hat with earflaps; elsewhere, he was never without an elegant Stetson. He lectured in a three-piece suit, his tie secured over his crisp white shirt with a gold pin. He was a fabled lecturer, enthralling generations of students with his “Captain Ahab” imitation, in which he read aloud from Moby Dick while stomping up and down the lecture hall with a peg leg strapped to his thigh to illustrate the role of the arch tendon in absorbing shock. Sometimes he drew bones and muscles on his trousers; at other times, he put on a body stocking mapping the segmental nerves. He would inspect the shoes of student in the front row to determine the characteristics of their gait.

Jenkins’s dedication to pedagogy was legendary; in 30 years of teaching anatomy in the Health Sciences and Technology program, he used to drive to the Harvard Medical School at 4:00 a.m. to prepare meticulously detailed three-dimensional anatomical diagrams on the board with colored chalk—including black for shading—that he sharpened with a pencil sharpener to create especially fine effects. He graded his students’ papers and exams himself. His laboratory overlooking Oxford Street was filled with neatly arranged fossils and often redolent with heirloom apples from his farm in New Hampshire, harvested as gifts for his students.

No wonder those who knew him miss him.

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