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“Shopping Week” Extended


Harvard College students’ cherished “shopping week”—for sampling classes at the start of each term before registering formally—may not have nine lives, but it has attained at least a second or third—albeit with a possibly significant modification.

Following recent suggestions that a formal pre-registration system would enable professors and students to benefit from better instruction as soon as each semester begins—and that graduate teaching assistants could prepare for their classroom responsibilities more effectively, and know when they will be paid—a faculty committee chaired by professor of philosophy Bernhard Nickel was charged with considering how to proceed (see “Rethinking Course Registration”).

Its 21-page report, presented to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) for discussion during its meeting today (and a possible vote in May), advocated further, more formal study, pointing toward possible revision of registration in 2022, or after. In the interim, it suggests that shopping be:

  • shortened to a two-day period; and 
  • restructured as a “course presentation” period, during which the teachers of large, open-enrollment classes, for example, would offer 30- to 45-minute samplers of the content and format at multiple times, so students could drop in on several and get a sense of each course. This period would precede the first week of instruction (when the current shopping period takes place), and could perhaps be accommodated, the committee suggests, by removing two days from reading period—a calendar change that may raise other questions or challenges.

In light of the latter complications, any such suggestion, if adopted by the faculty, is unlikely to be effected before the 2020-2021 academic year, if then. Indeed, the motion put before the FAS by dean of undergraduate education Amanda Claybaugh is more general (see below).

Pedagogy and Practicalities

The study committee chaired by Nickel addressed both broad questions of educational philosophy and pedagogy, and very pragmatic concerns, among them “two foreseeable exogenous shocks to the system”: the negotiation of a contract with the graduate-student union, now arduously under way (which could conceivably result in guaranteed teaching employment or other provisions affecting course scheduling); and the initiation of undergraduate engineering and applied sciences classes at the new facilities in Allston, scheduled to begin in the fall of 2020.

At present, the report notes, “students do not register for courses, nor do they signal their preferences for courses, prior to the semester in which they take courses.” Structurally, in fact, “FAS is committed to permitting as many students as possible to enroll in courses with unlimited enrollment, and makes every effort to support courses…through a combination of advance enrollment predictions and adjustments after the course registration deadline, usually the fifth day of classes.” During the faculty meeting, Nickel called this “maximally flexible enrollment.” The committee said the status quo confers important intellectual benefits:

  • “[S]tudents can make decisions based on full information about available courses, including finalized syllabi and introductory lectures.”
  • That, in turn, encourages intellectual risk-taking, in the form of openness to new ideas and course experiences.
  • And faculty members retain flexibility to design courses right up to the moment they are offered.

Offsetting these gains, shopping week may impinge on instruction early in the term; result in mismatches between resources (teaching assistants, class sizes, scheduling visits to museums or collections, labs) and styles (seminar vs. lecture); and render the scheduling of sections and labs once students are enrolled difficult or worse. Undergraduates, graduate teaching assistants, and professors may all bear some of these costs.

But, the committee concluded, uncertain course enrollments arise from “FAS’s commitment to accommodate student demand as much as possible, not the presence of shopping period” (emphasis in original). Early registration would not overcome the problem, because it would presumably accommodate an add/drop option for some period. Accordingly, the decision about a shopping period is “separate from managing the variability of enrollment numbers,” and the associated problems that motivated calls for a move toward preregistration.

Recommendations, Sooner and Later

The study committee accordingly recommended that a joint subcommittee of the standing committee on undergraduate educational policy and the graduate policy committee should pursue:

  • an improved system for predicting enrollment in courses, based on algorithms and available data (historical enrollments, course-evaluation scores, etc.)—which would be valuable no matter what decisions on course registration FAS subsequently makes;
  • a review of shopping period, perhaps with an eye toward a two-day “course presentation” period, giving students a sample of what is on offer before regular classes begin (a calendrical challenge of its own), while preserving the first week of nominal instruction for actual instruction; and
  • a registration system for limited-enrollment classes, so students will have a clearer sense, earlier, of their scheduling options.

The subcommittee would then report, in the spring of 2022, on the state of play (knowing what FAS’s costs are for the unionized graduate students, and the logistics of large-scale instruction in Allston). And based on whatever improvements in predicting enrollment had been effected, it would also be in position to recommend an alternative registration system, if then found warranted.

Dean Claybaugh’s motion for faculty action at a subsequent meeting this spring is more general. It asks FAS to create the joint committee “to improve the current system of registration” and that it be charged with:

  • implementing an improved system for predicting enrollment in courses so as to allocate classrooms and teaching staff more appropriately; 
  • reviewing the current system of “shopping” for courses and proposing improvements if necessary; 
  • creating a coordinated system of course lotteries and of admission to courses with limited enrollments; 
  • reporting to the Faculty, in the spring of 2022, on the current state of registration; and 
  • recommending to the Faculty, if necessary, an alternative system. 

Somewhat complicating any projection about the lifespan of shopping week in its current form, an explanatory note accompanying Claybaugh’s motion reads: “The committee will prepare, in detail, an alternate system, whether registration the semester before or pre-term planning, and, if necessary, propose that system to the faculty in the spring of 2022, for implementation soon after that.”

Nickel, who presented the committee report after Claybaugh introduced the motion, bridged the gap somewhat by suggesting that the first three recommendations—better prediction via enrollment algorithms; the course presentation period; and lotteries and better mechanisms for registering students in limited-enrollment courses—were all intended to be implemented before 2022. The proposed new system, if one were recommended then, would be informed by experience with each of those reforms, plus the implementation of large-scale teaching in Allston and the new graduate-student employment contract.

Finding the Best Courses Effectively

In envisioning a future, the Nickel committee is not merely enamored of the appeal of better predictive algorithms. It lays down markers large and small for future systems of course registration. Among the former, it is emphatic that academic advising—a source of perennial student dissatisfaction—has to be improved. Among the latter, it points out that among graduate students, uncertainty about teaching assignments can cause them to “begin receiving their pay late, sometimes months late”—not a tenable situation.

But for now, undergraduates’ beloved shopping week, with all the costs it undoubtedly entails, survives for at least another year—and then perhaps begins to evolve toward some new regime. In the spirit of the College, the Nickel committee obviously hopes that whatever system arises will maintain the prevailing intellectual benefits (“Insofar as shopping allows students to identify courses that represent a good fit for them, faculty have the benefit of teaching students who choose the course because it is a good fit”), while achieving gains in academic and administrative efficiency. 

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