Amending Undergraduate Academics

Reconsidering Harvard’s shopping week, double concentrations, and more

Working its way through an unusually full academic agenda at the faculty meeting on March 1, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) held initial discussions of proposals to change how undergraduates register for courses, allow double concentrations, and alter the rules for taking classes in other Harvard schools, among other matters. Although they sound administrative in nature, each proposal bears on students’ educational experience and options—and the signals FAS sends to its young charges. Each will be brought back to the faculty for formal votes at subsequent meetings later in the spring term. Highlights of the initial presentations and debates follow.

Double Concentrations: Excessive Credentialism?

Harvard undergraduates complete a field of concentration—intended to complement the elective and required (General Education, expository writing, etc.) elements of their studies. They can also design special concentrations and, where they are interested in complementary disciplines, complete a “joint concentration,” which requires a single thesis synthesizing two organizationally and intellectually separate fields. Rounding out the menu, they can also choose to: earn a language citation; cluster four to six electives to pursue a “secondary field” (an option that emerged from the 2006 curriculum reforms—see the full list of current offerings here); and in some cases earn a concurrent master’s degree. 

Dean of undergraduate education Amanda Claybaugh presented a proposal for yet another option: double concentration, in two separate fields. Joint concentrations, according to the underlying committee report, suffer from the limitations on writing truly synthetic, interdisciplinary theses (and many students do not wish to write a thesis, so they are discouraged from pursuing joint study). And not all concentrations choose to participate. Meanwhile, students in secondary fields “do not benefit from tutorial and advising structures offered to full concentrators,” may not enjoy priority access to limited-enrollment seminars, and have a more limited immersion in the academic cohort of concentrators.

The proposal brought before the faculty would create “double concentrations to allow students to pursue in-depth, structured coursework in two…concentrations for the A.B. degree.” Joint concentrations would be defined as linking “two fields that substantially overlap,” and an unlimited number of courses may be counted for credit across the fields. Double concentrations accommodate “structured coursework in two…concentrations that do not substantially overlap,” so the number of courses that could be double-counted for concentration credit would be limited to two (eight credits): the undertaking is not intended for the faint of heart. A thesis would not be required, nor would a double concentration yield dual degrees: the student would earn an A.B. or an S.B.

The ensuing discussion raised two broad concerns. First, some faculty members worried that this option—seemingly a matter of curricular structure—would have adverse effects on smaller concentrations. A student who wanted to concentrate in two fields would deploy her elective courses toward the second concentration, and thus would not enroll in the interesting occasional classes she might take in diverse (and likely smaller) fields. Or students in the sciences who now construct joint concentrations in the humanities or languages might be inclined to drop those broadening experiences in favor of double concentrations. And given concentration requirements and other curricular obligations, might students be given an incentive to take too few electives, thus discouraging them from taking advantage of Harvard’s incredibly broad course menu?

Claybaugh responded that the proposal was motivated by the faculty’s interest in meeting students’ legitimate intellectual needs. She suspected that only a small number of students would want to undertake the rigors of dual concentrations (so, by implication, the effects flagged by concerned faculty members are likely to be slight in practice). And as a practical matter, she noted, many students already take more than the minimum 32 term-length courses.

A second concern focused on that ambition—on the phenomenon of students striving to amass too many “badges” on their transcripts, a concern raised by Joseph professor of computer science and applied mathematics Salil Vadhan. He said, in effect, that the faculty should discourage credential-seeking: as they structure their programs, students often don’t leave enough room for exploration among courses and intellectual fields—and the lure of a double concentration could worsen that. 

Claybaugh said she had raised this issue anecdotally with the Undergraduate Council: would a further degree option that required lots of courses become another hoop for students to jump through? She reported that the students said they already feel these kinds of impulses all the time, most often expressed through piling on extracurricular activites.

Turning to data on actual behavior, Claybaugh reported that among graduates, “badge”-seeking was perhaps not so severe as feared: 1 percent take concurrent master’s degrees, 5.7 percent pursue joint concentrations, 16.2 percent earn language citations, and 52 percent take a secondary field

(Seen in another light, of course, having more than half the undergraduates go for a secondary field suggests that a lot are channeling their electives somewhat narrowly. During the discussions of the undergraduate curriculum and General Education requirements in 2006, there was concern that too many students were narrowing their course choices too much, or might do so, in light of other curricular requirements. Secondary fields were seen then as a middle path between breadth and excessive focus, in the context of all the other elements in the undergraduate curriculum and the relatively large numbers of courses prescribed for many concentrations. The latter have been reduced somewhat, at least on average, from 14 or 15 term courses in many cases, to a dozen or so.)

Enactment seems likely later this term. 

Cross-Registration: Liberal Arts vs. Professional Education

To what degree is it appropriate for Harvard’s undergraduate, liberal-arts program to be opened to preprofessional or professionally oriented classes? That is the underlying issue seemingly at stake in a debate about the procedures for registering in classes offered by MIT and, especially, the University’s faculties other than FAS.

Under legislation enacted in late 2017, undergraduates have been able “without scrutiny” to take up to eight credits (out of the 128 required for a bachelor’s degree) in other Harvard schools. This rule relaxed the prior, cumbersome administrative requirement that each such course enrollment had to be approved by individual petition. Under the 2017 policy, such courses cannot be used to meet the College’s requirement for divisional breadth in a student’s academic program. Exceptions to the eight-credit maximum are allowed only if the student’s concentration accepts such courses for concentration credit—and only the courses approved for such credit count toward the student’s grade-point average.

As has been the case since the 1920s, cross-registration for courses at MIT is permitted without limit, since it is an undergraduate institution and is considered, in that sense, to be offering courses like those College students take—unlike the instruction offered in Harvard’s professional schools. (MIT courses, too, count toward the GPA only when they are approved for concentration credit.)

Seeking to simplify matters further, administratively, Dean Claybaugh presented a committee report advocating unlimited cross-registration, so the distinction between MIT and Harvard professional-school courses would disappear. Thus:

•undergraduates could take an unlimited number of credits outside FAS; and

•such cross-registered courses could count for concentration or secondary-field credit (where departments and concentrations determine the courses qualify), but would not be included in GPA calculations.

Making these changes, the committee report noted, “will more fully realize the intent of the policy to encourage exploration and discovery.” It will also “reduce pressure on concentrations, particularly those where there is high cross-registration traffic” (notably in economics, government, computer science, and social studies) to approve courses for credit beyond the current eight-credit limit. Finally, “excluding non-FAS courses in student GPA calculations will remove any possible grade-driven incentive for students to cross-register.” In a perfect world, then, “Removing cross-registered courses from GPA calculations but allowing them to count for concentration credit [subject to departmental and concentration approval] will more clearly signal to students the purpose of cross-registration as a tool for academic exploration.”

But there are wrinkles. In fact, the most popular subject for cross-registration at MIT is instruction in financial accounting: a professional subject, rather than a liberal-arts course, if ever there were one.

And as Wolfson professor of Jewish studies Jay M. Harris—who preceded Claybaugh as dean and wrote the 2017 legislation—rose to note, he fully appreciates the administrative hassles the current proposal aims to solve, but worries about serious intellectual challenges it may create. The MIT agreement dates to 1922, and so reflects a century of common understanding about undergraduate education. Harvard’s professional schools by design have different educational missions—so the pre-2017 mechanism for case-by-case review and approval of cross-registration requests was meant to uphold the College’s educational mission for undergraduates. He noted further that the Law School and the public-health faculty, for example, retain limits on what course-registrations their students are permitted to pursue, for intellectual and educational reasons. In this context, permitting undergraduate cross-registration without limit and without scrutiny is at least a step toward compromising the College’s liberal-arts mission.

Claybaugh responded that the College defined its liberal-arts mission both by what it forbids, in curricular and academic terms, and also by what it requires: a concentration, General Education courses, divisional distribution, and two to five courses in language, writing, and quantitative reasoning.

Rabb professor of anthropology and professor of medical anthropology Arthur Kleinman, who is a member of both FAS and the Harvard Medical School faculty, said that students have interdisciplinary interests. The University’s great strength is that it has superb faculty members and courses across its schools (for example, excellent offerings on social change and development at the medical school), so it just makes sense for students to take advantage of them. To the extent that faculty members see such cross-registration as a threat, the problem, he said, is that undergraduate concentrations themselves are based on underlying disciplinary boundaries, which ought to be addressed—a vast topic far beyond the current deliberations.

Anya Bassett, senior lecturer and director of studies in Social Studies (who served on the committee that advanced the cross-registration proposal), said the proposed policy balances competing goals. It encourages students to explore intellectually, without making them surmount needless hurdles to take advantage of professional-school courses, while constraining the incentives for them to overindulge by excluding such courses from their GPA.

(In a later exchange, Basset amplified her views this way: “Harvard is a liberal-arts college and we want our students to be fully engaged with our undergraduate curriculum, pursuing their intellectual interests at the highest level possible. Sometimes, this leads undergraduates to courses and faculty in the professional schools. The revised cross-registration policy encourages this, but by excluding professional-school courses from the College GPA, signifies that these courses are being taken to satisfy intellectual curiosity rather than to gain an additional credential.”)

The underlying issue—about whether already pressured undergraduates, many of whom arrive in Cambridge with career goals in mind even before taking a single Harvard class, are being given carte blanche to become excessively preprofessional—seems likely to remain somewhat submerged. An early guess would be that the proposal will be approved in April or May.

From “Shopping Week” to “Previous-Term Registration”?

Attention then shifted to the proposal that will affect the largest number of students: all undergraduates, and a large number of the graduate students who serve as teaching assistants in College classes (see News Briefs, March-April 2022). Reporting for the Committee on Course Registration, professor of philosophy Bernhard Nickel outlined the proposed shift from a “shopping week,” during which students could sample multiple classes in the flesh at the beginning of each term before registering their schedules, to a system of electing four courses the prior term (probably April for the fall and November for the spring, to avoid exam periods). The change would take place in the fall of 2023 for spring 2024 classes.

That system would give professors information on their likely class sizes, making it much easier to line up appropriate teaching spaces, teaching assistants, and other materials—and it would enable instruction to begin on the first day of a semester, rather than, in some cases, a full week later. It would relieve much stress on undergraduates who cannot now be sure whether they are admitted to size-limited classes, whether their sections conflict with other courses, and so on. (During the discussion, one professor said such uncertainties delayed final enrollment in a recent course until the fourth week of the semester—nearly one-third of the way through a teaching term.)

To preserve some flexibility for students, and ensure that they have the information they need to choose courses well, even months before the start of each term, Nickel outlined four other required changes:

•a liberalized add/drop provision during the first week of classes, without requiring instructors’ permission;

•a much earlier cycle for curriculum planning, with detailed course information, syllabi, and so on available for the previous-term registration period—demands that Nickel acknowledged posed the biggest challenge for fellow faculty members (he called it “a heavy lift”);

•improved and earlier advising, especially for first-year and transfer students, who would have to register the summer before beginning their studies (and likely another significant challenge for the College to deliver); and

•improved technology to smooth registration and enrollment. 

If everything worked as the committee proposed, Nickel said, “All of us will benefit,” with undergraduates gaining confidence that they could actually take the courses they chose and course heads planning better so they can “make pedagogical choices that work.” 

Proponents of the change elaborated on Nickel’s case. A director of undergraduate studies (DUS), for instance, noted that one regular course offering varies in enrollment between perhaps 18 students and 80—largely depending on whether other departments offer a course covering similar subjects in any given year. Now, there is no way for her department to know when that will happen, but pre-registration would tease out the information in advance, and allow all similar courses in a term to plan appropriately for classroom space, teaching assistants, and other resources. That benefit, she said, would help students explore the curriculum; shopping week (which undergraduates have supported) induces anxiety, doesn’t guarantee access to wanted classes, and undercuts pedagogy, all in the name of exploration, but not in effect. 

Others raised concerns that appeared technical in nature—but each got at issues or perspectives that could chip away at the universality of the proposed new registration system. For example, how could skills-based courses (creative writing, musical performance, studio art) conduct interviews or assessments that now precede decisions on who can enroll? Such reviews necessarily take place shortly before classes begin—and in many cases, instruction is provided by visiting professors and lecturers who are not even appointed by the prior semester, and in any event are not in residence in Cambridge then. 

Microsoft professor of computer science Eddie Kohler generally favored the proposal, he said, but wanted to take note of undergraduates’ concerns. They feel they are losing something valuable. The five-day add/drop period is insufficient, especially for a class that meets initially late in the week; he advanced the idea of a 10-day period (which would probably undercut some or much of the registration certainty Nickel’s committee advocated as part of its integrated recommendations), and of a more extended pre-registration period during which students could gather more information about courses of interest. He also suggested allowing students to select two alternate courses as well as four required ones during the proposed early-registration process.

Also seeking more flexibility for students, his colleague, McKay professor of computer science Boaz Barak, said Harvard undergraduates are exceptional in their ability to take on high-level work, to navigate changes of plan and late changes in their concentration choices as they learn and grow, and in their willingness and ability to take five or six courses per term when passionate about the intellectual opportunities. Shopping-week discoveries, he continued, are a positive attribute of what the College offers such students. Noting Nickel’s points about the faculty and advising culture that would have to change to make the new previous-term registration system work, Barak said that students perceive the recommendations as adversarial to their interests. To maintain the spirit of exploration that shopping week has come to represent, he suggested naming it something like “exploration week,” to signal the faculty’s support for intellectual exploration.

And Watson professor of computer science Michael Mitzenmacher spoke in opposition to the recommendations as proposed. He, too, advocated a more extended add/drop period. He also suggested that confining students to four course choices in the prior-semester registration period is “odd and counterproductive,” given the number who actually enroll in more than that (as Dean Claybaugh had noted earlier in the meeting).

It is worth noting that the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, in which computer science resides, reported to the FAS that its graduate students have only one term of required teaching as part of their funding, and so can nearly always find suitable teaching assignments. Moreover, the large pool of undergraduates who can serve as course assistants makes it relatively untroubling to staff instructional needs on relatively short notice, if enrollment varies significantly from expectations. These advantages are not readily available in many other disciplines.

Nickel welcomed the comments and discussion, which will certainly continue. There is a lot of support for prior-term registration—among faculty members, graduate students, and administrators. The interesting issue, in future FAS debates, will be whether suggestions for making the proposed system more flexible for undergraduates are seen as fatal to its attempts to domesticate shopping week. Such differences could be fudged in legislation (which might turn into a nightmare for the registrar). How these discussions turn out, and whether undergraduates themselves are heard in subsequent meetings, may be the most consequential of the faculty’s academic decisions emerging from the pandemic.  

Read more articles by John S. Rosenberg

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