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At Tuesday’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences meeting, Harvard faculty are set to vote on two controversial proposals — one that would allow students to pursue double concentrations and another that would replace shopping week with previous-term registration.
In September, the Office of Undergraduate Education created a subcommittee to prepare a proposal for introducing double concentrations. In December, an FAS committee recommended that Harvard College swap out shopping week for previous-term registration, in which students would register for courses one semester in advance. Last month’s FAS meeting was the first time the full faculty discussed these issues.
Many faculty have expressed their support for the adoption of double concentrations. Currently, students may only pursue joint concentrations that culminate in an interdisciplinary thesis.
Art, Film, and Visual Studies professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies Matthew Saunders ’97 said he believes double concentrations would better allow students to explore diverse academic interests.
“So many people are interested in engaging with the sort of courses that we do across film and visual arts, and it’s often hard to figure out how to make it fit,” he said. “There’s a burden on the joint concentration to do a joint thesis.”
Computer Science professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies Boaz Barak wrote in an emailed statement that though undergraduates have produced meaningful theses in the department, students should not be required to complete a joint thesis if they are not intellectually interested in combining the two fields.
“I expect that most students that wish to combine C.S. with another field would continue to prefer a joint concentration to a double one,” he wrote. “However, I believe a student should only do a thesis if they are driven to it intellectually, and not to satisfy some administrative requirement.”
Kathy A. Richman, director of undergraduate studies and lecturer in Romance Languages and Literatures, wrote in an emailed statement that the “only disadvantage” she sees in double concentrations is that they would increase the total required credits for students.
Fulfilling the requirements for two complete concentrations in addition to General Education courses and distribution requirements would leave a student with less room in their schedule to explore other fields, she wrote.
When it comes to the fate of shopping week, faculty opinions are split.
During the pandemic, the College established a pre-term registration model with an add-drop period at the start of the semester. Under the new proposal, students would be required to select their courses during the previous semester.
Richman wrote that she believes the add-drop period is a suitable substitute for shopping week.
“In effect, I don’t believe that Harvard undergrads are really ‘losing’ shopping week,” she wrote. “The add-drop period at the beginning of term serves the same purpose of being able to explore a reasonable number of courses. It would be helpful if the new system allowed students to pre-register for 5 courses.”
Barak wrote that he sees advantages in both pre-registration and shopping week, but that the school must get “the details right.” Faculty should prepare course materials in time for students to make informed decisions, students should still be able to switch courses without petitions during the first week, and students should have a say in the proposal’s implementation, he wrote.
In a letter sent to The Crimson and signed by 36 faculty and alumni, Harvard Kennedy School fellow Richard Yarrow and Ph.D. candidate in Government Max Kuhelj Bugarič ’19 voiced concerns about an early course registration system.
“The liberal arts model’s interweaving of disciplines and ideas functions best when students are encouraged to explore interesting topics freely and make connections between different fields on their own,” the letter states. “We believe that too many of that model’s benefits will be lost under the new system.”
The statement claims that shopping period provides students with the opportunity to explore unknown fields with unfamiliar professors and allows them to decide their courses after seeing their instructors “in action” rather than the “rumors and imperfect ratings of the Q.”
Acknowledging that Harvard had to adapt during the pandemic, the letter calls the move away from shopping week “bizarre,” arguing that course shopping is “likely the single most Zoom-appropriate of all of Harvard’s traditions.”
The letter urges the College to re-adopt shopping period.
“We hope that Harvard College will quickly return to and maintain a highly flexible, open, intellectually dynamic course enrollment system, a key and underappreciated foundation that made Harvard’s liberal arts model thrive,” it states.
One of the signatories of the statement, Physics professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies Howard M. Georgi ’68, penned his own letter opposing pre-registration, arguing that shopping week is a “unique and valuable part of Harvard College.”
“We don’t have cookie-cutter students and we don’t teach cookie-cutter courses,” he wrote. “It is important for students to get a sense of how the professor teaches and the feel of the class, staff and students, and that simply cannot be done the semester before.”
Though Georgi said shopping week “adds to the chaos of the first few weeks,” he wrote that Harvard should try out other solutions before taking the “drastic step” of requiring pre-registration.
Harvard spokesperson Rachael Dane declined to comment.
At Tuesday’s meeting, the faculty will vote on the broad principles of early registration. If the proposal is adopted, an implementation committee will then decide the specifics, according to Computer Science professor Edward W. “Eddie” Kohler.
—Staff writer Ariel H. Kim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Meimei Xu can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @MeimeiXu7.
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