Shopping Week Often a 'Scramble' for Faculty

A semester after the end of pre-term planning, Harvard faculty members remain divided on the merits of a course shopping week with no advanced registration of any kind.

Pre-term planning, a tool introduced in 2010 to help faculty members gauge student interest in their courses, was eliminated in the spring of 2015 by a vote of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Students do not currently need to indicate their course preferences before the start of the semester; instead, they spend the first week of term, known as shopping week, freely walking in and out of classes to help inform their enrollment decisions.

For some faculty members, shopping week brings challenging logistical difficulties that stem largely from not knowing how many students will enroll in their classes. According to Kathleen M. Coleman, a Classics professor, such uncertainty makes it difficult both to find classroom space and to determine the number of teaching fellows needed.

“By the time you know [enrollment numbers], it’s awkward if you have to hire more [teaching fellows] or, if you have to, tell people that you can’t use them,” said Astronomy professor Irwin I. Shapiro.

Professors said shopping week can be stressful for graduate students as well, who can remain in suspense about their teaching placements until course enrollments are finalized.


“It’s very hard to match need with availability,” said History professor Charles S. Maier, who described a “great scramble” in some years to place teaching fellows in the right classes. “It leaves teaching fellows in the lurch looking out for teaching jobs.”

Despite these administrative difficulties, faculty members continue to see advantages in the flexibility of shopping week, which gives students a preview of classes before they enroll.

“I would hate to see shopping week go away,” Susan Carey, a Psychology professor, said. “One of the things that makes the experience of being an undergraduate here a good one is that you can choose your classes with a little more knowledge of what they’re going to actually be like.”

In addition, shopping week can give students more freedom to explore classes outside their comfort zones, Coleman said.

“I keep encountering students that wouldn’t have risked taking courses if they had to commit blind, as it were, to those courses,” Coleman said. “I think it’s a risk that people wouldn’t take if they knew that they were going to be locked in in advance.”

That balance between providing students with freedom of choice and mitigating faculty members’ logistical concerns remains hard to achieve. Ultimately, faculty members said, compromise is key.

“Of course we can make this better,” Dustin Tingley, a Government professor, said. “I think it’s crucial that faculty and students and everyone are trying to work cooperatively with each other.”

—Crimson staff writer Jonathan Adler can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @JonathanGAdler.


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