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Smith Ponders Alternatives to Shopping Week

Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith.
After years of students cramming into classrooms during “shopping period,” Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith said in an interview earlier this month that FAS should consider reevaluating its class registration process.

Administrators and faculty have engaged in multiple discussions over the years about altering the way students sign up for classes, and Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana rekindled the debate at a Faculty meeting earlier this month. Though there is no official proposal on the table, many faculty members spoke in favor of dropping shopping period, the week at the beginning of the semester during which students can walk in and out of classes before officially enrolling.

Before he became FAS dean—a role he recently announced he will soon give up—Smith taught CS50: “Introduction to Computer Science I.” He said he would start preparations for selecting and training teaching fellows in the semester before the class met and would hold two-week training sessions immediately before the semester started. If the number of students in the class would “sway tremendously,” though, he said he would have to go find more teaching fellows after the class had already started.

“That's what we're trying to avoid from a background in pedagogy as well as a background for students who don't know to the last minute what they're supposed to be prepared for,” Smith said. “And the teaching fellows, the graduate students, the undergraduates I had teaching my class all took it extremely seriously.”

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In addition to teaching fellows, decisions concerning classroom locations and course materials are dependent on enrollment numbers, Smith said.

“All those decisions get condensed to shopping week,” he said.

Smith said improvements in technology mean that shopping period is no longer necessary for students to get information about classes. Currently, the course registration system includes the “Q-Guide,” which provides student evaluations on metrics like professor accessibility and the average amount of time students spent on the course. Many professors also upload syllabi and other course documents to Canvas, an online student portal, before the term starts.

“I think the world has changed. There's, as you heard at the meeting, many more ways for students to get information about classes than in the past,” Smith said. “Shopping week is a way of doing it, but we should be working to see if there are other alternative ways.”

Smith added that peer institutions could serve as a source of guidance when reevaluating the course registration system.

“We can probably also learn a lot from looking at our peer institutions and how they work registration, which ones might work for us and which ones might not work for us,” Smith said. “We should be asking those questions.”

Though Harvard is not alone in its “shopping week” system, a number of other peer universities require students to register for classes during the previous semester. Yale also has a shopping period, but students must indicate beforehand which courses they want to visit.

—Staff writer Angela N. Fu can be reached at angela.fu@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @angelanfu.

—Staff writer Lucy Wang can be reached at lucy.wang@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @lucyyloo22

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