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Why Harvard Needs Shopping Week

I remember when I first realized how Harvard would lead me to discover myself.

You know Cambridge in August, with humidity and heat beating down on you as you brave the scorching sun in its final days before fall comes along and cold sets in until April. You sit with friends in the shade of the coming school year in all its promise, forming desires and dreams and plans, before the weeks warp you into a jaded statue. There’s a buzzing excitement in the hope that this year, this term will be different—a new chance to start over.

The College, up until now, has given us this chance to begin anew with the greatest of our academic institutions: "shopping week." Now it is threatened. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences is considering alternatives to it on the basis that the inconvenience and uncertainty to teaching fellows and professors outweigh its benefits. These are certainly valid concerns. I sympathize with the logistical nightmare we undergraduates create in our endless decisions and revisions. But I can’t help feeling the College and the Faculty are trying their hardest to steadily erode many of the things that make Harvard what it is in the name of progress—such as removing our beloved seven-minute passing period known popularly as "Harvard time."

Yes, I am sentimental. Change is inevitable; Harvard time was a necessary casualty for the Allston campus move. But something like shopping week isn’t seen for the truly unique purpose it serves. Instead, it’s viewed for the problems it causes.

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At the start of this term, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana and Dean of the Arts and Humanities Robin E. Kelsey launched “The Transcript Project,” a challenge to undergrads to reflect on choices made throughout their time here. For many of us, shopping week is the primary reason why our transcripts look the way they do, as it gives us a freedom seldom found elsewhere. It is the essence of what I view college to be.

College is the consistent rediscovery of ourselves, for we learn who we are with each passing action. I know I am not the same person who first passed through Johnston Gate two years ago. Shopping week facilitates this rediscovery, allowing us to learn about what we really want and don’t. I write this as an English concentrator who would have declared Government had I not shopped a certain English course last fall—one I hadn’t initially considered.

You know my experience, because you may have had it. You have only three courses finalized. You failed to get into either of the seminars you wanted. You rack the Q Guide in vain, searching for a course that hasn’t yet assigned readings or problem sets, that isn’t math, and that isn’t Ethical Reasoning, because you’ve somehow fulfilled that thrice.

And so you hastily act one Friday afternoon and follow your blockmate into a dusty, musty, Emerson room, to attend English 157: “The Classic Phase of the Novel.” And then, polite interest turns into genuine captivation within the first ten minutes. There’s no desperation here—you’re fascinated more than you’ve been all week. Where does this lead you?

For me, it led to the English Department one crisp November day, where I renounced Government for what I realized I really wanted. I was not the same individual who walked into Emerson two months prior—my whole outlook on college and academics had changed based on my experiences in the course.

You may scoff at my story. What are my individual experiences to the multitudes of teaching fellows and professors inconvenienced each term by the follies and whims of undergraduates?

But realize: The College experience changes us, makes us reconsider who we are, what we study, and why. Shopping week has been essential in making us ask these questions—existential and overwhelming in their import, but ultimately guiding us to answer them sincerely. Many of us have countless questions of courses, concentrations, careers—and shopping week is a guide to answering some.

How many of us change during shopping week? How many unexpected choices change the course of our semesters, our years, our time here? This is no pseudo-philosophical interrogation: Seriously, how many courses surprised you, for good or bad, and made you rethink your academic choices? Which do you regret taking or missing out on? I believe that, for many students, finding a delightful or disappointing course during shopping week helped reshape their academic career for the better. This is the beauty of it—each missed or taken opportunity is a chance for that continuous rediscovery of ourselves, in the potential that shopping week allows.

So please—if you’re a voting faculty member who reads this and is considering voting to end shopping week, I urge you: Do not do so. The unique educational experience offered by Harvard College would be irrevocably ruined. After all, we only go through college once—every chance to learn more of who we are counts. These chances have charted my Harvard journey, with the deeply fulfilling experiences I’ve had, both within and without academia. As my last two years approach, I hope the opportunity to continuously rediscover myself through academics won’t be taken away.

Because this is what Harvard is about. This is what makes us who we are. This is what keeps us always questioning, always learning, always rediscovering ourselves, in classrooms and dorm rooms.

Robert Miranda ’20, a Crimson Associate Editorial Editor, is an English concentrator living in Pforzheimer House.

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