Pipet, paintbrush, or pen? Choosing a concentration is no easy task, especially freshman year, and the April 2004 report on the Harvard College Curricular Review suggested that the concentration choice deadline be pushed back to the middle of sophomore year in order to allow students to “sample more courses and fields” and “make better-informed choices.” There is much that is right in the curricular review, including suggestions to replace the Core Curriculum with distribution requirements and to implement broad foundational courses. But as faculty of the Department of Engineering and Applied Sciences (DEAS) wrote last week, the current proposal to push back the concentration choice deadline is misguided, and for more reasons than the DEAS faculty delineated.
The professors’ statements, which were circulated among the department by e-mail and obtained by The Crimson, raise the objection that a delay in concentration choice would hinder students’ ability to specialize in their fields of concentration. “This [plan] will not encourage students to do advanced work—the kind of excellent work that makes our graduates the best in the nation, gets them into top graduate schools and in a position to be choice targets in the competition for top jobs and to contribute to science and engineering immediately after graduation,” Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science Harry R. Lewis ’68 wrote. “We do not see overspecialization as a problem that needs to be addressed.”
Those who argue for a later declaration date have argued that 12 to 16 concentration requirements sufficiently prepare students who plan to go to graduate school and enter academia, but such requirements unnecessarily force students with broader academic interests and non-academic career goals to dedicate too much coursework to a narrow field. But Harvard is, after all, an academic institution, and its curriculum should focus on providing students with an education oriented in a specific academic direction. The proposed deadline extension compromises the academic integrity of many concentrations, which require the logical, if time-consuming, progression from introductory lectures to more specialized, highly complex courses. Most concentrations will find themselves unhappily constrained by a cap on requirements. As a result, they will be forced to limit not only the number, but also the scope, of their courses.
The proposal to delay concentration choice is inherently disadvantageous to concentrations in the sciences, especially engineering. In order for Harvard’s engineering program to be nationally accredited, national guidelines stipulate that it require concentrators to take at least 20 courses in the field. If the deadline were to be pushed back, potential concentrators would find it difficult, if not impossible, to complete all 20 courses required for graduation. But if DEAS decided to buck a delay and maintain the current declaration deadline, potential concentrators would tend to gravitate toward concentrations that allowed an attractive extra semester’s grace period—a result that would unfairly discourage students from concentrating in engineering.
The 2004 report argued that the current deadline coerces freshmen to make rash and uninformed concentration decisions. To the contrary, while some students may be converted by late exposure to an entirely different field, many more discover their dislike for their concentrations only upon becoming involved in serious study. In this case, a later start date can only make switching fields a less feasible choice. Either way, switching concentrations, especially between similar fields, is not a particularly grueling chore for sophomores who wish to change.
At first glance, the new proposal probably sounds lucrative to average students, most of whom are avid specialists in procrastination before they even set foot in Harvard Yard. The current system does admittedly apply uncomfortable pressure on freshmen to choose fields of study by the end of their first year—but students have an overwhelming tendency to concentrate on decisions only shortly before their deadlines. It is this pressure that incentivizes decision-making and prioritizes concentration consideration over less important, if more immediate, matters. More importantly, the current schedule gives freshmen access to a slate of concentration advising and, within concentrations that facilitate it, peer advising resources that can further assist students in shaping their courses of study. Freshman advising does little to expose students to various concentration options, and forcing students to consult various concentration advisors before the winter snow has melted benefits students in the end.
The proposal to give students another semester to make their concentration decisions ensures only that they will spend another semester idly putting them off while discouraging freshmen from beginning the trek towards advanced courses. Though procrastination may seem like a good idea at the time, it hardly ensures a better end product.
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