Concentration Conversations


Freshmen and faculty go through Advising Fortnight.



Despite the last snow on the first day of the season, it seems that all of the traditional signs of spring have finally arrived. Daffodils and other early bloomers can be spotted around the campus. Allergies have returned, if measured by the trumpeting of a thousand noses and the sprouting of HUHS flyers in the dining hall. Changing wardrobes are heavily supplemented by pajamas worn to Lamont as the second wave of midterms and papers arrives. Finally, of course, Advising Fortnight has begun.

Whereas the fall was heralded with sophomore concentration declaration, freshmen are now contending with a wave of Socials, Fairs, Panels, and mandatory Conversations, the constituent parts of Advising Fortnight. The Advising Programs Office instituted the two-week process in 2006, when faculty voted to postpone concentration declaration to sophomore fall. In the hopes of facilitating greater exposure to the myriad of academic opportunities available at Harvard, faculty and students of every department, concentration, secondary, and program track will advocate for their field of study over the course of fourteen days.

The Fortnight begun this past Monday, March 28, when Annenberg was transformed into the Kickoff Concentration Fair. Freshmen mingled with their potential future TFs, professors, and deans amidst tables laden with competing brochures, signs, email lists, and candy. Faculty and staff of the Advising Programs Office and Freshman Dean’s Office could also be spotted, wearing capes to match Advising Fortnight’s “superhero” theme. Students were welcome to sample from all 49 concentrations, in an effort to develop a complete view of Harvard’s academic offerings.

Through open houses with faculty of the department and office hours, individual departments will now aim to form a personal connection with prospective concentrators. Over 65 events are scheduled to occur, from thesis presentations to career panels and information sessions. Traditionally smaller departments have proposed more intimate gatherings; East Asian Studies, for example, plans to host a dim sum party in Yenching Library, whereas the newly minted Theater, Dance, and Media faculty will have a “meet & greet” in Farkas Hall. Traditionally popular concentrations, including computer science and the life sciences, have planned open fairs in spaces such as the lobby of Maxwell Dworkin or one of the Science Center auditoriums, in order to accommodate the large number of students anticipated to attend.

“I appreciate that there’s a clear calendar of events for these two weeks, so I have a good idea of what events I’m going to and when they are,” said Jessica Ding ‘19. “At the same time, I feel like it could be overwhelming for some people who really have no idea what they want to concentrate in, just because there’s a lot of events packed into two weeks.” Jessica is a first year student tentatively planning to pursue a pre-medical track. “For me, I’m pretty sure I’ll be studying a life science, so at least it’s not as bad.”

Other students have voiced their appreciation for the exploratory nature of Advising Fortnight. Shirley Lin ‘19 comments, “I think we’re all reaching that time where we’re at least beginning to think about what we want to study for the next three years. It might be overwhelming, but it’s also necessary.” In the vein of College Dean Khurana’s insistence on a transformative college experience, it is the hope of the Advising Programs Office that many freshmen might question the assumptions they held when they matriculated in the fall.

Communication between faculty and students about the logistics of Advising Fortnight, however, has left some dissatisfied. According to faculty legislation, at least one Advising Conversation must be documented on my.harvard, allowing effectiveness and student effort to be measured. However, the guidelines of this process are poorly defined, leaving the bulk of freshman conversations as a gossipy attempt to determine just how much effort needs to be measured to maintain good standing at the College.

Furthermore, the post-spring break season is particularly ill-timed for some. “I wish [events like Advising Fortnight] happened more often so I wouldn’t have to skip it because of a midterm,” says Krystal Phu ‘19. Some freshmen have expressed doubt that office hours scheduled for Advising Fortnight would see a significantly greater proportion of attendees, citing a lack of free time and a lack of specific questions to ask faculty of the department. One anonymous freshman was overheard in Annenberg: “If I had specific questions, I’d just email the department directly instead of going to a big event.”

Ultimately, the enormous production of Advising Fortnight raises questions about the role of the College administration in actively fostering its students’ intellectual growth. Because all individual advising events are optional, it is certainly possible that some or even many students may not challenge their preconceptions and give each concentration fair consideration. Conversely, the College should not overstep its authority in dictating student choices, especially during such a busy time of the semester. While Advising Fortnight does attempt to strike a balance between allowing individual agency and mandating some level of student effort, the impact of Advising Fortnight on the decisions that students make in sophomore fall may be limited.

While all of the chaos and energy will soon pass, true conversations about academic futures have just begun. Soon all first year students will form an answer to that most infamous freshman question: “What’s your concentration?” Whether it be Classics, Chemistry, or Folklore and Mythology, Advising Fortnight is trying to help find the answer.


Audrey Effenberger ‘19 ([email protected]) is concentrating on writing a good byline.