The End is Near! … For Shopping Week


BY Jilly Cronin

As the end of the semester approaches, many students begin to reflect on the past three months and wonder whether it has lived up to their expectations. One of the many aspects of our experiences on which students begin to reflect are the courses – especially since Monday, when the school announced that Q had officially opened. When reflecting on courses, students often compare their actual experience and enjoyment of the class to what they had expected when enrolling in the course at the end of Shopping Week. And, to the disappointment of most students, this may be the last semester in which an examination of the “transformative experience” that is Harvard and its courses is carried out in this way.

Since October, the administration has been discussing the possibility of ending “Shopping Week” – a Harvard tradition that allows students to “shop” courses during the first week of the semester. Students who read interesting course summaries on My.Harvard and rave reviews on the Q are able to witness first-hand the aspects of the course that cannot be captured in writing. The professor’s tone of voice, enthusiasm on the subject, and overall personality are features of a class that decide many student’s enjoyment and absorption of the material. For these reasons, the Undergraduate Council has been in communication with the administration to make known the students’ feelings on Shopping Week and the pros and cons of getting rid of it. On November 9, 2018, Professor Bernard Nickel sent a mass email updating students on the progress of these discussions. He summarizes the student’s feelings towards shopping week in a series of bullet points. The top three sentiments he summarizes are:

  •            “The current system gives students a week of intellectual freedom, a chance to imagine themselves in many different ways. It is a catalyst for exploration;
  •            “Seeing a course in action gives very fine-grained information about a course, such as whether a student can connect to a professor, whether the course is pitched at a level appropriate to the student, and what the classroom dynamics will be like; [and,]
  •            “The current system gives plenty of time to look at the course catalog over break.”

Professor Nickel emphasizes in his email that the University has not made any decisions regarding shopping period nor has it “debated any concrete proposal” for a replacement. He insists that “student feedback is a critical component to this process” and that they take the opinions of students in this matter very seriously. This, though a nice sentiment, is reminiscent of the statements that the administration made in regard to getting rid of “Harvard Time” and sanctioning USGSOs. The school has gotten rid of Harvard Time (a difficult adjustment for students) and implemented the USGSO sanctions, even though the UC released a report stating that most students were against the sanctions.

Another argument, one that is oftentimes “felt” more than stated, is that through the current period of “transformation,” Harvard is losing some of the quirks that make it unique. As one individual, interviewed by the Independent, puts it: “Things like Harvard time become more than just a 7 minute delay or extra time. It becomes a way of life, and when I think of Harvard and tell people about it, I never go ‘the classes and education are just marvelous.’ Instead, I tell them about the things that make it different from the schools they attend – things like Harvard Time and Shopping Week. Something about having the time to ponder, explore and individually choose classes speaks to the character of Harvard. It’s not easy to put this feeling into words, but as these things slowly slip away, I get worried that when I come back and visit this place, it’ll look like every other college in the country.” Such a sentiment has the potential to add a certain urgency to the already stout student body’s resistance to the loss of Shopping Week.

Jilly Cronin ’21 ( loves Shopping Week and doesn’t want it to be canceled.