Shopping Period at Harvard
David J. Malan ’99
“At Tuesday’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences meeting, Harvard faculty ̶a̶r̶e̶ [were] set to vote on two controversial proposals — one that would allow students to pursue double concentrations and another that would replace shopping week with previous-term registration.”
— The Harvard Crimson
Shopping week (aka shopping period) is a week-long opportunity at Harvard College at the start of each term for on-campus students to attend any and all classes before actually deciding which courses to take starting the next week. Shopping period is how I myself found my way to CS50 as a student and, in turn, computer science more generally. It has been recommended that shopping period be replaced with previous-term registration instead.
The vote on that recommendation was postponed until May to allow time for further discussion. (The vote on double concentrations passed.) My remarks at today’s meeting, below.
Thank you. My name is David Malan, I’m co-chair of our computer science curriculum committee, and for the past 15 years I’ve taught CS50. And I can say, first hand, that shopping period makes planning, hiring, training so challenging for us each year administratively.
But shopping period is one of Harvard’s most impactful traditions educationally. It is not just an add-drop period in which to fine-tune decisions, it is an educational mandate from us to explore, a dedicated time to experience what courses are like, to discover yourself academically. And that culture of exploration, that uncertainty, that chaos changes students’ trajectories in college, if not beyond.
Most every year, I myself start CS50 by telling students about a government concentrator years ago who decided just to shop CS50, just to explore some unfamiliar waters, because that’s what you do in that first week of term. That’s the default, that’s the norm. And it was transformational. He went on to concentrate in CS, do a PhD, and even ended up teaching that same course. (For clarity, that was me.) From a student of ours this past fall, “I took my favorite class at Harvard[, a] Gen Ed called Faith and Authenticity because a friend invited me during shopping week and I loved the first lecture.” From another, “My secondary is my secondary because of shopping week.”
Shopping period is one of those distinctly Harvard traditions that so very characterizes students’ experience here. I daresay there hasn’t been a Crimson Key tour at Harvard that doesn’t mention shopping period as one of the College’s defining characteristics. And that should tell us something about our values.
With all respect for all of the time and effort that’s been put into today’s documents, I would urge us to consider what is more important: the administrative downsides of shopping period (which, I will note, we have somehow been managing for decades) or the educational upsides thereof. For me, shopping period changes students’ lives, period. Videos, websites… here we are on Zoom, it’s just not the same. We should preserve this tradition, find another way forward, and vote nay.