Most Commonly Overlooked Things When Choosing Classes

Harvard, fortunately, has what is known as a “Shopping Period,” in which students have a full week before actually deciding on which courses to register for. This is the perfect time to test out a new professor, see how interesting that Lit class is, or just to sit back and relax as school starts (sort of).

While we all know that previous year’s recommendations, Professors, class size, syllabus, workload and difficulty are important, there are some things that are notoriously overlooked…

1) Scheduling

The type of schedule that works for you depends on the type of person you are. Are you the type of person that works better in the mornings or afternoons? But, this is an easy thing to figure out.

What is more important is how you feel about hour(s)-long breaks between classes? And how late your classes end in the day?

My class schedule for last semester was wretched. I had a 2 hour lunch-period. I usually took an hour to eat lunch and an hour nap after lunch (because what else is there to do in the middle of the day? Siesta time!) This meant that my classes ended later in the day, so it mentally felt like more of the day was over by the time classes were done. Toss in a number of things in the evening that seemed too soon, and all of a sudden, my homework times would start around 9pm and last and last. Rinse, repeat.

This semester (once sectioning is complete), I will have all my classes done before 1pm. Granted, I will have to wake up early enough to catch my 9am classes, but this means I have the glorious afternoon free to work on projects for my other activities.

2) Is it a new course?

Even the best Professors aren’t perfect at teaching a new course. At Harvard, professors generally have high ambitions — assigning things left and right with great enthusiasm. TF’s (known as TA’s at most schools) get confused, aren’t in the loop, are not quite sure what their responsibilities as section leaders are. Disorganization usually does death to a course.

Yes, that Childhood Psychology and Literature course sounds fantastically interesting! But is it actually possible to cover 13 novels, handfuls of short stories, and a number of movies in about 14 weeks of class? How much detail are you expected to know? Will the course give you a coherent understanding of the course topic?

These are good things to think about before taking a chance with a risky course.

3) Unexpectedly Large Class Sizes

If a class ends up being unexpectedly large, the Professor of course has the option of making the course a lottery. However, some Professors will have to or want to keep the course open to all members. In this case, you run into a few problems:

  • New locale: My Stat 104 class took about 2 weeks before finding its final location because of its unexpectedly large class size
  • New TF’s: A mad recruiting effort to find section leader occurs. Candidates need to be accepted quickly. Such hastily recruited section leaders generally make for bad teachers. They unexpectedly took on a large responsibility and aren’t quite dedicated enough to devoting the time necessary to form a coherent lesson plan.
  • Professor attempts to compensate: In a horror story from one of my friends, a small sociology course ended up becoming a large lecture course. As a result, the professor ended up increasing the workload and number of papers students were responsible for. Not good, at all.

4) The First Day of Class is usually the best day

Some professors make their first day of class ridiculously appealing. They show you Southpark videos, bake you cookies, play rap music, so on and so forth. Instead of being Pavlovian-ly excited, you should be suspicious.

Why should this professor resort to such guttural tactics to maintain enrollment? Is it because the professor isn’t actually the one teaching the class?! Then, no matter how pretty the powerpoint is, the section leaders can never possibly compare.

If the class is something suspiciously dull like Modern Theater and you end up watching clips from the Daily Show on the first day, be prepared for dull readings later in the semester when it is TOO LATE for you to drop the class.

On the occasion, the Professor may just be a cool cat. But, first make sure — by referring to your friends — that this Professor will continue to show entertaining videos of panda sex during lectures throughout the semester before taking the class.

But be warned, a Professor that caters to entertainment value generally is not particularly good at imparting the necessary information you need to know for said class. If you are usually unfortunate in the section lottery, then you should steer clear because you will be relying on your section leader to instill in you coveted pieces of knowledge.

One final word on this point, if the first day of the class doesn’t spark your interest, then it is only downhill from there.

In short, be wary when it comes to picking your classes. It is easy to follow the herd like an over-enthusiastic starry-eyed freshmen.

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4 Responses to “Most Commonly Overlooked Things When Choosing Classes”

  1. 1 M.D.

    Hi Luyi, could you offer some advice about how to narrow down the hundreds of courses offered to the few that you’d want to shop for and take? I have a few (completely different) majors in mind but nothing specific. Should an undecided first-year begin with the basic introductory courses (ec 10, justice, etc.) that cover many subject areas and decide his/her major from there?

    And kind of on a tangent–it’ll be great if sometime in the future you could post about how to approach and get to know a professor. You write a lot about Mankiw. Have you taken his class? How do you begin to approach such a big-name professor like him?

    Thanks again!

  2. 2 Luyi

    First question, turned into a post.

    Second question. All professors have office hours. Just, go. Come with a few higher level questions (not, how do I solve this problem, but rather, tell me more about the interesting field of XYZ).

    Honestly, that’s pretty much it. As you move through your Harvard career, you’ll realize that a lot of professors are really accessible. I wrote an email about a project proposal to a big name in the Psych department, got a response, set up a meeting etc.

    Regarding Mankiw, I did indeed take Ec 10. He has a lot of office hours and is an interesting chap. He once invited a few students to his house for Thanksgiving via a lottery system.

    Also, there’s this great tradition of student-faculty? faculty-student? dinners. Where students invite professors to go have a really nice dinner with them, c/o HUDS. Generally, if it’s a big name, it’s probably a good idea to get a bunch of students together to invite someone. It looks sort of funny when you have one person hogging a big wig for an entire dinner.

  3. 3 M.D.

    Thanks for the reply and the post Luyi! They’re amazing as usual. Btw, I’d love to meet you in person once we’re both on campus (that is, if your busy schedule allows).

  1. 1 On Surviving Shopping Period at Surviving Harvard

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