Harvard prepares for next step

Harvard University’s first undergraduate curricular review in 30 years will focus on internationalization, student research opportunities and cross-disciplinary boundaries, and may overhaul the university’s freshman advising system and academic calendar, officials said.

After a year of meetings, Harvard’s committee released an interim report in December that shows similarities to the curricular review Yale completed last April. Harvard’s committee members met Monday during a day-long retreat in Cambridge, Mass., to discuss the review’s next steps.

“We started out taking a very wide view of undergraduate curriculum matters and we have not yet reached any conclusions and recommendations,” Harvard College Associate Dean and steering committee member Jeff Wolcowitz said.

Wolcowitz said the Harvard review committee is looking at ways to strengthen the Harvard undergraduate advising program, particularly in the freshman year. The Yale report, which was Yale’s first comprehensive undergraduate curricular review in more than 30 years, recommends improvements to the freshman advising system.

Harvard professors said a number of freshmen do not have advisors with academic experience. Harvard astronomy professor Robert Kirshner said Harvard is “just tip-toeing” into requiring professors to serve as advisors. Until then, he said many freshman will continue to have graduate and professional students, many of whom are unfamiliar with the undergraduate curriculum, as advisors.

“While they may be sensible people who can read the rule book, they’re not in a position to provide a really well-informed, slightly unofficial stance of what the different concentrations are like,” Kirshner said.

Some students are assigned an adviser who coaches the women’s soccer team, works in the housing office, or serves as Harvard President Lawrence Summers’ events planner, the Boston Globe reported last week.

Jennie Lin, a Harvard junior, said she thinks the review committee should recommend building a central advising office near the freshman dormitories on Harvard Yard.

“[Freshman advising] does not really exist,” Lin said. “We don’t have any centralized system. There’s no place where freshmen can go.”

Harvard government professor Harvey Mansfield, who serves as a freshman advisor, said Harvard first-years are given “a very fat catalog of courses,” but little faculty guidance.

“They mainly get advice from other students, often their peers, even from the freshman class,” Mansfield said. “It’s certainly true that we need to do a better job of advising.”

The review committee has not decided on specific changes to the advising program, but is “thinking about the structure of the freshman year,” Harvard College Dean Benedict Gross, who is spearheading the review, said in an e-mail.

The committee is also looking at revamping its academic calendar, under which Harvard currently administers first semester final exams in January, after the winter break. It may recommend moving the semester exams to December, before winter break, and create a month-long January term before the second semester, professors said.

“The wacky thing is, of course, that we don’t have exams before Christmas,” Kirshner said. “We have reading period now, in the dead of winter. It’s boring and people sit in the dining hall and eat too much. Procrastination becomes a fine art. Our calendar always seems bizarre, even to us.”

But some students and professors said they enjoy the break before final exams.

“The general consensus here seems to be that people like having finals after break,” Lin said. “We have a pretty substantial reading period right before finals, so I don’t actually do any work before winter break anyway.”

Mansfield agreed, adding that the winter break between the end of classes and final examinations provides time for reflection on the course.

“I like to have a chance to get away and I think it’s better to have the exams after Christmas than before, despite the anxiety of Christmas vacation,” Mansfield said.

Wolcowitz said the committee will report to the Harvard community by the spring and may complete its review this year.

Comments