Eleven days after classes began last semester, your Canvas homepage was probably crowded. It was the middle of shopping period and you had 36 more hours to run between buildings, email professors and decide which classes were worthy. This week marks the same point in the spring term, but the energy on campus is decidedly different. Instead of scrolling through Course Search, we’re staring at Zoom. The add/drop period ended and our schedules have been locked ever since.
At first, the new academic calendar struck me as an inconvenience more than an outrage. The change blended in as part of a deluge of policies that transformed campus at the end of 2021 and, unlike online exams or a shortened spring break, the new add/drop period arrived without any formal announcement. Furthermore, I, like many of my peers who entered Yale after the pandemic, never fully developed the shopping period mindset. Upperclassmen use the phrase, “I’m shopping X,” comfortably and view two weeks of academic flexibility as a cultural keystone alongside Camp Yale and Spring Fling. But those institutions were lost before my class experienced them and, somehow, so too was the luster of shopping period. One friend texted me several days ago, “Why is everyone complaining about the death of shopping period? Is it that big of a deal?”
The answer, it seems, is yes. The origins and history of shopping period elude Google but, for at least three decades, Yalies have spent the first two weeks of every semester rushing to as many classrooms as they’d like before committing to a final schedule. This practice was vaunted in admissions brochures as a distinct part of Yale; meanwhile, both critiques and celebrations of shopping period have appeared perennially in this newspaper. When I asked older classmates for their opinions on shopping period, I received paragraphs in return. Yale may have quietly dismantled shopping period with a handful of keystrokes, but the passion surrounding the tradition suggests it was anything but a technicality. Before we say goodbye, it’s worth asking what shopping period represented and why it attracted so many admirers.
There is a utilitarian side of shopping period’s appeal: it allows students to make more informed decisions. Although the Blue Book defines courses with summaries and syllabi, the atmosphere of a class hinges on the people who choose to teach and take it. A junior writing for Yale Admissions’ Blog in 2014 described signing up for a comparative literature class with four different sections only to realize, “even though the title of these classes were the same, [she] could have four different experiences.” For two weeks, the author bounced between each section in order to gauge which professor’s style matched her own. With a trial period, students who planned ahead could minimize risk and make their schedules more comfortable.
There’s only so much that can be anticipated, however, and many students relished shopping period precisely for its spontaneity. Several seniors shared with me that their favorite Yale courses were ones they wandered into during shopping period without knowing the class existed. These students explained that, while the course catalog may be vast, the parameters we use when selecting classes on paper are limited. By default, you’ll fulfill major and distribution requirements and even “wild cards” will be the product of preexisting interests or the recommendation of a friend. Shopping period, by removing an element of calculation and adding a dose of discovery, could turn a philosopher who’d never thought to look up at the sky into a passionate astronomer.
But while shopping period helped students craft more satisfying schedules, its fundamental charm was to encourage learning that was irreverent toward the future. Last semester, a friend sat beside me for two weeks in a Latin American history class and then disappeared. When I asked the junior if COVID-19 had imprisoned him on Old Campus, he shrugged, “I was never taking that class. I was just shopping it.” It was the tone of a tourist walking down Fifth Avenue to ogle at clothes they’ll never buy and snag free samples from the Lindt store. What was a strategic tool to select classes for some was, for others, a chance to go window-shopping.
Shopping period may have imbued some Yalies with a deeper fondness for the liberal arts but, for others, it was a legitimate source of frustration. In a 2018 Op-Ed, Adwoa Buadu ’18 describes how stampedes overwhelmed her 20-person seminar and made her anxious as to whether she’d keep her place. That shopping period foments uncertainty and excludes eager students from seminars is a common charge. But even the critics who quibbled with shopping period’s details almost universally valued the system’s ethos. Buadu herself advocates for specific changes to the pre-registration process but ultimately declares, “shopping period really is a unique part of the Yale experience.” Yalies can be future-oriented creatures, but shopping period let us revel in curiosity. It’s unclear whether that spirit will survive — will we remain explorers, or will Yalies withdraw into spreadsheets in the absence of a system that asks us to improvise?