Harvard College’s Cross-Charles Classes
The Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) is nearing a vote that will transform, and standardize, scheduling of classes. The motion presented to the faculty at its meeting today, for discussion and a vote later this semester, brings to fruition work begun in early in 2013, in anticipation of hosting a significant share of undergraduate instruction in engineering and applied sciences in Allston, across the Charles River, when new facilities there are commissioned in 2020.
According to the language of the motion, beginning in the fall of 2018, “the instructional day shall be organized around designated class start times and fixed pass times. No class shall start at a time other than the designated class start times.” When dean of undergraduate education Jay M. Harris first briefed the faculty on this idea last spring, prompting extensive discussion, he highlighted general problems that had arisen over time, making it difficult for students to enroll in classes of interest, and resulting in inefficient use of teaching facilities:
- Compression: with more than 80 percent of lectures offered between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., many classes conflict, guaranteeing that students cannot enroll.
- Conflicts: afternoon classes vary in length between 60 and 180 minutes, and start at varying points, making it “impossible to make optimal use of classrooms,” Harris observed, and shoehorning courses into inappropriate venues.
- Contraction: with the disappearance of Saturday classes in the 1970s, and the general erosion of Friday lectures, too many classes are crowded together from Monday through Thursday.
Those problems, and the standard five-minute “pass time” between classes, are also at odds with the progressive geographic spread of teaching facilities across the ever-larger Cambridge campus. And current practices, if not revised, would fail completely when students begin navigating from there to Allston or back.
According to the legislative draft, the proposed schedule, shown graphically above, would mandate:
- That the class start times on the Cambridge side of our campus are 45 minutes offset from the class start times on the Allston side.
- That, on each of the Cambridge and Allston sides of our campus, class start times are separated by 90 minutes. [That is, classes in Cambridge would begin at 9:00, 10:30, and so on; and those in Allston at 9:45, 11:15, and so on.]
- That designated class start times are: 9:00 a.m., 10:30 a.m., 12 noon, 1:30 p.m., 3:00 p.m., 4:30 p.m., 6:00 p.m., and 7:30 p.m. on the Cambridge side of our campus; and 9:45 a.m., 11:15 a.m., 12:45 p.m., 2:15 p.m., 3:45 p.m., 5:15 p.m., 6:45 p.m., and 8:15 p.m. on the Allston side of our campus.
- That, beginning at a designated start time, class shall run up to 75 minutes, with the last 15 minutes of the 90 minutes reserved for pass time between classes.
- That classes, seminars, colloquia, and labs requiring more than 75 minutes in any single meeting shall begin from a specified subset of the designated class start times and shall not end in any subsequent pass time.
- That designated start times for classes, seminars, colloquia, and labs requiring more than 75 minutes are: 9:00 a.m., 12 noon, 3:00 p.m., and 6:00 p.m. on the Cambridge side of our campus; and 9:45 a.m., 12:45 p.m., 3:45 p.m., and 6:45 p.m. on the Allston side of our campus.
- That instructors who wish to start their classes before the earliest class start time or after the latest class start time on either side of our campus must obtain permission for this undesignated start time from the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
- That courses meeting more than once per week shall be scheduled in the Monday-Wednesday-Friday sequence or the Tuesday-Thursday sequence. Courses meeting four or more times per week may schedule across the five days as the course head(s) deems best.
To avoid fudging, the legislation imposes an interesting “balancing” rule on departments. Thus, “each department shall schedule its courses that meet two or three times a week so that the number of these courses that meet Tuesday-Thursday is no more than two more or no less than two less than the total number that meet Monday-Wednesday-Friday.” (Seminars that meet once per week, or language and math classes that meet four or more times per week, would not be subject to this rule.). Further, “each department shall schedule its courses so that the difference between the most used start time and the least used start time for its courses is no greater than two courses in the period 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. inclusive.” (Again, courses that meet weekly or four or more times per week are exempt from this balancing rule.)
Finally, once the schedule is employed, it is to be reviewed by FAS’s Faculty Council, which will report to the faculty, in the fall of 2019, and then again five years later.
The proposal on which the faculty is being asked to vote is a refinement of the options brought forth for discussion last year. Then, Harris displayed classes beginning at 8:45 a.m. in Cambridge and 9:15 a.m. in Allston (in the event, perhaps too early for today’s sleepy undergraduates, and for their teachers struggling with Boston-area commuter traffic?). He also modeled both 30- and 45-minute staggered starting times. And those proposals also advanced a “flex” day on Wednesday or Friday to accommodate seminars or labs, by combining 75-minute building blocks (and the pass time between them) to make longer teaching periods.
[Updated March 8, 2017, 8:30 a.m.: A question from the floor during the generally friendly discussion of the proposal at the March 7 faculty meeting clarified one important point: that with the disappearance of the flex day and adoption of five equivalent teaching days per week, the plan to recapture Fridays as a period for faculty-led instruction is essentially abandoned. There may well be discussion sections for classes that meet three times weekly, but those will be led by teaching assistants; faculty members themselves will largely be free to retain Fridays for research, service, or outside commitments, rather than stationing themselves in the classroom.]
The modified version now up for debate and prospective enactment has focused on the 9:00 and 9:45 a.m. starting times to the class day; the 45-minute stagger between Cambridge and Allston starting times; and uniformity of class blocks throughout the week, with scheduling of longer seminars and labs effected by combining the 75-minute blocks, and standardizing starting times, as shown and described. The balancing rules imposed on departments are an important policing measure to make the system work over time.
Assuming the faculty agrees, as might be expected, Harris and his valiant colleagues who have outlined the schedule and tested its implementation foresee an academic week rationalized, in its words,
- to ensure an academic program that allows students the ability to take full advantage of the Harvard College undergraduate experience,
- to expand the teaching day to ease the pressure on student and room schedules,
- to balance the scheduling of courses across the week,
- to accommodate a growing range of pedagogies,
- to shape student and faculty expectations and behaviors related to scheduling,
- and to ensure that a community with a range of mobility needs has time to get to classes between any points on our Allston-Cambridge campus.