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Class-Scheduling Conundrums


The new engineering and applied sciences complex in Allston will create a second center of College teaching—and raises significant challenges for scheduling classes across the expanding Harvard campus.
Rendering by Behnisch Architekten

The new engineering and applied sciences complex in Allston will create a second center of College teaching—and raises significant challenges for scheduling classes across the expanding Harvard campus.
Rendering by Behnisch Architekten

With regulatory approval in hand for the Allston facility that will house much of its engineering and applied sciences teaching and research, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) now faces a diplomatically delicate challenge to all its professors: crafting a class schedule that by 2020 must accommodate undergraduates enrolled in courses on both sides of the Charles River. The overview of proposed changes recently presented to the faculty suggests significant opportunities to rationalize and improve scheduling of all classes, thereby increasing students’ chances of enrolling in the courses they most want to take—in addition to addressing the challenges posed by the lengthy travel between Cambridge- and Allston-based courses.

Satisfactory scheduling, it turns out, is no simple problem—even for engineers. Allston planners have long known the logistical hurdles, and now the first significant undergraduate instruction there looms large:

  • Classrooms, extending from the North Harvard Yard science facilities in Cambridge to the new complex on Western Avenue, beyond and opposite Harvard Business School, are far apart. According to Google maps, it is 1.5 miles on foot from the Northwest Lab, on Oxford Street, through the Harvard Business School campus, to 114 Western Avenue, part of the forthcoming School of Engineering and Sciences (SEAS) complex.
  • The principal bridge spanning the river as John F. Kennedy Street turns into North Harvard Street is narrow and often congested (especially so now, during a protracted reconstruction).
  • And the SEAS faculty, who will have 17 classrooms at their disposal—ranging from seminar rooms to large lecture halls—educate a lot of students, especially in computer sciences. (The College’s largest class by enrollment, CS 50, “Introduction to Computer Science,” is accommodated these days in the 1,000-seat Sanders Theatre—although most students “attend” lectures “asynchronously,” by watching on a screen.)

So it is not a joke that the six Allston-focused steering committees and task forces reporting to the provost include a “Class Scheduling Task Force,” which has been at work since 2012. Its co-chair, dean of undergraduate education Jay Harris (who is also Wolfson professor of Jewish studies), briefed FAS colleagues on the options being considered during the faculty meeting on April 5. He made it clear that in calendrical terms, teaching in Allston is practically imminent, so FAS has to engage now in rethinking the course schedule. Seizing the opportunity presented by the need to cross the river, Harris proposed remedying numerous existing scheduling defects that not only keep students from taking courses they want but also inconvenience faculty members. Logistics aside, a lot about the nature of a Harvard College educational experience is at stake. The professors have some deep questions to resolve as they grapple with the task force’s analysis.

The Present Non-System

A background memo from Harris reviewed FAS’s century-plus discourse on course scheduling: required morning prayer periods, votes for Saturday lectures, and faculty members’ engagement in teaching “(male) Harvard College students in the morning, spending the afternoons offering instruction at Radcliffe, then located on Appian Way.” The lecture schedule—originally on the hour in the mornings, and on the half-hour in the afternoons—for one-hour periods, three times weekly (Monday, Wednesday, Friday, or Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday), took shape in the late 1800s. It continued to reflect faculty preferences for a compressed Harvard class schedule that enabled professors to earn extra compensation by crossing the Cambridge Common to Radcliffe. Even after the institutions’ classes began to be merged, during World War II, the legacy schedule remained in place.

Fast forward to today, and Harris’s memo noted:

  • Compression of class schedules: more than 80 percent of College lecture courses are offered between 10 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. (An obvious implication is that many students find that the classes they wish to take conflict—and, as the faculty has noted in the recent past, more have been applying to enroll in courses simultaneously, guaranteeing that they cannot be present for many class meetings.)
  • Conflicting class lengths and starting times: afternoon classes beginning after 1:00 p.m. now exist in 60-, 90- 120-, 150-, and 180-minute formats, starting at varying points (on the hour or half-hour) as the professor wishes. (The obvious implication, Harris wrote, is that it is “impossible to make optimal use of classrooms.” That makes for inappropriate teaching venues and unreasonable demands for expensive additions to teaching space, and further exacerbates the problem of conflicting meeting times.)
  • Compression of the instructional week. Saturday classes disappeared in the 1970s; as they were phased out, beginning in the 1950s, faculty members added longer (90-minute) classes on some weekday mornings, causing immediate conflicts with the standard 60-minute morning schedule. And at the same time, Friday has increasingly dropped off lecture schedules, becoming a day for optional meetings or discussion sections; the Friday lecture is an endangered species.

As a result, Harris wrote, “We thus find ourselves increasingly offering primary instruction [faculty-led sessions, not discussion sections run by teaching fellows or assistants] on four days a week, where once there were six days of primary instruction, even as we continue to offer that instruction in a limited set of hours,” namely 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.

Even on minor logistical matters, Harris urged reform. The standard five-minute “pass time” between classes means, according to faculty regulations, that a class is supposed to begin at, say, 9:05 a.m. But given the vast spread in teaching facilities beyond Sever Quad and Old Yard, five minutes has given way, informally, to seven, and in practice, to 10 minutes, shortening an hour lecture to 50 minutes. “Students report that the very existence of what they call ‘Harvard time,’” Harris observed, “detracts from the sense of seriousness surrounding academics. Anecdotes aside, with a much larger campus it is simply unfeasible to continue with either the official five minutes of pass time or the unofficial seven minutes”—even before taking an Allston commute into account.

Proposed New Schedules

In his April 5 presentation, Harris emphasized, above all, crafting a schedule that promotes students’ intellectual engagement with their courses as the centerpiece of their College experience, in part by maximizing their opportunities to take the courses they seek. He underscored the imperative for change by:

  • alluding to campus growth and pass times. FAS has increased, he said, from 4.8 million square feet of facilities and 1,650 listed courses in 1970, to 8.0 million square feet and 2,304 listed courses in 2010; and
  • demonstrating conflicts arising from the random scheduling under the current, permissive regime—for example, with those post-1:00 p.m. classes of varying lengths beginning at divergent half-hourly intervals. A student who enrolls in a class scheduled to meet from 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, for example, is automatically precluded from taking nearly a quarter of FAS’s other courses, held at overlapping times.

He also presented exhibits demonstrating that 81.3 percent of primary instruction takes place between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m., with just 4.6 percent taking place before 10:00 a.m., and 14.1 percent after 2:00 p.m.  Only 29 percent of classes have such instruction on Fridays.

The task force ambitiously seeks to:

  • clearly define class starting and ending times;
  • create sufficient pass time so that students arrive without impinging on scheduled instruction;
  • make fuller use of the instructional day and, possibly, week; and
  • retain flexibility for different course formats (lectures, extended seminars, long studios or labs, and new, more participatory forms of flipped classrooms).

Accordingly, it is advancing several building blocks for faculty consideration:

  • standard 75-minute lecture periods (giving the instructor the option to offer 60 to 75 minutes of instruction);
  • standard 15-minute pass times between classes; and
  • uniform slots for seminars, created by combining two lecture slots, for a maximum seminar period of 165 minutes (two times 75 minutes, plus the 15 minutes of pass time that would not be used during a continuous seminar), and grouping them on a “flex” day, which could be either Friday or Wednesday; if the latter, the faculty would be agreeing to more lecturing on Fridays, in effect recapturing that day, now lost, for regular teaching.

The Allston Accommodation

The trick to accommodating much longer pass times to and from classes on either side of the Charles is installing standardized teaching blocks with staggered starting times for Cambridge and Allston.

The examples Harris showed assumed that, because undergraduates reside in Cambridge, their 75-minute classes would begin there—possibly at 8:45 a.m. each weekday morning—followed by a 9:15 a.m. start time in Allston.

  • Including the standard 15-minute pass time, this 30-minute staggered start would enable a 45-minute transit time to Allston (the 8:45-10:00 a.m. class in Cambridge ends; a student traveling to the second Allston slot of the day would have to be in the room by the 10:45 a.m. starting time) and a 75-minute transit time to Cambridge (a student completing the 9:15-10:30 a.m. class in Allston would have to be in Cambridge by 11:45 a.m. to begin the third slot of the day there).
  • A 45-minute stagger (Cambridge classes begin at 8:45 a.m., Allston classes at 9:30 a.m.) would make the transit time an hour in either direction. (A student completing a Cambridge class at 10:00 a.m. has to be in the Allston classroom at 11:00 a.m. for the second block there; a student completing the initial Allston block at 10:45 A.M. has to be in Cambridge at 11:45 A.M. for the start of the third block there.)

And so on. Either alternative obviously has major implications for the scheduling of students’ days if they have classes on both sides of the river, with relatively large chunks of travel time.

Creating a flex day devoted largely to seminars and longer-format classes involves different challenges. For courses with two lecture meetings a week, a Wednesday flex day requires altering the weekly schedule. For courses that meet with primary teachers three times weekly, a flex day means moving from a Monday, Wednesday, Friday rhythm to an asymmetrical spacing of classes. For language courses, which typically involve daily instruction, there are other obstacles.

And then there is the Friday problem. Faculty members, Harris acknowledged, have become accustomed to having that day available for travel. Students, in many cases, have come to like three-day weekends or, in the case of athletes involved in team sports, to expect travel on Fridays.

“The Adult Day Doesn’t Begin at Noon”

In the ensuing discussion, Harris’s colleagues raised numerous questions from the floor. How would an altered weekly schedule, with class hours later in the afternoon, intersect with scheduled departmental meetings and FAS meetings themselves (both typically conducted on Tuesday afternoons, a period now proposed as a regular teaching slot)?

How much time would students lose in transit? That depended on how many classes students take in Allston, Harris replied. SEAS might have to consider blocking off afternoons for lecture courses with larger enrollments, to limit river crossings to once daily for the larger student cohort. (The problem looms even larger for the SEAS concentrators, who of course will have to take multiple courses in Allston, especially if they are pursuing certain engineering degrees that have more required courses than any other undergraduate concentration—up to 20 courses for an S.B.—but who will also have to be in Cambridge for General Education and distribution requirements.)

How will the new scheduling protocols be enforced? Harris conceded that new faculty rules would be required, with FAS’s consent. He also spoke about norms: encouraging intradepartmental conversations to agree to avoid scheduling conflicts and to spread courses out across the day-long instructional periods, rather than just in the now-habitual 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. prime time.

To avoid the long transit times, might SEAS schedule courses only in the afternoon? FAS could legislate that, Harris said. (Doing so would, in the short term, be immensely wasteful of the new classrooms being incorporated in the $1-billion complex being built for SEAS.) But he pointed to the larger issue: the relocation of two-thirds of the SEAS faculty to Allston is simply the first move of FAS across the river. Compared to the initial 17 classrooms coming on line in 2020, there would likely be “some multiple” of that number by 2030, he suggested, underlining the larger, longer-term ambitions for campus growth in Allston.

(SEAS itself expects to grow there. And the “Gateway” academic building planned for the intersection of North Harvard Street and Western Avenue is widely expected to include academic units, perhaps focusing on data sciences, quantitative social sciences, or related fields.)

Gordon McKay professor of computer science Harry R. Lewis, who has been much engaged in the planning for Allston as both faculty member and SEAS’s interim dean, rose to note that he and colleagues hoped Allston would “not be the annex campus.” SEAS faculty members are “all-in in Allston,” he said, and viewed the school and its future facility as “central to Harvard life.” Afternoon-only classes, or limiting instruction to graduate students, were at odds with that vision.

How would a longer instructional day intersect with faculty members’ needs for child- and daycare? Especially for untenured faculty members, who have less say over their teaching commitments, having classes in the current prime hours makes it feasible to fulfill academic obligations while also juggling care responsibilities, especially in an area with limited care options and very high costs. Harris said he understood the problem completely—and said it was exactly the sort of issue departments ought to put on the table for discussion. He recalled his early Harvard career, begun nearly three decades ago, when he and his wife had two young children and were expecting their third; with a long commute, Harris dropped the two children off in the morning, and arrived safely for teaching on Mondays and Wednesdays at noon. Now, 27 years later, with the then-expected child well into adulthood, he still teaches at that time, out of habit. The slot has never been the subject of discussion, and ought to be, because some colleagues might now have similar care obligations, and might be readily accommodated with that teaching time.

“Decompressing” the teaching schedule (as the task force suggested), he said, would maximize students’ opportunity to enroll in the courses they want, and create options that could be fairer for all members of a department, who have different life circumstances and needs. This was a perfect example of “accommodating our colleagues as we accommodate our students,” he noted, if the faculty as a whole is willing to rethink its culture and practices.

As for those young learners, faculty members wondered whether students would indeed drag themselves out of bed to attend an 8:45 a.m. class, and whether the eager athletes would show up on Fridays. Addressing the former, Harris noted that students respond to the opportunities faculty members create; many undergraduates currently enroll in 9:00 a.m. language, mathematics, and introductory life- and physical-sciences classes. He suggested that faculty members could model behavior for students, observing, “The adult day doesn’t begin at noon.”

As for athletes: their perspective was incorporated in the task force’s deliberations (a senior athletics administrator has been a member from inception), Harris noted, and favored Friday instruction. It is not necessary to depart Cambridge Friday morning for a Saturday game in New Haven, he said. Moreover, the number of affected students was small and the occasions for true disruption to the academic schedule were few (football games in Ithaca, for example, occur every other year). Athletics could therefore be accommodated without dictating the entire design of an appropriate academic schedule.

As to other matters of culture, Harry Lewis rose again to make two observations. If popular classes are scheduled early in the day (when numerous teaching spaces are available), he noted, it might be possible to accommodate real student demand without resorting to lotteries—a form of enrollment rationing he very much dislikes. (Ever the computer scientist, he called this kind of student self-sorting by scheduling time “a feature, not a bug.”) And for a 60-student class he teaches on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, involving in-class exercises and participation, Lewis requires attendance—and the students come. In other words, the culture of scheduling and showing up is malleable.

Would clustering seminars on a single flex day cause problems for concentrations that rely heavily on that format for upperclassmen? Perhaps, Harris said—but the 75-minute standard building blocks could be assembled for seminars on other days, too, to accommodate such needs, without compromising other goals in the revised schedules he outlined.

How to Proceed

Harris suggested that any problems caused by whatever new schedule the FAS adopts would become apparent within a year of implementation. (In arriving at its scenarios for faculty discussion, the task force has already modeled many schedule and departmental patterns to identify and avoid potential problems, and to surface some of the remaining obstacles—like daily language classes—discussed above.)

The practical challenges of implementation imply that the time to act is soon. Harris concluded his presentation by suggesting that the FAS ideally agree on the need to change, and the basic principles for doing so, this semester, so that a formal proposal and accompanying rules can be drafted as legislation for faculty consideration this coming fall—along with airing of norms, culture, and other issues important for effective implementation.

Assuming enactment during the 2016-2017 academic year, the registrar’s office could begin the formidable work of reprogramming its information systems, redrafting the faculty and student handbooks, making room assignments, and so on. Then, during the 2018 spring semester, faculty members would schedule their 2018-2019 classes, effective with that year’s fall term: a sufficient runway to test the system and make adjustments before engineering and applied sciences classes are held in Allston in 2020.


The scheduling issues highlight the intersection of faculty and student behavior with the reality of initial FAS academic operations in Allston—and the prospect of a great deal of expansion there in decades to come. Those kinds of issues often excite passions, and Harris has taken on one of the truly thankless tasks that can fall to any professor. That said, the faculty’s registrar probably faces the most thankless task, because the new class schedule and the new Gen Ed requirements, on their current trajectories, will both take effect in the 2018 fall semester, causing much confusion, jockeying for favored time slots and rooms, and more.

But beyond those moments of possible cultural anguish or amusement, a great deal depends on getting the transition to teaching in Allston right. The University news announcement of regulatory approval for the SEAS facility emphasizes Harvard’s interest in creating what one leader calls a regional “cluster of innovation and discovery,” focusing on business school-SEAS collaboration, industry partnerships, and an associated large “enterprise research campus” envisioned as housing businesses, entrepreneurial start-ups (some of them spun off from the i-lab), and related activities. No one is talking about significant growth in the traditional arts and sciences disciplines there.

Harvard has proudly maintained that its engineering and applied sciences undergraduates are liberally educated. Skeptics on campus (and in higher-education circles generally) have wondered whether Stanford’s surging enrollment in computer science, entrepreneurship courses, and related studies has had a distorting effect on that institution and its students overall. Possible East Coast jealousies aside, the divide between “techies” and “fuzzies” in Palo Alto is not trivial.

At a time when the arts and humanities, in particular, are struggling to interest students, Harvard’s investment in expanding engineering and applied sciences—and now the physical rise of a campus focused on those fields, closely allied with the business school, entrepreneurship, and corporate partnerships—raises issues more consequential, and potentially delicate, than the tricky details of class schedules and pass times. The College and FAS’s graduate students will soon be educated in two separate parts of a large, and growing, campus. Making them behave as One Harvard, from Day One, matters a great deal.

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