Course shopping at Harvard

I’m a month into classes at Harvard as part of my Nieman fellowship. I meant to write about course-shopping from the get-go. It’s time.

Course shopping is Harvard’s version of musical chairs. In the first week, students stream in and out of courses in an effort to sample as broadly as possible from the wonderful intellectual cornucopia that is the Harvard course catalog.
I didn’t do much shopping. I walked out of one class partway through, mostly because I was pretty sure that I would pick a different course for that time slot, and the prof had started to read through her syllabus, which I could do on my own.
Because I wasn’t hopping from class to class, I found the week odd — in my experience, many professors don’t really teach anything, given their fickle audience. A number of the classes I took featured a kind of broad overview or a standard introductory lecture. Michael Parzen turned Statistics 104 into a stand-up routine, part of his promise that statistics will not be the course you hate the most while at Harvard. In my case, he may be wrong, but it won’t be his fault.
I’m interested in behavioral economics, but didn’t think I was quite up for the graduate level Psychology and Economics seminar taught by Andrei Shleifer and two others (I dearly want to take a course with Shleifer, but he’s teaching a less mathematically intense version of the course in the spring term, and that seemed to me to make more sense). So I opted for Cultural Econmics, Alberto Alesina’s look into how culture shapes economic behavior. I also wanted to read some Shakespeare, so I went to Stephen Greenblatt’s class on Shakespeare’s Tragedies (that class had the weirdest moment of course-shopping week — Greenblatt is a famous Shakespearean scholar, and yet the hall where he was lecturing was perhaps half full when he started. A lone student blundered in about 2 minutes later, and muttered ‘there’s a bunch of people outside.’ Greenblatt sent a teaching assistant out, and for the next five minutes, undergraduates poured into the hall, filling the place. So far, this makes for the only time I have questioned the intellectual abilities of Harvard undergraduates.)Harvard Business School doesn’t have the same kind of vibe during course shopping. But then, once you’ve crossed the River, you’ve entered a different world. Harvard starts all classes at 7 minutes past their official start time, so you can get from your course that ends at 11 to your course that starts at 11 without missing anything. The Business School starts on time. The Business School also plunges right into coursework. No introductory lectures here — you’d better have read your case study on day one and be prepared to answer questions.

Maybe it was the bracing bite of real intellectual engagement, but I loved the class at the Business School, Entrepreneurialism and Global Capitalism. It provides an excellent look at the first wave of globalization back in the 19th century, and how its events shaped the modern economy.
The business school also respects the calendar — the first day of classes, Wednesday September 1st, was indeed Wednesday. Not so on the other side of the Charles, where Wednesday was Monday. The last class I wanted to take meets only on Wednesdays, but didn’t meet on the 1st, since in Harvard land Wednesday was not Wednesday but Monday. (This apparently was done because the following Monday was Labor Day, and classes that meet only on Mondays would not have met for the first time until the second full week of classes).   That class is a graduate-level seminar on Gravity’s Rainbow, taught by the polymathic Peter Galison. The Pynchon novel is very dense,  but the course description was captivating. I can say that I’m already gaining a deeper appreciation for the novel (but I’m not recommending it; it says something when one needs an entire course to appreciate a novel).

I’m really delighted at the opportunity to be here.

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