Shopping period tradition thrives among students

Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 5, 2012


“What are you shopping?” 

As students settle into the academic year at Brown, they are as likely to be greeted with that line as “Hello” or “How are you?” – and it doesn’t refer to textbooks or dorm supplies. 

Shopping period, one of the University’s most esteemed traditions, is a two-week period at the beginning of each semester during which students can freely “shop” courses before choosing which to take. For many students, it involves a complicated schedule of class sorting and juggling crammed into an already stressful first two weeks of the academic semester. Though every student’s approach to Banner’s bottomless cart is different, shopping period has become one of the defining features of a Brown education. 


Through the ages

Brown isn’t the only university to offer a shopping period – other schools with shopping periods include Harvard, Yale and non-Ivies such as Pennsylvania State University and Brandeis University. 

At Brown, shopping period grew out of the process of adding and dropping courses, which existed in the late 1960s. But back then, changing courses required written permission from the teaching professor of the class, said Ken Miller ’70, professor of biology.

“It was kind of a pain,” he said, but despite the hassle, “there certainly was a fair amount of switching in and out.”

Shopping period in its current form surfaced later as “an ancillary practice of the new curriculum” implemented in 1969, wrote Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron in an email to The Herald.

By the 1980s, the idea of shopping period was “well established,” said Miller, who returned as a faculty member in 1980. The first mention of the term “shopping period” in The Herald’s own archives appears in 1986, listed as an “unofficial Brown tradition” among a selection of “Facts for Frosh.” Though students were still required to use add/drop forms, they have since disappeared from the course selection process.

Today, shopping period is “an absolutely essential part of the Brown academic experience,” Miller said. “It’s the way we do things here.”


Shop ’til the drop 

Many students today take full advantage of shopping period’s freedom.  Over the past two years, the University Registrar calculated an average of 25,000 courses added on Banner during shopping period and an average of 51,000 course drops each semester.

The numbers are generally representative of the large amount of shopping that takes place in the first two weeks of the semester, Bergeron wrote in her email. 

Melanie Fineman ’14 said Brown’s tradition of shopping courses provides “so many avenues to explore.” Fineman, a history concentrator, shopped 13 courses in three days last semester.

“It’s kind of daunting in a way because I’m responsible for getting out of Brown what I want to get out of Brown,” she said of the system. Still, the opportunity to shop for classes is “phenomenal,” she said.

Fineman added that she has a spreadsheet worth of classes to shop this semester.

But not all students take the same approach. Liz Neu ’14, a math and computer science concentrator, said when she first arrived at Brown, she did not shop many classes.

“I picked out some classes that I knew I wanted to take, and I was set,” she said of her first semester. “The whole idea of shopping was very foreign.”

Now a rising junior, Neu said she wishes she had shopped more.

“I liked my classes, but I think if I’d shopped, I could have found (more) classes that I loved,” she said. 

Neu said she finds classes to shop through friends and classmates. This helps her gauge the atmosphere of a class, which is “not included in the course description,” she said. Neu was also involved in testing, a website which aims to help students shop by identifying the most popular courses among students. 

But some concentrations make shopping more challenging. Abby Plummer ’15, a physics concentrator, said the required sequence of classes within her concentration meant her shopping period was “very structured.”

“I know that there’s a certain number of classes I have to take, just because a lot of my classes are on a sequence,” she said. “There’s less wiggle room.”

But Plummer can still shop for one or two classes each semester, for which she looks to more far-ranging fields like education and philosophy – “things I don’t know that much about,” she said. 

Sitting in on classes is only one aspect of shopping period – students also often seek advice from their Meiklejohn advisers, classmates and faculty members and look through course syllabi on the Brown Course Preview website.  


Checks and balance 

But professors have mixed views on shopping period.

“I love teaching here because almost no student is there because they have to be,” said Luther Spoehr, senior lecturer in education. But some find ways to  “game the system.”

Spoehr said some students use registration as a “placeholder” for classes and “expect a seat to be held for them,” which complicates class lists. The constantly shifting attendance, he said, also delays the first few weeks of teaching.

“I can’t do the kinds of things that require continuity,” Spoehr said.

Professor of Engineering Ruth Bahar also questioned the ability of shopping period to provide a full understanding of a course.

“The first two classes carry a lot of weight,” she said. “There’s a lot riding on just one or two days. It doesn’t give you the full picture.”

In a discipline like engineering, Bahar said, shopping period’s ability to preview classes also had limited benefits.

“If you’re interested in engineering, the first few weeks aren’t going to help you figure it out,” Bahar said. “You really have to go through at least a couple of those semesters.” 

Miller said shopping period can complicate classes, especially those with a lab component. Miller, who teaches BIOL 0200: “The Foundation of Living Systems” in the spring, said shopping period “might slow (labs) down by a week.”

Still, professors said that shopping period has its benefits.

In the case of “Living Systems,” Miller said the one-week delay was a “very small price to pay” for the greater flexibility it afforded students.

Bahar said shopping was particularly useful when choosing an elective, especially for students in requirement-heavy concentrations like engineering.

“Really make every elective count,” she said. “Shopping is going to help you make that decision.” At the same time, she warned students against shopping too many courses. 

“Make sure you can balance (your class schedule) out with an elective you can still manage the workload for,” Bahar said. “You could be juggling six or even seven classes before you decide, and that can really make you crazy.”

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