The following is a fairly common narrative of the first day of class at Brown:
Hordes of students, many of whom will neither take the class nor know remotely what the class is about, pile into a small room. The professor and teaching assistants pass out syllabi that, in most cases, have been sitting in the instructor's hard drive since the previous spring. The professor then proceeds to go over the aforementioned syllabus to the college students assembled in the room, with minimal elaboration. At the conclusion of this recitation, students become restless and pack their things, and the professor releases them to hear other professors perform renditions of their own syllabi.
Welcome to the first week of shopping period. It's a waste of time. And it is a shame, because the concept — and many working aspects — of shopping period are brilliant. Shopping period puts less emphasis on spring registration, which gives students an entire summer to think more clearly about what they are interested in. It allows for logistical experimentation, as students can figure out if they can indeed make it from List to Smitty B in the 10 minutes their proposed schedule has allotted. It encourages students to try out classes well outside of their comfort zone with no risk of a binding agreement. And, of course, shopping period puts professors to the test, as students can judge for themselves (without completely relying on the Critical Review) how engaging their lecturers are.
However, because shopping period represents a period of flexibility and impermanence, professors feel compelled to discuss logistical information and reading lists and give overly general introductory lectures. These rituals not only waste time, but also force students to shop more classes for a longer period of time.
Only select professors put their classes' syllabi on MyCourses for all Brown students to see. Brown's most comprehensive forum for such documents, courses.brown.edu, is unknown to much of the student body and lacks the necessary information for all classes.
There is no reason why Brown should not mandate that its professors put their syllabi on a digital forum (such as MyCourses or courses.brown.edu) by the beginning of school. In many classes, syllabi remain unchanged from year to year. In all cases, though, syllabi are completed before the first day of classes. There is no reason for secrecy or confidentiality.
The trade-off would be that interested students would have to show some initiative and read through the online syllabus instead of merely having to show up for 10 minutes. At the very least, this proposal would eliminate the conventional opening classes at Brown, which frustrate professors (who cannot begin the course material immediately) and students (who learn little about the professor's teaching style) alike. Professors would have the ability to lecture as classes commenced. Producing these syllabi online would also waste less of students' time, as they would have a better idea of the class without needing to attend the first day. Such a proposal would also decrease the number of people who attend classes on the first day, which is often astronomical and contributes to standing-room situations.
Perhaps the greatest problem exists for Monday and Tuesday seminars. These classes have just two meetings for the entirety of shopping period, one of which is devoted to the aforementioned abbreviated introduction. Thus, the only truly substantive class exists during the third week of classes. It is an unfair burden to force students to shop classes for three weeks, as it adds significantly to workload at an already hectic time when clubs and sports teams have practices, meetings, and tryouts. My friend and I shopped a seminar at the beginning of the second week, where the professor simply passed out syllabi, lectured for five minutes and let the class out after a mere half-hour (cutting professor's own total class time by two full hours). When we were walking back to our respective dorms, I asked if he was going to take the class. "I have no idea what this professor is all about," he said, "and I don't really have the time to find out." Needless to say, he isn't showing up to class this week.
The wasted time that comes along with shopping period is a legitimate problem. But the greater issue is that students are overworked throughout shopping period. Classes are taking too long to develop, and as a result students end up doing work for six or seven classes. With the simple fix of providing syllabi online and getting lectures started immediately, Brown can solve these major problems in mere minutes.
Jonathan Topaz '12 is a political science concentrator from New York City. He can be reached at