Solomon: Selling out Shopping Period?

A shopping period does not fit with Dartmouth’s liberal arts mission.

by Ioana Solomon | 4/4/17 12:45am

Believe it or not, it is already week two. We trudged through a snowstorm for April Fools’ Day, forced our livers back into full gear over the weekend and wound up again with dark circles underneath our eyes again. Things are starting to get serious – as we finally settle into our classes, we now have to catch up on our readings, pay attention to our professors and start working for the midterms and assignments coming up. This stressful consciousness of our impending workload could not be more different from the cushy, carefree first week most of us experienced as we “shopped” for classes but didn’t necessarily do work for them.

The concept of trying out a class before deciding to permanently enroll in it is fairly widespread, especially at Ivy League universities. It allows students to get an inside perspective into the ambience of a certain class and the pedagogic style of the professor, both important elements of the academic experience that cannot be inferred simply from online ratings and course descriptions. However, at Dartmouth in particular, a “shopping period” at the beginning of each term poses unique challenges.

As a quarter system school, our terms only last 10 weeks, not four to five months. We also take an average of three classes each term instead of the five or six classes that students at semester system schools take. Thus, while students at most universities with one-week shopping periods sacrifice two weeks a year, we sacrifice four. Students who decide to change classes at the end of the first week are therefore losing 10 percent of each term and must enter the class after the professor has already covered a fair amount of material. Whereas a term at most universities is a marathon, our terms are sprints; instead of warming up for the race, the average Dartmouth student spends the minutes leading up to it slowly picking up gear.

Adding on to this is the fact that shopping period is not officially endorsed by the College, which leads to a disorienting lack of uniform policy or agreement for students and professors. Without a consistent set of guidelines, different professors teaching the same course accelerate through the curriculum at different speeds during the first week. With unexpected changes in enrollment, it is difficult both for professors to plan out their course schedule and for students switching classes to gauge exactly how they will be impacted.

On an even more fundamental level, shopping period is a symptom of the commodification of higher education, an increasingly pervasive trend that clashes directly with the liberal arts model and agenda. In addition to the Dartmouth-specific pitfalls of a shopping period, the concept itself has problematic implications. By shopping for classes, we are treating them as products we are buying and potentially returning or exchanging.

Admittedly, our education’s exorbitant price tag pushes us to seek only the courses we perceive as giving us the best deal for our money. However, whether we see a class as an easy GPA booster or one that is taught by a renowned professor or seems interesting at first as “a good deal,” we are bound to make those judgments prematurely. And when we fall prey to herd mentality by choosing courses with high enrollment numbers instead of those that are a better fit to our personal interests or when we drop courses that seem to have too heavy of a workload for only the first week, we contribute to a culture that moves away from individualism and self-imposed challenge and moves toward an overtly capitalistic pragmatism. These decisions, all based on superficial and impulsive judgments we make during shopping period, go against the values and objectives of a liberal arts education.

Consequently, by thinking of the education we receive as a series of products, we are also more likely to apply this mentality to other aspects of our education, such as the worth of our degrees or the practical value of the skills gained from each class or subject matter. Training ourselves to make spur-of-the-moment decisions based on limited information instead of taking time to judge everything thoughtfully can be a detrimental practice for the rest of our educational experience.

Allowing students to try out classes can sometimes help them make better decisions and perhaps even perform better as a result of those decisions, but in the grand scheme of things, the notion of a shopping period is problematic and incompatible with Dartmouth’s long-established principles of a well-rounded liberal arts education. Whether the solution is shortening shopping period to mitigate its impact or having the administration set up actual guidelines to standardize it, our first step is to acknowledge its drawbacks.