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Regarding recently announced changes to the Q guide

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May 21st, 2014
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  1. Dear Dean Harris:
  3. Having read with interest your recent e-mail announcing changes to the Q guide, I would like to express my misgivings over the removal of students' access to the subjective ratings of course difficulty. Though I understand the faculty's worry that difficulty ratings encourage students to seek the easiest classes possible, I believe that this worry does not justify removing them from the Q guide. I took Math 55 freshman year and five classes (four of them 100-level classes in my concentration or secondary field) last semester; I have certainly not tried to slide through Harvard with a minimum of work, but I have still found the difficulty ratings valuable in constructing my schedule. Most of my friends apparently feel the same way: they use the Q guide's difficulty ratings not for the easiest courses but for balancing their workload, comparing classes they are considering to classes they have already taken, and keeping themselves from inadvertently signing up for multiple courses with exorbitant demands.
  5. The system that would result from the announced changes, in which students have only the Q's report of estimated hourly workload as a quantified measure of course difficulty, is insufficient for these purposes. There are substantial differences between, for example, a 10-hour-per-week humanities course in which the workload mostly comprises a few large essays and in which the regular reading assignments can be done either cursorily or in depth, and a 10-hour-per-week science course in which the workload mostly comprises a series of problem sets given every week. Furthermore, an hour spent doing difficult work is not equivalent to an hour spent doing easy work, especially considering scientific findings that concentration is a finite resource, and after-the-fact estimates of time spent on coursework may not be accurate.
  7. Again, I sympathize with the faculty's concerns, but I doubt that removing difficulty ratings from the Q website would solve them. A few other students and I are working with the Committee on General Education in their review of the Gen Ed program, where the problems identified by the faculty seem the most severe. We have discussed the ways in which the current program promotes low standards; we have also mooted several possible reforms of the program which would obviate students' incentives to find the easiest courses. I believe that fixes like these, understanding why students look for the least demanding courses and designing curricular changes to guide them otherwise, would be optimal. Leaving in place a curricular design that encourages students to search for the least rigorous courses in certain departments, only to set up roadblocks to that search, will make students hostile to the administration; given the number of e-mails asking about the most painless ways to fulfill Gen Ed requirements that I have received over large mailing lists, I doubt that it will stop them from finding the least rigorous courses if they so desire.
  9. In summary, I believe that the recent changes to the Q guide are ill-considered, substantially worsening the Q's utility to students while providing uncertain benefits. I encourage the Faculty Council to revisit their decision and to make a greater effort to involve students in redesigning a tool that they consider essential.
  11. Best regards,
  12. Connor Harris
  13. AB Candidate in Physics and Mathematics, Class of 2016
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