The College Catalogue Goes Bye-Bye: Harvard Catches Up With Zenith At Last

April 4, 2009, 8:10 pm

Why does John Harvard look so depressed and defeated? Is it the endowment? Is it the quality of the entering class? No! It’s the death of the course catalogue as we know it.

Following the Harvard Crimson, the Chronicle of Higher Education reports that Harvard University has eliminated printed course catalogues, faculty and student handbooks, and something called the “Q-Guide,” in favor of on-line versions of all these documents. The “Q-Guide,” which publishes summaries of teaching evaluations, is undoubtedly a grisly publication full of accurate, witty and devastating humor about our colleagues who work at an institution commonly known as the Northern Zenith. I am sure the Harvard faculty are glad to see the back of that one, Mary.

The move to web-based publishing is budgetary to be sure, but one administrator points out that the course catalogue will now be much more accurate than it has been. I believe this. I speak as a program chair who was adding and subtracting courses as late as last week for a pre-registration period that begins in two days. The Chronicle also reports that Harvard’s dean of undergraduate education, Jay Harris, promises that “the online system will be much more dynamic.” What they mean by this is not clear. A free laptop for all students registering for third year German who are willing to answer the following quiz? Pop-ups advertising the writing workshop? The ability to post your courses to Facebook? Tweets from your advisor?

I’m surprised that Harvard has not explained that this move is far more eco-friendly, which is the fashion of the day when it comes to explaining budget cuts that may affect the teaching mission. Using less paper is of course eco-friendly, although I wonder how the use of X amount of paper stacks up to the endless computer waste we now generate as campus commnities. “Eco-friendly” is what we were told at Zenith when they eliminated all the same documents several years ago, a move that was made without consulting students or faculty. Fortunately we at Zenith, in addition to being toadies of Moscow, Havana and Beijing, are all very friendly to things eco-friendly.

Nevertheless, there were tears at Zenith, and I expect there will be at Harvard too. Members of the faculty took most umbrage at the elimination of the course catalogue, although in varying degrees (none=1, lots=10: I was about a 2.) Some umbrage was due to the view that faculty should be consulted in all things; additional umbrage was taken on the theory that faculty ought to be consulted about everything associated with the curriculum and with their work as advisors. Still other umbrage was taken because faculty do tend to take umbrage at administration initiatives.

I understood both sides, and in the scale of available battles decided to save myself for another day while other colleagues marched and sang “We Shall Overcome.” We still throw away tons of paper at Zenith. But back then nearly everything was duplicated in electronic and paper versions. Hence, like Harvard, in addition to the printed catalogue, we had an online system that had been created so that students could pre-register instead of submitting their requests on ancient, ladder-like paper documents which were processed by the registrar’s office. On the other hand, I know intelligent people, of quite various political persuasions, who feel strongly about the elimination of the course book to this day. So there you go.

The comments section of the Chronicle article pretty accurately replicates the range of responses at Zenith to the demise of a printed curriculum. Deborah, who thinks the decision makes sense, feels “sorry for printers who are losing business nationwide,” but not for the students or the faculty (whose handbooks, by the way, can now be easily changed by administrative fiat or by someone hacking into the system.) “While I love the ‘going green’ effort,” says Jillian, “I hope that they are at least allowing those of us doing the advisement a few copies… some students just can’t grasp concepts when reading them on a screen…they need something tangible.”

Is there research on this? Because what is there to grasp about, say, T, Th 2:40-4:00? Scroll down, and you see that, like me,”a CU alum” asks: “If the concept is literary theory, say, or an intricate chemical reaction then I can understand. If the concept is that Professor X is teaching seminar Y on Thursdays at 2:00 p.m., then I can’t. A student who can’t grasp that on a computer screen probably isn’t going to get into Harvard anyway.” (Don’t be so sure. According to one source, Harvard students were “bewildered” by the new version of Word released in 2007.) CU alum continues,”Of course, there will be some students with disabilities who will be unable to use the monitor, and some of them may be able to use a printed catalog instead. I’m sure Harvard will accommodate these students. That doesn’t seem to be what commenter #4 had in mind.” No, it wasn’t. And I’m trying to imagine what disability would make a printed catalogue more accessible than an on-line catalogue.

“I just think this is wonderful,” says Lila, undoubtedly thinking of the bales of waste paper that there is little market for in the current recession. Nowadays much of what we think we are “recycling” is either filling warehouses or is being redirected from the Big Blue Bin to a waste dump, where it becomes a Big Wet Rock of pulp. Other commenters ask some version of, “It took Harvard this long to figure out…..” One of the more interesting comments is from “JMC,” who writes,

I’ve had two college-age children in last 5 years, both at small liberal arts colleges; one publishes course catalog on paper, the other only online. The paper catalog is SO much more useful—we have had no problems figuring out requirements for majors, minors, and distribution. The online version, while equally well written, is much more difficult to navigate. Like most people, I need to be able to flip between pages to compare things, to mark details with a pencil or highlighter, to dog-ear pages and scribble in the margins, in order to digest information like this. I’m truly sorry to see that Harvard has caved to this false economy. Use paper when paper is appropriate and necessary; the internet is great for many, many things, but this is not one of them.

Now JMC is exactly right about this, and it captures a core complaint of the Zenith faculty about the on-line system, which is that you can’t “read” a website in the same way that you can read a book. In other words, you can’t read it from beginning to end and mark it up. Many advisers used to do this, and it was a method for learning the whole curriculum prior to beginning the advising period. It was a particularly useful way to prepare for advising non-majors, or majors in interdisciplinary programs. (My one question, JMC, is — “we?” Who were — uh, “we?” I can hear the helicopter blades turning.)

But here’s a quiz for Harvard, and for my loyal read
ers. The Zenith faculty ended up successfully drawing a line in the sand over the right to receive paper copies of which one of the following documents?

a) the faculty handbook;
b) responses to inquiries about missing library books and protested library fines;
c) the telephone directory;
d) the student handbook;
e) invitations to the President’s Christmas party.

The answer will be revealed in the next post. And Zenith faculty, no fair telling (if, in fact, you remember) although it is completely fair to mislead others with your responses. While the world is waiting for an answer, check out the new episode of Farmer Radical’s Garden News in a widget which is, of course, on the Left.

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