I’m here! And what a week it’s been. My visit coincided with the first week of term here at Harvard, known as ‘Shopping Week,’ during which time any student is allowed to attend any class in order to get a feel for the course and the professor’s teaching style before they commit to it for the rest of the semester. I was reliably informed that it was unlikely that I’d have any problems just turning up to these classes and sitting in - “sometimes visitors ask permission, sometimes they don’t,” I was advised. By and large, they were right. Only once was I forced to confess that I wasn’t a Harvard student and was in fact visiting on research from the UK, to which the lecturer asked why I hadn't brought him any crumpets and invited me to come back to the class for the remaining weeks of my stay.
This encounter is pretty reflective of my experiences here so far as a whole. In almost every lecture that I’ve attended, the professor has been funny, open and surprisingly lighthearted. Very few include the title ‘Professor’ or ‘Dr’ before their names on hand outs and powerpoints, instead introducing themselves to the class with a hearty “Hi everyone, I’m Steve!” (for example). Likewise, all of the students that I’ve interacted with thus far have been approachable and friendly. In most of my classes, someone has sat down next to me and struck up a conversation in the minutes before the professor arrives, which has helped me to feel really welcome here.
A particularly welcoming sign in Harvard Yard. (Image my own)
Another thing that I’ve noticed is that the professor always turns up five to ten minutes after the scheduled start of the lecture which it turns out is because of a system known here as ‘Harvard Time’. On Harvard Time, everything starts seven minutes after its start time, because in the old days it was deduced that this was the maximum amount of time that it could take to get from any building on campus to another. Of course, the campus has expanded substantially since Harvard Time’s inception, so it’s a little redundant now. Because of this, Harvard Time is due to be scrapped in the next year or so, but I’m not sure what it’ll be replaced with - maybe someone at MIT is inventing a teleportation device.
I could have used such a device this week, as the Harvard campus while not huge is not particularly easy to navigate for a newcomer. On my first day here, I met Professor Joseph Connors at the Fogg Museum, so have been using that as a reference point ever since. It was great to have a chance to talk to Professor Connors about my research, and about the field of Art and Architectural History more generally. He was kind enough to look at my case studies from a recent trip to Rome and to give me some tips on leads to follow - gold dusk for a fledgling academic. I felt bad that I hadn’t heard of every book that he mentioned, until my best buddy back home reminded me that my frontal cortex has only been fully developed for about a year and that I’d have plenty of time to catch up. And boy, is this the place to catch up on reading. The number of beautiful bookshops and libraries here is staggering. As I write this, I’m sitting at a desk on a mezzanine in the Harvard Coop, struggling to stop myself from becoming distracted at all of the awesome book covers taunting me from a nearby display. Why would they put a study desk in the new fiction section? It’s cruel.
The Harvard Coop - a student's dream casual study space. (Image my own)
Here in the US, students usually select both a major and a minor degree, (with some students able to take a smattering of additional subjects on top of these) and they don’t have to declare their major until the end of their sophomore (second) year of four. I’ve long thought that this seems like a far superior system to the usual British tradition of choosing a single subject for your UCAS application at age seventeen that you are generally expected to stick with until you’re 20 (or 21 if, like me, you take a gap year before uni). My impression here has been that most students really take advantage of the breadth of education available to them, with several hands shooting up when the professor in my Medieval Philosophy class asked if there were any computer scientists in the room.
What’s more, many courses are not limited to a single year group, which means that in some classes (such as the History of Books) there were students ranging fairly evenly from freshman to postgrads all in the same lecture. Although there are also introductory courses available in certain subjects where necessary (e.g. languages) and the modes of assessment may differ based on the stage that each student is at in their academic career, melding the year groups together seems to foster the sense that each course is as valuable as the next. There is no feeling that first years take ‘doss’ classes whilst Master’s students sit through lectures that are impossible to follow. Everyone is more or less in the same boat, which I would imagine helps to fortify camaraderie throughout the university as a whole.
The whole university course list is available online, but class details are also posted on noticeboards around Harvard Yard. (Image my own)
This coming week, I’m hoping to attend a few more lectures, but as shopping week comes to a close I will probably need to be more vigilant about asking permission to sit in. I brought my favourite pen with me to Harvard, but it has run out of ink already, unable to keep up with the volume of information that it is required to record from each lecture. Much of what I’ve learned will be directly relevant to my thesis, and everything that isn’t (I’m looking at you, ‘A Brief History of the Earth’) was so fascinating as to make it easily worth an hour off from thesis planning.
I’m also planning to attend a couple of student gatherings this week and to get started on making some new academic buddies here. Fingers crossed that everyone I meet in the next few days will be as friendly as the students I’ve met here so far. In any case, I’ll keep you updated!
The Divinity School, where I had my 'History of Christianity' class. (Image my own)