HLS Classrooms: “Purgatory for the Claustrophobic”


photo by Kelly Brown

Elbow wars and accidental games of footsie abound. Necks swivel as they cramp. Eyes squint as they strain. Five laptops languish as their owners compete for two open outlets. No, these are not scenes out of Starbucks or Fenway Park but from Harvard Law School’s classrooms.

“I hate the classrooms with fixed chairs, like some of the ones in Hauser and Pound [Halls],” LLM Katherine Thompson said. “They are often too low for short people or too far from the desk for typing or writing.”

Thompson is not alone. Many students cited the classrooms with fixed chairs-particularly in Langdell Library, in Hauser, and on the second floor of Pound-as the worst offenders.

“Pound 200 is the most poorly designed classroom I have ever had the misfortune of having to use,” said 2L Khalilah Walters. “The seats are positioned at an awkward distance from the desks, and are entirely un-adjustable, making note-taking hellish, [and they] are so close to each other that I constantly feel that my space is being invaded, or that I’m invading my neighbor’s space.”

Extensive renovations to some areas of Pound’s first floor and a few other campus locales were completed several years ago, and while the new adjustable office chairs at each seat generally receive positive reviews from their occupants, there are still some gripes. Even in lecture halls featuring mobile chairs, space is at a premium. In courses with large enrollments, students do not have the luxury of leaving empty seats between themselves and their colleagues to have space for their laptops and books.

“It’s purgatory for the claustrophobic,” Walters said.

The renovations also failed to address basic structural issues in many classrooms. Students say that even their professors have complained about the periphery seats in Pound. Some place a student’s line of sight nearly parallel to the chalkboard, making it impossible to see anything that the professor has written on the board.

Last fall, Professor Martha Minow told her Civil Procedure students that they could switch seats mid-year to allow those on the extreme right and left aisles of Pound 100 to finally have a direct view of her daily chalkboard notes.

“You couldn’t see the board at all,” said 2L Tina Chan, who had been assigned an aisle seat on the far right side in Minow’s class of roughly 80 students. “I remember people had to go up to the front after class to copy things down.” Chan never wound up changing her seat, although at least one of her colleagues did.

“The bigger issue with that room, though, was that there wasn’t enough space to put all your stuff,” added Chan. There was not even sufficient space in Pound 100 for the students themselves, according to one of Chan’s classmates. Some sat in chairs at the back of the classroom, balancing their computers in their laps.

Temperature and acoustics were two other issues that students raised. “Classrooms in Pound Hall are too cold,” said LLM Yue Zhou, a sentiment which was widely shared among those interviewed.

But the administration encourages individuals to contact the Dean of Students Office immediately with complaints about classroom temperature. Facilities personnel often respond within minutes to such complaints, lowering the air conditioning or turning up the heat.

Acoustics are less remediable. While many large classrooms have microphones to facilitate audible contributions to class discussions, they are sometimes broken or are simply ignored. And other lecture halls, like the Vorenberg Classroom (formerly Langdell North) completely lack an audio amplification system.

“There are some people you’d rather not hear,” said 3L John Chime, who attends classes twice weekly in the Vorenberg Classroom. “But then there are others whose viewpoints I respect, who are sitting 15 rows in front of me and on the other side of the room. Unless they really project, I miss out on whatever point they are making.”

With a world-renowned faculty, fantastic prospects for future employment, and free tampons and morning coffee, HLS students may, in part, just be hungry for something to whine about. Even those with specific criticisms acknowledged that HLS facilities were not too shabby.

“The facilities in general are quite good compared to what I’ve been used to in England,” Thompson said.

But these problems with classrooms remain an important concern to many students. With the high cost of tuition nowadays, one might argue that students deserve better.

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