Who's in Charge Here?

Undergraduates Who Teach Other Undergraduates

Four weeks into the semester, a section leader for Applied Sciences 10, "Introduction to Programming" conducted an informal poll of his students, most of whom knew his Lowell House address and telephone number.

"I went around the room and said, 'How old am I?" says David A. Epstein '83, and the average age was 24. But if they were going to think I was a tutor, that was okay."

Asked recently if there were any difficulties with having undergraduates as his teaching fellows for Mathematics Ar. Precalculus Mathematics", Joseph F. McCafferty Jr. '86 replied, "No they're not--oh, they are?"

The persistent shortage of graduate students in the natural sciences annually results in the presence of undergraduates in the classroom--behind the lectern. They appear most frequently in introductory computer science and mathematics courses like AS 10 and Math Ar. as well as Biology 7, "Introductory Biology" and several intermediate level Applied Mathematics courses.

Undergraduates have the same responsibilities as graduate students who lead sections, ranging from complete control over sections of Quantitative Reasoning A and Math Ar. to leading lab sections of Bio 7, to reviewing problem sets for computer science courses.

Most people involved with undergraduate section leader report that the system works out to the benefit of all, provided the material presented is sufficiently limited to an introductory level and the undergraduate is able to strike a balance between being a friend and being an authority figure.

Jonathan A Epstein '83 calls the peer relationship he has built up with the section of Math At he teaches, "at once the biggest problem and the biggest asset it's hard to pretend that you're the one in charge.

Sidney Verba, associate dean for Undergraduate education calls the selection and supervision of undergraduates as teaching assistants extremely tightly controlled the people I know who use undergraduates run a very tight ship.

The most careful selection process is for QRA and Math Ar. "It's very complicated." says Deborah J. Hughes-Hallett, senior preceptor in Mathematics, who heads both courses.

Twice a year, Hughes-Hallett stages a campus wide publicity campaign encouraging interested juniors and seniors--sophomores are "extremely rare"--who have completed Math 21, AM 21, or an equivalent course to sign up for interviews.

The selection process involves meetings with Hughes-Hallett and with two current teaching fellows, as well as videotaping a five minute sample lecture that Hughes-Hallett says she "watches and reviews a couple of times."

This year--the course's 11th the procedure yielded 14 undergraduates out of 18 teaching fellows, a percentage Hughes-Hallett calls typical.

Teaching fellows in both offerings supervise every aspect of the course, including grading and the order in which topics are covered.

Charles S. Boulas '83 is teaching QRA for the second time and also taught Math Ar last fall. He admits, "It might be a tough situation to teach a peer," but adds, "it's something that most students take to very well."

Boulas starts off by letting his sections know he is an undergraduate. The first day of class I tell them who I am and tell them a little about myself," he says, adding that students usually accept him as an instructor quickly.

"I think some people might have a little problem at first." Boulas comments, "but they settle down.

In most other courses the selection process is less gruelling. For AM 113, "Introduction to Programming Languages". Thomas Cheatham Jr., McKay Professor of Computer Science, tries to use the students who had the best grades the last time he taught the course.

"It's working beautifully," Cheatham says. "It's their own peer group, and they relate to them very well."

He adds that the scarcity of graduate students in his department has an unexpected benefit. "I find it an excellent way to work with undergraduates in a way that you don't often get the opportunity to," Cheatham says.

Students teaching and taking the undergraduates' sections also praise the peer relationship that can develop in the situation. In some cases, though, where the student is older than, or the same age as, the instructor, things can be a little awkward.

When Craig Partridge '83 taught AS 11, "Computers, Algorithms, and Programs" for the first time last year, he says, "I was teaching seniors--it was a little strange." But Partridge adds that "it is not terribly difficult if you look at it as the fact that you know more about the subject than the students."

Mark S. Sandona, a sixth-year graduate student in Comparative Literature who has a senior as his AS 10 section leader, says. "No, it doesn't feel strange at all--she knows more about it than I do."

Younger students are especially perceptive to the undergraduates. Reena B. Gordon '86 praises her AS 11 section leader, a senior: "He is very well aware of how it feels to be a student in the course because he only took it last year."

In all of the courses affected, the nature of the subject matter is very highly structured and the teaching fellows are carefully supervised. Several professors say that despite these precautions against what Verba calls "letting it get out of hand," they would still prefer to hire graduate students.

"It's a situation where there is no choice," says Nathan Goodman, assistant professor of Computer Science, of AM 110, "Introduction to Systems Programming." Goodman adds, "It's much superior to use grad students over undergrads, but we simply need to use them."

Many professors cite the fact that high salaries in the high-technology industries lure college graduates away from academic life and into the job market as a main reason for the shortage of teaching fellows.

Though very happy with the quality of his undergraduate section leaders, Philip A. Bernstein, associate professor of Computer Science, says. "If I could hire more experienced, older people to teach [AS 10], I would."

But Bernstein says, "It's just a matter of supply and demand--the industry's growing faster than the rate at which we can produce people," and adds. "It's a nationwide problem, not unique to Harvard."

Private-sector salaries starting at $25,000 also draw junior faculty members from the classroom, and those who remain are pressed into service as course heads. Bernstein says, "It's just a matter of not wanting to have a professor teaching" a section.

In addition, undergraduates sometimes make better instructors in a course like AS 10 where the subject matter is elementary and requirements stress quality of teaching and ability to communicate with students.

"Some of my best section leaders have been non-computer science majors," Bernstein says. "They often have a better perception of what it's like to learn it when it's not your own field."

William H. Bossert '59, McKay Professor of Applied Mathematics, first used undergraduates as teachers in Natural Sciences 110 about 15 years ago and says he has also used graduate students in non-science fields like law and music.

"There weren't qualified grad students," Bossert says, adding. "We do not admit graduate students in order to staff our undergraduate courses."

In all of the courses, section lists are reviewed by the teaching fellows before they are finalized to avoid conflicts of interest such as undergraduates teaching their roommates or friends. Bossert says that in his experience, only two circumstances have arisen in which the student's section needed to be changed after final section lists were posted.

Undergraduates who teach generally say they do so because they enjoy teaching, not because of the salary (which is about $2000 per semester, depending on experience and the student's responsibility.)

"The pay was not so great that applicants were falling all over us," Bossert says, but several students express the view that their enjoyment eclipses the financial considerations.

"There are a lot of easier ways to make money, but it teaches me so much that it's worth it," says Jonathan Epstein, a section leader in Math Ar.

Charles C. Hurd '83 sees teaching AS 11 as "the opportunity to pass on what little I know in my field." Hurd adds that computer science is "an interesting field, but it lends itself easily to a very individualistic career--teaching is one way of breaking out of that."

David Epstein says that even working as the head teaching fellow for AS 10, "I make less than I make when I work in private industry." He adds, "it takes up an incredible amount of time, but I find that the more things that I'm doing, the better my grades are."

Students taught by other students appreciate their accessibility and recent experience, but once the subjects covered move beyond the elementary, some problems can crop up.

One junior who is taking Biology 7b to fulfill a requirement expresses some dissatisfaction with his section leader, a senior. He admits, however, that he does not typify the makeup of the class.

"I guess for your basic sophomore or freshman it's probably not that bad--but for me to be in a section taught by an undergrad is not at all appropriate," he says, adding that in a course of this nature an undergraduate has "vastly more limited knowledge than a professor or grad student would--there are definitely areas in which you just can't ask him a question."

Overall, students teaching and being taught enjoy the fact that they are so close--though some teaching fellows feel that the ease with which they can be telephoned, sometimes at odd hours, is a disadvantage.

Although the administration has no official policy on the practice. Verba says he is presently looking into a sort of monitoring system--not of, but for the undergraduate teaching fellows. He says the administration is "concerned over the time the teachers put in--I want to make sure that we don't have people doing that kind of teaching at the expense of their own progress."

Henry Rosovsky, dean of the Faculty, sums up the impressions of almost everyone involved with undergraduate teaching fellows. "I think that under carefully controlled circumstances, these are some of the best people we have."

'Under carefully controlled circumstances, these are some of the best people we have.' - Henry Rosovsky, dean of the Faculty