In a Class by Themselves

Harvard's 14 One-Person Courses

In his first semester at Harvard, Andrew J. Joseph '89 is in a class by himself.

Joseph decided to take Chinese literature because be found the subject interesting and because he is thinking of majoring in East Asian Languages and Civilizations. He was surprised to find that after the first week he was the only student.

"From the description it seemed like a pretty important class, because it covers all of Chinese literature up to the 13th century. It's basic, basic stuff," Joseph says.

But as the only student, Joseph has found himself under unusual pressure. "I have to keep up with all the reading, and it's not a little," Joseph says. "It's not so much that the professor puts me on the spot, it's more that I just don't know what he's talking about if I don't keep up with the reading."

Despite the problems, Joseph says that he thinks Assistant Professor of Chinese Michael A. Fuller feels "a kind of loyalty to me." He also says there was a big contrast between what had been told him before he arrived and what he actually found at Harvard. "The way people put down Harvard is to say, Oh, you're going to be taking classes with a million people.' It's ironic in a way."

Fuller says the private class allows him to teach in a way which is "more precisely tailored to the one student you are teaching." He says he uses the opportunity to talk to the student rather than to lecture, describing his method as "Socratic browbeating. I want to make sure that he's gotten some of the factual information, then we explore the interpretive aspects."

Harvard may be big. But Joseph is not the only student with his own class. There are 14 classes with only one registered student at Harvard this semester. Classes in such varied subjects as foreign languages, music, math, and psychology and sociology have all drawn audiences of one.

Another undergraduate is the only intermediate Polish student this year. Walter Olesiak '86 says he expected to be alone in his class when he registered. "I had mixed feelings," he says. "You get more personal attention, but obviously you always have to be prepared and it's very obvious when you miss class. It's also very important that the person you have class with is compatible." But Olesiak likes being the only student. "It's the ultimate section," he says. "It's not so much like she's the teacher and I'm the student. It seems like there's less distance between us on a social level."

Being the only student has other advantages as well. Olesiak took advantage of the added flexibility to change his 9 a.m. section to 10. a.m.

Both students and professors say that the small classes put more pressure on the student. "It was very difficult in the beginning," says Bing Shen, a graduate student in Russian Studies who who was presented with a novel to read in the first days of Ukrainian reading and composition class. "There's no place to hide," Michael E. Honigsberg, a Japanese student, says. When he walked into the empty classroom the Arts and Sciences graduate student "realized I was going to do a lot of work."

But professors realize too that the student is in an extraordinary situation. "Because there's only one student its very intensive. He's constantly under pressure. That tires the student out quickly. And once I see that happening, I get away from the subject, Instructor in Indo-Muslim Culture Ali S. Asani says. Asani says he tries to make class "very informal. I sometimes meet with the student at home, you know, over a cup of tea."

Students generally like the one-on-one contact. "It's very good to be able to work so closely with someone on the faculty," says lone music bibliography student Margaret S. Mertz, a second-year student of musicology. Other say the small course allowed them to learn more specifically what they were interested in. "It's impossible for me to imagine what we are doing if there was even my own shadow visiting," says Jayasinhji Jhala, who is the only student in a class taught by Asani on Gugarati, a regional Indian language.

Asani says his class is "the ideal teaching situation. I sort of believe that a teacher should not only know the student academically, but in a personal way. It's more like the traditional (in a European sense) student-mentor relationship or the tradition in the Islamic world where you sit with a guru and you learn thins on a one-to-one basis."

Jhala calls this situation "the best teaching possible...Initially when I was the only one I thought maybe this wasn't the best thing, but now I'm wiser and more grateful."

But some professors think classes should be at least slightly larger. "When you have one person in class it's not as valuable in that you don't have as much give and take--there is much more discussion when you have three of four," says Aga Khan Professor of Iranian Richard N. Frye, who teaches Iranian 177, "State and Religion in Pre-Modern Iran." Fuller agrees, "The dynamics really change substantially from when you have four students to when you have three students. It affects your ability to play them off against each other in terms of getting them to see other points of view."

Fuller blames the Core Curriculum for draining students from more exotic courses. "The Core Curriculum has been killing off middle-level classes in all disciplines, particularly the humanities. You figure out how many courses you have to take for you particular major, then you figure out how many you take for the Core, then you figure out how many are left," Fuller says.

But most professors, and some of their department chairmen, feel that small classes are important. "The university has an intellectual commitment to various subjects," says George G. Grabowiez, chairman of the Slavic Languages and Literatures Department, which this year is offering one single-person course. "Even though it may not be as popular, a course that attracts even one student may have great intellectual validity."

Others connected the presence of obscure courses with Harvard's function as a university. "The field has to be covered, knowledge has to be preserved and added to, and if you don't keep up with it you're outstripped....because the world is shrinking so fast it is incumbent upon a great university to be aware of what is going on in the world. Like Vietnam. Suddenly the U.S. was in a war with Vietnam, and we didn't know anything about it," Frye says.

"On the one hand, why should Harvard be supporting such a course, but if Harvard doesn't do it, who's going to do it? I think this year Harvard is the only university in the entire United States that teaches Gugarati," Asani says. "It's part of what Harvard is all about."