Time for Self-Evaluation

TO Whom It May Concern:

I am writing to express my unreserved support of Mr. Berger for one of your illustrious fellowships. I realize a recommendation from an applicant himself is far from standard procedure, but consider his plight: he attends Harvard.

Your application requires a support letter from a distinguished academic. Normally this is not a stringent requirement; in most universities, student faculty contact is encouraged even outside of purely academic circles. Professors--both junior and senior--often invite students to their house for tea or even dinner. Within three or four years, most undergraduates at these schools have come to know at least one or two tenured professors outside of the classroom.

Not so at Harvard.

The ugly veritas at this institution is that even garnering a recognizing nod from a tenured professor is a rare feat. Occasionally, undergraduates may develop close contacts with graduate students or even post-doctoral teaching fellows. But senior faculty, despite repeated claims to the contrary, generally have no time at all for undergraduates.

These professors argue that the student-faculty social barrier is the fault of the student for not actively pursuing contact. "We are available," they profess, "but the students must supply the initiative."

IT'S more than just lack of initiative, though, that holds most undergraduates at podium's distance from academia. Finding a professor's office in the bowels of Widener is the easy part; it can be a whole lot trickier making it to the other side of the wooden door. The standard procedure among tenured professors is to allot but one office hour per week to undergraduates; sometimes, this thin slice of time is shared by graduate students as well. Even worse, professors often don't mention this office hour and their office location in class--much less advertise them.

The implicit message from the bulk of the senior faculty is clear: Leave us alone.

FORTUNATELY, Harvard does have some potential solutions already in place. Thus far, though, they haven't begun to scratch the surface of the problem.

The first of these half-fixes is found in every undergraduate house. The senior common rooms were established to promote student-faculty contact, but when was the last time any student sat down in a senior common room easy chair, sipping tea with an academic superstar?

A second possible solution is the tutorial program, a perfect channel for toppling personal barriers between students and faculty. Unfortunately, in some fields (physics is one), an individual tutorial program doesn't even exist. In other concentrations, tutorials are not one-on-one or even two-on-one, but 10 to 20 students per group; hardly a likely venue for personal contact with the tutor. In many more cases, the tutors themselves are not professors at all, but "post-docs" and even graduate students.

The tutorial program is undeniably well-intentioned. It could be vastly improved, however, if the College realized its potential: the perfect ladder from the Olympus of academic affairs to the depths of college life.

A somewhat more successful attempt has been the seminar program, whose only fault lies in its inaccessability--often, students must eke through a pot-luck lottery to enroll. In addition, seminars and other small departmental courses are many times squeezed out of a student's schedule by the inevitable Core classes. The Core, invariably huge and intimidatingly impersonal, may well be the biggest culprit in depriving students of faculty contact.

But I seem to have gotten sidetracked; this is a letter of recommendation, not a lament. Admittedly, I am not a premier academic, but I am better acquainted with this student's academic progress than any other authority, save perhaps his mother. I have followed his academic progress for over twenty years now, from his tens tables to last semester's electives. He has done well, but recently has developed a complex: he fancies himself a cog in a great machine, an 8-digit number in a vast academic apparatus.

Dearest evaluators, I implore you to seriously consider this applicant. Not through any fault of his own, he has failed to develop a personal relationship with a senior faculty member. His unfortunate fate is, I am afraid, all part of the Harvard experience.