March: A Thaw Deal
MARCH can be so unfathomable sometimes. One day we were all suffering through February's legacy of slush and ice; one day later, the mercury had leapfrogged to nearly 80 degrees. Whatever happened to gradual seasonal transitions? Whatever happened to pleasant harbingers of summer like budding leaves, chirping jays and missed lectures?
In short, whatever happened to spring?
If last week was any indication, winter would make no graceful exit this year. Without warning, t-shirts made a sudden appearance in the Yard. Listening carefully, one could hear the collective sigh of relief from the Square's ice-cream vendors as winter died a sudden death.
Meanwhile, somewhere up in Vermont, the L.L. Bean wool sweater shift packed up their looms for the winter.
Of course, pedestrian meteorology is a lot like the vice-presidency; in the words of John Nance Gardner, "It ain't worth a bucket of warm spit." Still, the warm weather--however transitory it may turn out to be--defrosted a few minds around campus, shaking some latent thoughts into the fray of public debate. Some hot topics:
The Harvard Gazette, official party organ of the University, has published excerpts from a study on undergraduate life supervised by Professor of Education Richard J. Light and initiated by President Bok himself. The study covers a lot of ground and reaches some eye-opening conclusions.
Light wins a lot of friends in high places by attempting to disprove the stereotype of the aloof, inaccessible professor. The study's student poll shows, surprisingly, that most Harvard undergraduates are satisfied with faculty accessibility.
"It is up to the student to take some initiative. But it is claer that the most modest efforts by students are amply rewarded," Light concludes.
For the quarter of the student body which is dissatisfied with their faculty contact, Light has only scorn, blaming them for their lack of initiative. That's a neat answer to a messy problem.
Too neat, in fact.
The study clearly demonstrates that students have a part in increasing their access to the faculty. But instead of patting themselves on the back as Light would seem to suggest, faculty members should recognize their own potential role in eliminating this problem. First, the Faculty should fix the Core. Huge, impersonal and unavoidable Core classes are still the best preventive for student-faculty contact. Broaden the Core, allow substitutions or eliminate it. Just do something.
Second, for all the professors Light describes patiently tapping their fingers and waiting for undergraduates just to "drop by," there are plenty of others who generously allot to students only one office hour per week--sometimes unannounced and sometimes shared by graduate students. There's no shortage of these guilty academics tucked away in plush Yard offices, and it's surprising that Light didn't hear about them, or if he did, that he didn't mention them.
Teaching's for the Birds
But faculty inaccessibility is really symptomatic of a larger problem, that of the low priority accorded to teaching within academia and, in particular, at Harvard. Case in point: American historian Alan Brinkley taught the most popular course at Harvard four years ago, receiving the Undergraduate Council's 1987 Levenson Prize for teaching. That year, Brinkley was denied tenure.
Last week, Princeton offered Brinkley a tenured position. Meanwhile, Harvard's history department languishes with 14 unfilled chairs, and students have begun to complain of a paucity of courses and professors.
This sad incident brings to mind the words of another historian, named Douglass Adair, who once had the gall to admit the low priority he and his fellow historians place on teaching. In a somewhat impromptu speech at a meeting of the Organization of American Historians 25 years ago, Adair confided his feelings about teaching to his fellow historians. The "semi-educated adolescents" (that's us, the students) may be won over by the "low arts of pedagogical showmanship," said Adair. Essentially, any historian worth his dissertation topic would admit that research and not teaching is the distinguishing feature of the best academics.
Which brings us back to the Harvard study's findings. Light is correct; professors don't have a natural aversion to students. The problem isn't that they don't want to see us; it's that they've been taught not to care. Teaching is pure pedagogy--get it over with, and get on with your important work.
With teachers like these, who needs colleges?
The Right Wing
On a less existential note: Rumor has it that The Crimson engages in politically partial terminology. Certain campus voices claim that we use the term "right-wing" for conservatives, and yet the term "left-wing" never appears in these pages. Is this true?
Left-wing left-wing left-wing.
You can decide for yourself. For this week, however, the news unquestionably concerns the Right. I managed to procure (by stepping on it on my way out the door to breakfast) the first edition of Peninsula, the new Very Very Conservative campus journal. A couple of salient points about the magazine merit attention.
The first is the name. Peninsulae are connected to the mainland; this publication is certainly not. These right-wingers--pardon the teminology--are not on a peninsula of political thought, but an intellectual desert island.
On second thought, though, maybe these seekers of veritas know what they're doing. Peninsula is the political equivalent of the Italian peninsula--blocked from the mainland on one side, isolated from the rest of civilization on the other three, and at the middle of it all, the Vatican.
Also noteworthy in the premier issue is a glaring quote from the page four manifesto: "Simply put, no one should come to Harvard with a firm grasp of the truth just to lose it in the quagmire of attitudes present here." In other words, Peninsula will be the voice of those poor, huddled masses of Harvard students who fear a test of faith.
"Heavens," proclaim Peninsula staffers, "we wouldn't want young Harvard conservatives to lose their reactionary edge by plunging into an intellectual environment of vigorous political and social debate."
Just imagine--the Truth descending to the depths of public inquiry.
Fortunately for these conservative hatchlings, Peninsula will save them from the deadly "quagmire" of rational debate.