A Very Modest Proposal
WHEN I VISITED Harvard during prefrosh weekend, I travelled with the herd from one lecture class to another. I saw Professor of English Marjorie Garber talk about cross-dressing in Othello. I heard Joseph S. Nye, Ford Foundation professor of international security, explain why international relations is better explained by checkers than by dominoes.
"These large lectures aren't so bad," I thought. "They're not that different from high school, only bigger."
I was a bit surprised when no one raised his or her hand during any of the day's classes.
Twelve courses, eight exams, seven teaching fellows and countless papers later, I now know why: Professors are busy people who do not mind talking to students, but spend their time researching. It's the graduate students who actually interact with us.
Although I have had my share of outstanding teaching fellows, more often than not they just don't cut it. They usually regurgitate the professors' lectures, they grade arbitrarily and they have been known to teach classes outside their specialty.
Harvard undergraduates did not come here to learn from graduate students. Professors--junior and senior--should be required to teach at least one section in each of their lecture classes.
This is not so much to ask.
SAY PROFESSORS just taught a section in the Core. A small step like that would make an enormous difference for students.
The average enrollment of Core classes, excluding Ec 10, is about 160 students. Assuming that the average section has 20 students, that makes eight sections per Core course. Since students must fulfill eight Core areas, they could expect to have at least one section taught by a professor during their Harvard career. A modest figure indeed.
And if professors led discussions in all their courses, that number would, of course, increase handsomely.
There is no question that demand would be high for these special sections. The same logistical problems exist perenially under the current system when students beg to be placed in the head teaching fellow's section. But rather than a deterrence, this should be a lesson: students want professors, and head TFs are the next best thing.
The advantages to students under such a system are obvious. Professors simply know more than any graduate student. They can answer questions better and have more experience.
Because professors are held in higher esteem than graduate students, students would respond more favorably to attention from a professor. Danforth Center studies have concluded that the quality of learning is proportionate to the amount of attention students receive.
Let's be real: Undergraduates are more intimidated by professors than they are by graduate students. Undergrads, therefore, would work harder if they thought they might be embarrassed by their professor. In the process they would learn more, and improve the quality of the class as a whole.
THESE ADVANTAGES to students do not come at significant expense to professors. Sure, it takes time to prepare for a section, to lead a discussion and to grade papers.
But most professors already manage to find time to lead graduate sections. The addition of one undergraduate class would not significantly burden them.
By leading an undergraduate section, professors could gauge the success of their courses for an undergraduate audience. He or she would learn what material the students liked, what they chose to ignore and what they found difficult. Such a perspective would inform the professor more than 10 years' worth of CUE Guide evaluations.
And professors would indirectly recruit students to their fields of study. Their enthusiasm for their lives' work would inevitably rub off on students. Such passion is not always communicated from the podium.
For those professors who want to know undergraduates better, this proposal would be more effective than mere invitations to office hours. Scholars reluctant to lead such a section would be forcibly reminded that teaching undergraduates is one of their chief missions at the University.
And if Harvard purports to be a true "community of scholars," it should ensure that its students and faculty truly interact. Students would certainly rise to this challenge; they know that dialogue is superior to a series of soliloquys.
It would be a travesty to tell us otherwise.
Mark N. Templeton '93 is a Crimson editor and member of the Academics Committee of the Undergraduate Council.