How Well Does the Faculty Train TFs?

News Feature

Joel S. Orlina '96 says it is not a coincidence that his physics teaching fellow's phone number begins with the sequence "666."

The TF might not be the Devil himself, but he is certainly not the ideal instructor for a clueless physics student, Orlina says.

Like most undergraduates, Orlina hoped for a section leader who would clarify confusing concepts and enhance the overall course experience. He didn't get one.

"He doesn't inspire my confidence," Orlina says of his TF. "He doesn't seek out problem are as."

And Harvard has no real means of ensuring that Orlina's TF or any other section leader will be the kind of teacher undergraduates seek.

Although individual departments have the option of training their graduate students in the basics of leading a section, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) has no TF training requirement. The FAS does not teach its teachers how to teach.

Both Dean for Undergraduate Education Lawrence Buell and Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles say they want to see a change in that policy. "I would definitely support an FAS-wide initiative to make sure that we have strong TF training across the board," Buell says.

But right now undergraduates still have no guarantee that their tuition dollars pay for teachers, not underprepared researchers forced into the classroom by their departments.

That is indeed the description for many of the graduate students thrown into the teaching trenches, graduate students and undergraduates agree.

"Most of us teach because it's part of the reason we're here. It's part of our training, linked to our financial aid, so in that way we have to," President of the Graduate Student Council Carlos A. Lopez says.

Many of them have simply never taught before. One answer for untried TFs is definitely education, says James D. Wilkinson '69, director of the Bok Center for Teaching and Learning.

"Because there is constant recycling, there is a constant need for training," Wilkinson says.

Trained or not, these aspiring academics play a key role in the education Harvard provides to its undergraduates. Enormous lecture courses with large section components are an unavoidable fact of life for most College students.

A professor with 450 people in his or her course can't grade all the papers or talk to all the undergrads. TFs fill this gap.

But they don't always fill it well. Nearly every undergraduate has a TF horror story he or she can trot out on request.

The underprepared TF, the clueless TF, the uncommunicative TF and the TF who speaks no English are all regular characters in these histories.

Physics I student Pratima Gupta '96, for instance, vividly remembers one particular graduate student who might not have passed a high school-level Calculus AB exam.

The graduate student could not figure out the derivative of the sine wave an undergraduate had drawn on the blackboard.

And Kevin B. Martin '96 says that in many ofhis chemistry and biology classes, the TFs haven'tstudied the material taught in class for five orten years and think they can simply "wing it" insection.

Martin also says he has encountered problemsassociated with language barriers, particularly inthe math department. The lack of verbalcommunication from the teacher was a problem, hesays.

"[Our section] just thought that it wasn'tconstructive if we're just going to be copying[from the board]," he says.

Some students have simply resigned themselvesto abysmal sections and section leaders.

"In most classes you're not really going toget anything out of the section," says ErikGreenwalt '96, a history concentrator.

While most students are equally capable ofproducing positive stories about section leaders,they are still concerned about the widediscrepancy in teaching quality. They point to avariety of possible causes for the lack of uniformTF quality.

"I would say that [training] is inadequate,"says Mark S. Goh '96. "Most people say theirsections are pretty useless."

Others fault the initial screening process. "Ijust don't think that there's that much evaluationof teaching ability involved in the selection,"says Martin.

Like any other skill, good teaching obviouslyinvolves talent, professors, TFs and studentsagree. "Good teachers can be both born and made,"Knowles says.

But while training probably can't make aterrible TF into a gifted teacher, it cancertainly help, undergraduates and section leaderssay.

We cannot escape the fact that some TFs aremore motivated than others," says Linguisticsgraduate student Marlyse Baptista-Morey. "That'sunavoidable; human nature. However, training is atool that enables us to homogenize teachingabilities and commitments."

Even those in charge of the FAS criticize itspolicies on TF training. There is no uniformtraining requirement; departments and individualinstructors make their own training decisions.

The fundamental problem is "asymmetry" intraining procedures among the departments, saysBuell.

"I'm not going to sit here smugly and say thateverything's fine," Knowles says. "Nothing is everperfect."

But the "asymmetry" Buell notes leads to agreater degree of perfection in some departmentsthan in others. Each department has its owntraining procedures or lack thereof, and in manydepartments training is left to individual courseheads.

For example, the History Department lacks adepartment-wide training policy, although it doesnot allow graduate students to teach until theyhave completed two years of study.

The result is that the quality of TF teachingrelies solely on the efforts of individual TFs andprofessors, who do not always take the initiative.

There is no policy to address problems in thesections, says History teaching fellow Paul G.Mitchinson.

"I don't really know what would happen ifsomeone didn't pull their load," he says. "There'snothing formally established for overseeing the TFsystem."

Some professors are simply more "hands on" thanothers, History teaching fellow Jon S. Rosenbergsays.

At one end of that spectrum stands BairdProfessor of History Richard Pipes, who keeps hishands resolutely off.

"We don't train people in teaching," saysPipes, whose classes' sections are voluntary.

"You tell them a few principles and let themloose," he says.

Sometimes this policy of non-interferenceworks, as in the case of Pipes' TFs who improvedhis performance through self-motivation.

One of Pipes' TFs received a "devastating"rating from the CUE guide and was "shattered" byit, he says. To correct the problem the TF simplypaid close attention to the areas of complaintand did "very well" the next year, Pipes says.

But other times the Pipes policy does not work.Other professors in History have more explicittraining and guidance procedures to ensure theirsection leaders are never "shattered" by studentratings.

Professor of History Mark A. Kishlansky meetswith his TFs two or three times each week toensure that section discussions are thriving.

"I mostly am concerned that they are genuinelyinterested and committed to undergraduate teachingand that they are willing to carve out the time todo it properly," he says.

Kishlansky says that careful selection of TFscoupled with frequent meetings and utilization ofresources such as the Bok Center for Teaching andLearning has been successful for him.

And his thoughtfulness and training procedureshave borne results. According to Kishlansky, everyone of his TFs has received a Bok Center award fora CUE guide rating of 4.5 or above.

The History Department's lack of trainingprocedures is not the norm throughout the Faculty,however.

Though not required to do so by the Faculty, anumber of departments do mandate training fortheir teachers.

The Mathematics Department, for example,employs an apprentice program for all prospectiveTFs.

First the teacher sits in on a class. Then thegraduate student is required to teach three"practice" classes--one of which is video-taped atthe Bok Center--and receive feedback from studentsand other instructors.

Following this trial run, the professor and theprospective TF make a joint decision as to whetherthe student is ready to teach a class.

According to Senior Preceptor in MathematicsRobin M. Gottlieb, the program has been effective."I think that it has been working well, she says.

The department addresses problems on acase-by-case basis, through group meetings orindividual conferences with TFs.

"There were some people who would teachwonderfully just being thrown in and others whohad trouble with a sink-or-swim approach," shesays.

Does it work? At least sometimes, apparently.

"I've had great math TFs," Jess C. Brown '95says. His experience in Math 19 was a positiveone.

"[The TF] made time for the students. If I'veneeded help, he's been there to help," Brown says.

The Romance Languages and LiteraturesDepartment has also introduced a concrete trainingprogram for its graduate student teachers.

According to Senior Preceptor Marlies Mueller,training is an integral part of a graduatestudent's education.

The department requires that TFs complete boththeoretical and practical courses in teaching.

These courses address issues such as how toteach the first lesson and how to make thestudents feel comfortable. The department alsoasks its graduate students to do "mini-teaching,"or teaching on a small scale, before entering aclassroom.

Practical teaching knowledge is essential forteaching fellows, Mueller says."

It's like learning to play the piano. You can'tjust learn it theoretically," she says. "It's gotto be applied right away and practiced."

And if a graduate student is not deemed readyto teach, he or she is often sent abroad toprepare further in his or her specialty, Muellersays.

Romance Language TFs say that the training hasimproved their teaching.

"I find it extremely effective because it makesyou comfortable to start out when you're facedwith a classroom at Harvard," Baptista-Morey says."I'm very positive that it would have made a bigdifference if I hadn't had the training."

Constructive communication with the course headis integral to successful teaching, she says, and"constant supervision and feedback" make theprogram a success.

In the Core Curriculum, as in the FAS as awhole, training is a decentralized process. And asin the Faculty, quality varies remarkablydepending on the standards of individual courseheads.

According to Susan Lewis, director of theCore, the size of Core classes and the diversityof their students likely make teaching them moredemanding.

"The need for some more formal systematictraining may be higher," she says.

But the Core's requirement for formalsystematic training is no more strict than in therest of the FAS.

Course heads generally respond to difficultiesby referring TFs to the Bok Center, which mightcraft a "mini-tutorial" in case of seriousdifficulty, she says.

The Bok Center is in fact the FAS' onlysignificant Faculty-wide resource for training TFsand others in the art of teaching. But it is not aresource anyone is required by Faculty rules touse.

Under current procedures, Buell may interveneand suggest increased levels of training for TFswho are experiencing difficulties or who havereceived very low CUE ratings. But he is limitedto "suggestion" and cannot force a graduatestudent to seek help at the Bok Center.

The center offers individual consultations andvideotaping of classes. It also has teachingworkshops in writing and science and for foreignTFs, a workshop on the culture of Americanclassrooms.

Approximately 400 out of 1,000 Harvard TFsattend a two-day Fall Teaching Orientation at theBok Center. During the orientation, professors andteaching fellows lecture on such issues as race inthe classroom, leading a discussion and teachingscience.

The Bok Center also employs a process calledmicroteaching to monitor the teaching styles ofTFs in science. The graduate student teaches abrief class to the course head and Bok Centerrepresentatives, who then offer feedback.

"You do some quick troubleshooting at thebeginning," says Wilkinson, the center's director.

The Bok Center also videotapes about 250section leaders each semester to allow forself-evaluation and critique.

Teaching fellows and professors praise thecenter's work and opportunities.

"I went out [to the Bok Center] on my owninitiative," says History teaching fellowMitchinson. The center helped improve his teachingskills, he says.

But while praise for the Bok center isuniversal, participation in its programs is not.

Mitchinson's choice to go, for instance, wassolely his own.

"I feel that I set a pretty high standard formyself," he says. "I never felt any pressure froma professor per se."

Wilkinson says more people are using the BokCenter and average CUE scores for TFs areimproving. But, he says, few departments orcourses actually require such training.

And if they did, there is some question whetherthe 12-person permanent staff of the Bok Centercould satisfy their needs.

Administrators say they are moving to fix theproblem. Both Buell and Knowles say that theywould support more rigid guidelines in TFtraining.

"I'm not going to cease being concerned untilit seems to me that we do as well as we possiblycan," Buell says. In fact, a TF traininginitiative focused on ensuring the competence offoreign TFs will go to the Faculty Council laterthis month, Buell says.

"Nothing is ever perfect...We should have someprocess that ensures that a graduate student isable to communicate," Knowles says.

Administrators are not the only ones lookingfor change in the College's TF trainingprocedures.

The Undergraduate Council is also focusing onthe issue and will send its own initiative to theFaculty Council.

In December, the council proposed that eachdepartment conduct a mandatory TF evaluation andtraining to eliminate the disadvantages created by"disparities in teaching [between] thedepartments."

The council suggests that criteria forevaluation include explaining material clearly,showing a genuine interest in students, beingavailable outside of class and stimulatinginterest in material.

In addition, TFs' pay would be dependent onattending Bok Center sessions and students wouldbe given the opportunity to comment on thelanguage proficiency of the TF.

But the Faculty legislation procedure isnotoriously slow. If the proposals of Buell andthe Undergraduate Council ever bear results,students like sophomore Orlina will likely neversee them.

He, like most students with bad teachingfellows, can only grin and bear it or transferout.

"It's just the luck of the draw," Orlina says."I'm forced to make the best of it."Crimson File PhotoLAWRENCE BUELL