You would think that for $30,000 a year, we could get a better education than apathetic graduate students teaching eager undergraduates about subjects far from their field. But, as the beginning of the semester has once again reminded me, teaching fellows in the humanities and social sciences at Harvard generally are not picked for their stellar pedagogical abilities.
They are instead chosen: 1) because their adviser is teaching the class; 2) because their dissertation topic could be a marginal footnote in the course being taught; 3) because they asked first. This slipshod method of choosing teaching fellows benefits only their pocketbooks and certainly not the students they teach.
Before I came here, I knew that I would be taught by graduate students. However, I believed the standard argument: that this method of learning was acceptable because these were the future professors of America and they were, after all, at Harvard. These two statements may be true; however, in combination they do not guarantee good teaching and all too often produce TFs who are simply teaching sections for the $3,000, who nod and say "uh-huh" at anything that bears resemblance to a remark in basic English.
Let me say now that I have had about five wonderful teaching fellows: four graduate students and one professor who inspired me to do all the reading and come to sections prepared and excited. They were organized, compassionate, fair and firm. They were not nervous or apologetic. They began learning our names at the first section. In short, they were teachers, and not merely babysitters. Unfortunately, they were the exceptions.
One solution to a poor TF is to change sections--that is, if you realize early enough what you are getting into. But this is often harder than it seems. Switching from one section to another at Harvard is like playing poker. You have to know how to bluff (fabricate a conflict to escape a section with a dismal teaching fellow); you do not know whether trading in your cards (switching sections) will net you a better hand (TF); and you have to know when to walk away and give up the fight (resign yourself to the fact that there is no room in the best section, that the class lacks a single good section leader or that the head TF will not accept as a conflict your standing 3 p.m. nap). Trying unsuccessfully to change sections can make you feel as if you are trapped in a cage, helplessly watching the tuition dollars fly out the window.
Admittedly, some of the problem is not the fault of the TFs. They are expected to juggle writing a dissertation with teaching one or more sections per term. If they do not teach, they often have to scramble for funds. They may not even like teaching. In addition, often they are faced with students who (especially in Core courses) have not done the reading and do not care about the class. And those students who have done the reading will often speak even when they have nothing meaningful to say, simply to get their names checked off for that hour on the TF's mental participation list. (Quantity beats quality every time.) But these mitigating factors are no excuse for the result: an education unworthy of the Harvard name.
What can the University do? Very little in terms of educating TFs. The Bok Center is useful, but it cannot transform the majority of graduate students into stellar teaching fellows.
What the University should do is require all of its professors to teach an undergraduate section for every lecture class. It should encourage seniors to participate in graduate sections with the professor. It should implement a system so that teaching fellows for courses are assigned thoughtfully--say, all first-year TFs should teach survey courses. And it should base TF hiring on CUE Guide ratings.
As the system stands now, Harvard students are receiving a cut-rate and shameful education in classes that require sections. What is the administration prepared to do about it?
Sarah J. Schaffer's column appears on alternate Fridays.