Revealing Our Invisible Guides
Professing is not the chief occupation of our professors. In addition to lecturing in front of huddled undergraduates, they work closely with graduate students, write books, conduct research around the world and still have their own projects.
Since teaching is only one of their numerous and dynamic commitments, they bear only a part of teaching responsibilities. The rest of teaching and learning at Harvard is a confused muddle--study groups, casual conversation and diligent self-teachers form the Harvard education. Somewhere in the classroom, however, after the lecture and before the dinner tables, we find the teaching fellows, our TFs.
The administration seems to share my confusion over teaching responsibilities. As a first-year I once navely asked my introductory Greek teacher if he was a graduate student, because his name differed from the instructor in the course listing. He was, but he only answered, "I'm in the department."
This equivocation, it turns out, covered up (or perhaps revealed) a much bigger one: TFs exist in almost every course offered to us. They grade our papers and tests, lead our sections and learn our names. Their names, however, are not listed in the FAS course catalogue. This omission, to my mind, compromises both the credit owed to them and their responsibility to the course. Besides that, it leaves undergraduates in the dark about the courses we must choose to take.
I would imagine that some staffing decisions come late, and the FAS course catalogue has practical, operational limits. Maybe some TFs are so shy, noble or ashamed that they don't want their names listed. I hope many professors are not too proud to allow their inclusion, but maybe there is an "industry standard" about this sort of thing. None of these concerns rival the notions of academic honesty we live by, and in this case, take for granted.
Page 25 of Gordon Harvey's book Writing with Sources, the guide given to every Harvard undergraduate, reads as follows: "Plagiarism is passing off a source's information, ideas, or words as your own by omitting to acknowledge that source--an act of lying stealing and cheating."
We find similar fraudulence in a list of courses which, while purporting to account of this institution's academic offerings, omits the larger part of their known participants and benefactors. As much as teaching is a crucial part of scholarship, TFs play a crucial part in the design of any course where they exist. Even if they do not choose the readings, they coach us in them. If they don't write the lecture, they answer for it. They are often the student's only responsive, personal contact with the course material. They are more than assistants.
In fact, our college rejects the servility in the term "teaching assistant" for the more egalitarian "teaching fellow." The course, as a product of academic effort, belongs to them too. By recording this in the catalogue we give credit and responsibility where credit and responsibility are due.
Moral issues aside, TF can make or break a student's experience in a course. Currently, undergraduates can choose courses based on the professor. In introductory language courses, where the professor is often absent, or in larger Core classes and intro courses, a student deserves to know who might be grading his or her work, and who will be answering questions.
In larger courses, sections and the TFs that go with them exist as a check on classroom overcrowding. While a student might not ever be able to pick that favorite TF, as sectioning is often randomized, listing the TFs for these courses would at least give students an idea of a course's personnel structure. Presently, the course listing for Social Analysis 10, the largest course at Harvard with dozens of TFs, is indistinguishable, content aside, from a course on Livy's history of Rome, where ten undergraduates meet with a full professor and no TF at all. If we are to believe the administration that both these approaches to teaching are valid--and I do--then there is no harm in letting the students choose the approach that suits them in a given area of study.
Course syllabi already list TFs for students who visit a class on the first day, but it is unlikely that a student will be able to visit every course he or she considers taking. So list TFs before the first day of class. Put the information up on the Web as it becomes available. Correct it as necessary. Print the names of TFs along with the corrections and new information in the course supplement. People who enable group learning among Harvard's students should be recognized, whether they are the professors or their teaching fellows.
Right now, the course listings are erroneous. At best, they omit TF involvement. At worst, they list professors where there are only TFs. When the book that lists our courses cannot be considered a sound body of knowledge, what are we to make of the courses that it contains?
John M. DeStefano '01 is a Classics concentrator in Pforzheimer House.