In response to students’ complaints, the instructor of Economics 1010a, “Microeconomic Theory” will take three weeks off to polish his lectures while a teaching fellow takes charge of the course.
A month into the semester, more than a dozen students from the class submitted a letter detailing their problems with Economics Lecturer Robert H. Neugeboren ’83, calling his lectures difficult to understand and sometimes inaccurate.
Neugeboren has led tutorials for over 10 years, but this is his first time teaching Economics 1010a, one of Harvard’s most popular courses, and he said he was not prepared for the large lecture setting.
“Many of the criticisms, I thought, were valid,” Neugeboren said.
After meeting with the students, Oliver S. Hart, chair of the economics department, decided to make a mid-semester change.
Bruce Watson, an economics tutor in Lowell House and teaching fellow for Social Analysis 10, “Principles of Economics,” gave his first of ten lectures in the course this Monday. He said he will also offer extra review sessions in the coming month.
“I am delighted to have the opportunity to give some lectures for the course,” Watson wrote in an e-mail.
Neugeboren will return to teach the course’s third unit, on games, information and welfare, which starts on Nov. 18.
He said he will use the next few weeks to prepare Power Point presentations so his lectures will be more clear and he can avoid making mistakes on the blackboard.
“During the time that Bruce Watson will be lecturing, Dr. Neugeboren will be able to work on the last segment of the course, and I’m sure that it will be very good,” Hart said.
Hart said he first learned of students’ problems with Neugeboren on Oct. 18, when he received a letter written by economics concentrator Aaron Greenspan ’05.
“After a number of sub-par lectures, to put it moderately, I decided that I couldn’t take it anymore. I wrote a letter and began the laborious process of trying to circulate it,” Greenspan said.
He found 13 other students who were willing to sign the letter, but said many students who he approached were reluctant to sign the petition out of concern for Neugeboren’s feelings.
Greenspan sent the letter to Hart, Dean of Undergraduate Education Benedict R. Gross ’71, Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Education Jeffrey Wolcowitz and Benjamin Friedman, director of undergraduate studies in the economics department.
In the letter, Greenspan cited specific examples from class, including Neugeboren’s failure to answer students’ questions and errors made during lectures.
“While Professor Neugeboren certainly possesses plenty of intellect, it alone cannot make up for what he lacks in...other traits. For four weeks, my classmates and I have tolerated incomprehensible lectures, confusing graphs, repeatedly botched arithmetic, poorly written problem sets and apathetic teaching fellows,” Greenspan wrote.
He also expressed frustration with the problem sets, which he said were “challenging, not due to challenging material, but because of ambiguously worded questions and unfamiliar content.”
Benjamin Faltesek ’05, who also signed the letter, said he had similar problems with the lectures.
“They were not well organized and he frequently made small, not major, conceptual errors that slowed down lectures and tended to frustrate people and block the flow of information he was trying to convey,” Faltesek said.
“We weren’t concerned with Dr. Neugeboren, who is very intelligent and capable. We were simply concerned with how much students were getting out of the course,” he continued.
After dropping off the letter on Oct. 18, Greenspan and four other students met with Hart three days later.
“[Hart] listened, I think somewhat in shock, at the magnitude of some of our complaints,” Greenspan said. “We had a midterm that morning, so he came to the next lecture, and I think seeing the teaching with his own eyes was enough to convince him that something needed to be done.”
Hart said the department first responded to the complaints by asking students in the class to complete course evaluations. These evaluations are a routine part of many courses, he said, but in this case they were conducted earlier in the semester than is regular to make sure the class shared Greenspan’s problems.
“It was clear that there was a problem and we addressed it pretty quickly. I think it’s good for students to voice their concerns,” Hart said.
Greenspan said the students suggested Hart appoint Watson as the guest lecturer. Watson had given a review session before the midterm for Lowell House students.
“He was just so excellent that we figured he’d be an obvious choice,” Greenspan said.
“I think Bruce’s lecture [on Monday] was very clear and cogent and he got what I think I can describe accurately as very enthusiastic applause at the end,” Faltesek said.
The students also praised Hart for his quick response to their concerns.
“[Oliver Hart] deserves a lot of credit for recognizing the problem and addressing it so quickly,” Greenspan said.
Gross said that while he received Greenspan’s letter, Hart made the decision on how to proceed.
“We got in touch with the economics department. I think they’ve taken some action to alleviate the problems students raised,” Gross said.
Economics 1010a is an intermediate-level course required for all economics concentrators that generally follows Social Analysis 10.
According to preliminary enrollment statistics on the Registrar’s website, there are 299 undergraduates and 4 graduate students currently enrolled in Economics 1010a, making it one of the College’s five largest classes.
Neugeboren said he had been used to teaching similar material in small tutorials, but the large lecture course requires different strategies. For the past four years he has taught Economics 1050, “Strategy, Conflict and Cooperation,” which enrolled 90 students last year. The course received an overall rating of 3.1 in the 2002-2003 CUE Guide, and Neugeboren’s rating was 3.4.
Neugeboren also served as a senior tutor in Cabot House until last year.
He said he is eager to improve his strategies for teaching Economics 1010a.
“I really want to do a good job with this class, and I’m looking forward to getting back in the classroom and finishing what I started,” he said.