Administrators debate the advantages and disadvantages of two different stances: some have chosen to provide a good deal of supervision as advised by the April 2004 Report on the Harvard College Curricular Review, while others have chosen to allow their students complete autonomy in the process.
Even as departments have begun to move in these two directions, however, students and administrators feel more could be done to facilitate these choices.
Some departments choose to guide the process of finding advisers with a firmer hand than others—taking a much larger part in arranging relationships between potential advisers and thesis writers.
The curricular review report “recommend[s] that each concentration ensure that every student who wishes to pursue a senior thesis is matched with a thesis adviser.”
The head tutor in the Philosophy department, for example, matches advisers with concentrators based on students’ thesis proposals and relevant faculty research interests. Students are not allowed to make prior arrangements with faculty members.
Both the English and American Literature and Language and the History and Literature Departments have matching processes as well, but they also respect agreements made independently between students and faculty.
The English department’s system assigns advisers to students based on faculty or graduate students’ interests and how they fit undergraduates’ thesis proposals, which can spare students the stress of meeting themselves with potential advisers.
“We take the pain, we think, out of the process—sparing both students and faculty embarrassment,” through the matching process, English Director of Undergraduate Studies (DUS) Elisa New wrote in an e-mail.
Matthew C. Dewitz ’05, an English concentrator, says he still managed to find “a great deal of flexibility” within the matching process. Although the department must approve final advising assignments, it accepts and considers preferences submitted by students.
But other department administrators argue that requiring students to find advisers on their own forces a certain degree of student-faculty contact that is not offered by departmental matching.
The Government department has considered instituting a matching system in the past but did not for this reason, says Government Head Tutor Andrea L. Campbell ’88.
“The process by which students find a thesis adviser requires they go talk to faculty members and grad students and that actually helps them hone their idea,” Campbell says. “If we had a matching process, that would short-circuit that whole process.”
Campbell also says matching advisers and advisees might not guarantee a smooth relationship between writers and advisers.
And responses to senior surveys of Government concentrators have shown “that students don’t like [a matching] system better than our system,” according to Campbell.