Teaching Report Draws Few Profs

Professors call for ‘mutual commitment’ by teachers and students

Just a month ago, professors packed into University Hall to discuss the final report on general education. Yesterday, at the Faculty’s first chance to hold a formal discussion on this winter’s undergraduate-teaching report, professors addressed a half-empty room.

In one professor’s words, yesterday’s attendance reflected “how little concern” the Faculty may have about the new teaching proposals.

“It’s possible that some of the people who need to read the report most are precisely the people who are not here,” Professor of History of Art and Architecture Jeffrey F. Hamburger continued, addressing about 120 faculty members.

The report, drafted by the Task Force on Teaching and Career Development and published in January, seeks to address growing concerns about how Faculty members balance teaching and research, according to the committee’s chair, Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Theda Skocpol.

In the midst of this year’s curricular reforms—the introduction of more than 30 secondary fields, delayed concentration choice, changes in advising—the report on teaching and learning has been most significantly overshadowed by the ongoing debate over general education and its future at Harvard.

The Faculty is scheduled to vote on general education legislation by May 1, according to Interim Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles. The Faculty Council, the highest governing body of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, will review a draft of the legislation at its meeting next Wednesday.

ELEPHANTS IN THE ROOM

Some professors expressed concern about the report’s emphasis on Faculty members rather than students, saying that the report’s authors, in seeking to improve Harvard’s classrooms, had paid little attention to student behavior.

Professor of Latin Kathleen M. Coleman called for “mutual commitment on the part of teachers and learners.”

“As the ancient Greeks knew, if all the oarsmen are put on one end of the trireme, it will sink or at least sail around in circles,” the classicist said. “Some students don’t come to class, or they come late, or they surf the Web during lectures or even sections, I’ve noticed.”

“Crucially, they are tired all of the time. Factors like these are not the elephant in the room. They are an entire herd of elephants, and they will trample all of us and our students to death,” Coleman said to hearty applause.

One of the report’s authors, Organismic and Evolutionary Biology Chair Andrew A. Biewener, agreed that potential reforms should consider the responsibility of students and professors.

“One of the things that came out of our discussion with the Faculty Council was the importance that teaching and learning go hand in hand,” Biewener said.

Faculty members also expressed concern about implementing some of the report’s recommendations.

Thomas F. Kelly, Knafel professor of music, said he feared that the task force’s ideas might simply remain “a very handsome report that we will remember for a great many years.”

Statistics Department Chair Xiao-Li Meng, another of the report’s authors, said he was optimistic.

“We need to put all our beautiful minds together to come with practical and sustainable strategies for teaching,” he said.

OTHER BUSINESS

Ten members of the Faculty have already been chosen to assist President-elect Drew G. Faust in her selection of the next dean of the Faculty—the same group that advised Interim President Derek C. Bok last spring. At yesterday’s meeting, Dean Knowles praised Faust for the celerity of her work.

“President-elect Faust is moving forward—mercifully—furiously on selecting the next dean,” said Knowles, who is expected to step down from his interim post June 30.

Committee members have declined to comment on their work advising the incoming president, although English Department Chair James Engell ’73 said that they have a schedule in place to confer with Faust.

Knowles said he looks forward to the forthcoming appointment of a “younger and more vigorous dean.”

The 10 search committee members are Engell, Coolidge Professor of History David Blackbourn, Professor of Astronomy Alyssa A. Goodman, Freed Professor of Economics Caroline M. Hoxby ’88, Physics Department Chair John E. Huth, Environmental Science and Public Policy Chair James J. McCarthy, Bass Professor of Government Michael J. Sandel, Smith Professor of Computer Science Margo I. Seltzer, Berkman Professor of Psychology Elizabeth S. Spelke, and Professor of Greek and Latin Richard F. Thomas. Seltzer, Spelke, and Thomas are currently on leave.

At the close of yesterday’s Faculty meeting, retiring University Library chief Sidney Verba ’53 discussed Harvard’s collaboration with Google in digitizing its holdings.

“Their goal really is to digitize everything that has been written, spoken, or thought since the invention of the homo sapiens,” said Verba, who holds one of Harvard’s 21 University professorships.

According to Verba, approximately 1 million books have already been digitized by the online search-engine company. Google is currently embroiled in lawsuits concerning its scanning of works still under copyright.

“My hair was dark brown before I started working on it with the Google people,” the white-haired political scientist told his peers.

—Staff writer Johannah S. Cornblatt can be reached at jcornbl@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Samuel P. Jacobs can be reached at jacobs@fas.harvard.edu.