Humanities Praised For Good Advising

Max H.Y. Wong ’10 said he is the type of Harvard student who shops fifteen courses during the first week of the semester, and then has no idea what to take. This year, he dropped into his adviser’s office at the end of shopping period. Professor of Philosophy Edward J. Hall asked the graduate student in his office to come back another time, and immediately sat down with Wong for two-and-a-half hours to discuss his course selection.

“He basically wrote all my possible courses on the board and made sense of them,” Wong said.

Though Wong had initially entered Harvard intending to be a physics concentrator, he said he ended up declaring philosophy because of the quality of advising he received from the department.

While poor advising is a perennial complaint among Harvard students, concentrators in the humanities laud the attention they receive from departmental advisors.

Jessica C. Frisina ’10, who chose History and Literature over Social Studies and Government, said that she loves the size of the concentration, which allows for more interaction with faculty rather than just teaching fellows.

“Because it’s such a small department, you don’t get lost at all,” Frisina said.

Timothy P. McCarthy ’93, a lecturer in History and Literature, said that the concentration is “as close to an intellectual utopia as you can get in higher education,” citing the strong student-teacher relationships.

In History and Literature, sophomores are assigned one of their two sophomore tutorial leaders as their department adviser—resulting in approximately a 4:1 faculty to advisee ratio, according to McCarthy. Similarly, juniors have their junior tutorial leader as an adviser, and seniors have a guaranteed thesis adviser.

“What’s interesting and rare about Hist and Lit is that the people who are advising you are the people who are teaching you,” McCarthy said. “Your adviser isn’t someone who is in a cubicle somewhere and signs your study card twice a year.”

Kyle E. Wiggins ’09, also a concentrator in History and Literature, said that his advising experience “has been pretty amazing.” He attributes his experience in the department to the faculty, especially Jeanne F. Quinn, director of studies for the department. She makes herself very accessible, knows every concentrator by first name, and concerns herself with everyone’s well-being, he said.

“She sets an attitude for the rest of the faculty,” Wiggins said. “The level of communication between professors and students—awareness of all the students and what they’re doing—I haven’t heard of in any concentration.”

The English Department has taken a similar approach to advising. According to Director of Undergraduate Studies Daniel G. Donoghue, the concentration changed their advising system this past year from an “open door policy” of walk-in office hours to one more comparable to History and Literature.

Each of the sophomore tutorial leaders in English advise the six to eight students in their class, and the department assigns each junior to a faculty advising session, said Donoghue. Under the new system students will have a choice: they can decide whether to seek an “advising conversation” with a faculty member, either self-selected or matched by the department.

Next year with the curricular changes in the English department(, however, will come further changes in advising. Donoghue said that the department is in the process of designing a distribution system in which advising will still involve faculty-student interactions.

“We want students to get guidance from faculty members,” Donoghue said. “They can give a good nudge for someone to take romantic poetry next year, or give an incentive to broaden [the academic path] that they would otherwise take if just left to their own devices.”

The History Department is aiming to reform their advising system as well. According to Adam G. Beaver, the assistant director of undergraduate studies, there are four layers of academic advising—drop in or by appointment department advising, House advisers, department-funded events which promote interaction with faculty, and peer concentration counselors. Beaver said the department is looking to add more House-based outreach by hosting faculty lunches and historical movies in the houses.

History concentrator Sergio Prado ’09, said that he has been satisfied with the advising in the department.

“The professors and the people who deal with the administration definitely have a lot of concern for the students,” he said.

—Staff writer Victor W. Yang can be reached at