Much Ado About Advising in the English Department

Students arriving on Harvard’s campus this fall discovered that the University with the progressive approach to education had made several structural changes to the college’s courses of academic study. Aside from the much-publicized overhaul of the Core Curriculum in favor of the new Program in General Education, this school year marks the first full year of a revamped English curriculum. While the changes to the English program attempt to facilitate more productive interactions between students and their course material, some concentrators feel that the modifications to the advising system have need for improvement.

First introduced this past spring, the English department has entirely remodeled its course options and its approach to advising. Presently, concentrators can decide to keep their sophomore tutorial professor as their advisor if they so choose. For those students lacking such an opportunity, whether because the professor has left Harvard or because the student would prefer a different advisor, the department offers a team-strategy advising system, comprised of Undergraduate Program Administrator Jeff Berg, Director of Undergraduate Studies Professor Daniel Donoghue, and Coordinator of the Secondary Field Melissa Lassonde. However, those who prefer the one-on-one attention of a personal advisor face a dilemma. “For someone who’s maybe not as comfortable with their sophomore seminar professor, it might be nice to have the option of getting an advisor within the department,” says Emily B. Hecht ’11.

Those students who have encountered challenges with the team advising system typically cite its perceived distance and detachedness as its main problem. Brittney R. Lind ’11, a former English concentrator, primarily met with her advisors only on Study Card Day. “My roommates or my friends would say, ‘Oh, I have to meet with my advisor.’ I would think ‘Why? I know what the requirements are... It just didn’t occur to me to go to them very much,” she says. Lind, who is now a psychology concentrator, admits that she could have sought the help of certain administrative members and that her tutorial professor had expressed willingness to meet personally to discuss non-academic matters.

However, according to Lind, the psychology department has been more proactive in its advising strategy, for the most part because concentrators are assigned a specific advisor who contacts them directly. In comparison, Lind says, the English department relies more on the initiative of its students and communication—via Berg—to prompt contact between concentrators and potential advisors.

There have been varying responses to the advising system, however; some students have expressed their comfort in seeking help from the department’s administration. “Someone is always in the office; someone’s door is always open,” says Millicent M. Younger ’10.

The focus on improving personal relationships between department members and concentrators has also been reflected in the effort to facilitate academic dialogue between students and their professors. Traditionally based on large lecture-style classes, the English department will now offer a series of smaller, seminar-sized groups, organized into four categories: “Arrivals,” “Diffusions,” “Poets,” and “Shakespeares.” “Arrivals” and “Diffusions” discuss the introduction and spread of English language influence, while “Poets” and “Shakespeares” analyze their title subjects in a variety of in-depth contexts.

In explaining the logic behind such a shift, Donoghue says, “Pedagogically, we wanted to move away from mandatory, large lecture courses... We wanted to make it of a smaller size so that there would be more interaction between the professor and the student.” The English faculty and administration are currently working on increasing the number of courses offered in the new categories, because presently, not many classes are available that fall under the four headings.

While the new curriculum is currently posing some restrictions on which classes concentrators can take to fulfill course requirements under the four groupings, the department has loosened its provisions in order to encourage personalized paths of study. For example, there are no courses concentrators must strictly take, such as English 10a and 10b, “Major British Writers” Parts I and II, which was required under the previous curriculum. “The new curriculum leaves a lot more space for people to really pursue what they’re interested in with the new departmental classes,” Younger says. “That’s what I think is the really great thing about the new curriculum.”

For some students, the elimination of the traditional lecture-style courses has resulted in a loss of a unifying literary experience, because these classes provided a common basis of literature for the field. However, most also feel that they are no longer missing out on subjects they would have otherwise pursued had it not been for the mandated classes. In addition, concentrators have expressed their enthusiasm for the smaller class sizes, as the intimate atmosphere lends itself more easily to a higher level of discussion and analysis. “I think there’s a lot of wisdom behind the idea of having a smaller class,” Lind says. “For literature, it tends to be a better way to study.”

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