It’s 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday night and Robert T. Bowden ’13 has two problem sets due within 15 hours. In the next five days, Bowden will also oversee six hours worth of Office Hours, assign sections to all 651 students in CS50, and attend lecture for six different courses.
In addition to being a full-time student and dabbling in the fledgling Harvard Poetry Society, Bowden is assistant head Teaching Fellow for CS50 and a TF for the Extension School’s CS61 course.
“It’s kind of overwhelming, the past couple of weeks,” he admits.
Bowden’s balancing act is not an isolated case. More so than some of its peer institutions, Harvard hires undergraduates to help staff a number of courses spanning departments from math and computer science to physics and statistics.
Juggling the roles of peer and instructor can involve a unique set of challenges—from fielding questions in the dining hall and over gchat to explaining concepts one has only recently mastered. But at least 150 students take on part-time teaching roles in addition to their own courses, and many are surprisingly passionate about putting in the extra effort.
“[It is] gratifying to come in on the other side, lead [students] toward a bigger understanding, help them do something that they thought was a little over their head,” says Matthew J. Chartier ’12, head TF for CS50.
“I can honestly say that it was the best experience I’ve ever had here,” says Anna V. Gommerstadt ’13, who was a TF for CS51 last spring.
PRE-REQS AND PERQS
In the Princeton Computer Science Department, 30 undergraduates are paid to help other students with programming questions several nights a week—but none teach sections. In Harvard’s introductory computer science class CS50 alone, 46 college students teach sections.
Undergraduate TFs have been preparing and leading sections, grading assignments, and managing office hours in CS50 for twenty years, according to David J. Malan ’99, the course’s instructor.
At Yale, students can serve as graders in the Math Department. But at Harvard, around 75 undergraduate course assistants in the Math Department are responsible for conducting problem sessions, staffing homework question centers, and grading problem sets.
For many departments at Harvard, undergraduate involvement in the teaching process is a statistical necessity—there are simply not enough graduate students to staff large introductory courses.
But professors are also keen to give the youngest members of its community considerable responsibility in the teaching process.
“We look for high quality both in terms of their ability to know the math, but also to communicate that math,” says Math Preceptor Juliana V. Belding, who manages hiring for the introductory calculus courses. Every applicant for the position of math CA must teach a short lesson as part of their interview.
Students who make it past the application process are rewarded with their own students, the opportunity to improve communication skills and understanding of course material, close relationships with professors, and a decent paycheck. TFs in CS50 make close to $3,000 per semester, according to Chartier, while first-time CAs in the introductory calculus courses earn around $1,800, says Belding, plus around $50 per student they grade. In all departments, those numbers increase with experience.