Government Department Changes Advising, Course Requirements

Future government concentrators will benefit from a strengthened advising program that will pair faculty members with undergraduates, following a set of reforms unanimously approved by the department faculty last Thursday.

The changes primarily affect students during their sophomore spring and junior fall semesters, when undergraduates are deciding their academic paths within the concentration. The reforms will roll out this fall and will begin with the class of 2015. Major changes include a research seminar requirement and increased opportunities to interact with professors directly through a new faculty mentorship program.

A committee of government faculty members that was created last September proposed the reforms. This committee studied data from exit surveys and worked with several student focus groups.

“We try to do a review of the undergraduate program every decade or so,” said government professor Steven R. Levitsky, who spearheaded the committee. “It was time to revisit our requirements.”

One of the primary changes to the department’s advising structure will be that the teaching fellows of the mandatory, spring-term sophomore tutorials will serve as advisers for their students. These teaching fellows, Levitsky said, currently undergo a competitive recruitment process and receive higher compensation than teaching fellows in other departments.

Further, sophomore students will be paired with faculty members to discuss “big picture interests” in one-on-one meetings, and juniors will be guaranteed faculty advisers for their theses if they apply through the government department, Levitsky said. These advising changes will supplement the current house-based advising system.

“We think we can do better with advising,” Government Director of Undergraduate Studies Cheryl B. Welch said. She called the new teaching fellow advising system a “big innovation for sophomore year.”

Further, the government department will require students to take a seminar during their undergraduate career.

“Students who take seminars are usually happy with them,” Levitsky said. “It’s crazy that a student could graduate without taking a seminar.”

In addition to mandating that undergraduates enroll in a seminar, the reforms also dictate that students take a course focusing on quantitative and qualitative research methods of political science.

“We’ve debated for many years about the necessity of undergraduates being literate in political science,” Welch said. “We’re recommending that all government concentrators take Government 50: ‘Introduction to Political Science Research Methods’ or some sort of statistics course.”

Lastly, the department will compile a list of courses at the Harvard Kennedy School that qualify as government electives, simplifying the earlier process that required students to petition to take a course from outside the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

“The undergraduate interest is often in the substance of politics,” Welch said.

She also noted that politics-related courses—such as Government 1540: “American Presidency,” which is offered jointly with the Kennedy School—are often popular with concentrators. The new list, Welch said, will be a “signaling and communication change” rather than an actual change in the relationship between the government department and the Kennedy School.

Both Levitsky and Welch acknowledged the challenges of meeting the demands for better advising from the government department, which is the second largest concentration in the College.

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