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At Town Hall, Teaching Fellows Air Grievances

UPDATED: Feb. 20, 2014, at 2:06 a.m.

Students from across the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences raised concerns over section sizes, late paychecks, and teaching appointments at a Teaching Town Hall Wednesday evening.

The town hall, which attracted about 40 graduate students and lasted nearly two hours, was hosted by the Graduate Student Council and the recently formed Harvard Teaching Campaign, a coalition of teaching fellows, laboratory supervisors, and tutorial instructors that is “committed to improving the educational experience of undergraduates,” according to its website.

First in a panel and then in a larger discussion, students voiced several complaints about the systems that govern teaching fellows and their responsibilities, sharing stories about teaching for months without getting paid and scrambling to find teaching posts as enrollment numbers fluctuate during shopping week.

“A big part of what the University wants is a really amorphous system where everything is done on the fly,” said John Gee, the at-large representative for FAS’s Social Sciences Division on the Graduate Student Council. Many students also characterized the teaching fellows system as inconsistent and disorganized.

A major concern that students raised regarded the difficulties associated with teaching large sections, such as those with more than 20 undergraduates, and the impact of section size on the workload of teaching fellows and the quality of discussion in section.

“One of my sections had twenty-two students, and so there weren’t even enough spots for them all to sit down,” said one graduate student who was granted anonymity by The Crimson because the student feared that his or her relationship with faculty members would be negatively impacted.

“There will be more teaching [fellows] available and more predictability in our assignments if section sizes are smaller, and we can actually do what we want to do well,” said Rudi Batzell, a third-year graduate student.

For department in the sciences, large section sizes in laboratories raise further safety concerns for teaching fellows.

“When I have seventeen students in a section, I don’t have that time to check on all students, so they fall behind and make mistakes,” said a teaching fellow in the sciences. “There’s also a safety hazard because of chemicals in the laboratories.”

Another common complaint concerned the teaching fellow compensation system, which some town hall attendees described as disorganized and unfair. According to preliminary results of an ongoing survey conducted by the Graduate Student Council, a quarter of the approximately 450 respondents have experienced significant delays in receiving their paychecks, according to Harvard Teaching Campaign member Charles Petersen.

Summer A. Shafer, one of the panelists and president of the council, said that the classification of teaching fellows as employees of Harvard is unclear, resulting in tax filing problems for some students.

On top of class size and financial concerns, town hall participants also criticized the process of appointing teaching fellows. Many said that the structure of shopping week and the resulting uncertainty of class sizes leaves many graduate students in the dark as to whether they will serve as a teaching fellow in a given semester until after the semester has started.

Shafer said that because of the uncertainty regarding class enrollment and the demand for teaching fellows, she has been forced to request interviews and positions with professors in disciplines outside of her area of study.

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