Philosophy Dept., Professors Endorse Effort to Cap Sections at 12

UPDATED: Feb. 28, 2014, at 2:00 p.m.

A movement to limit the size of course sections to 12 students that began among a small group of graduate students last fall has grown into a formal campaign backed by members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and endorsed by the University’s Philosophy Department.

At the center of the movement, which has coalesced under the name the Harvard Teaching Campaign in recent weeks, is a petition calling “on the University to fulfill its promises of excellence” by setting the cap.

But much of the support the campaign has found within FAS thus far has been in the form of faculty advocacy. From written endorsements on the campaign’s website to email blasts to class lists, professors have broadened the discussion of section size, including College students as well.

According to Philosophy professor Richard Moran, the Philosophy Department endorsed the campaign for three primary pedagogical reasons and will soon post a statement about the endorsement on its website.

Moran said that the statement has “gained very quick and easy support.”

Specifically, the statement cites inhibited student participation and a poorer teaching experience for teaching fellows that hinders their training as instructors as justification to reduce the size of sections. It also points to increased financial insecurity for graduate students that results from fewer total teaching jobs caused by larger section sizes.

“Increasing the number of teaching sections will cost a tiny percentage of the FAS 1.2 billion dollar budget. This is exactly where Harvard, as an educational institution, should be investing,” the statement reads. The statement concludes by urging other Harvard departments to back the campaign and the petition.

“I think this is an issue where undergraduates, faculty and graduate students are all on the same side,” Moran said.

History professor Daniel L. Smail said he agrees. In an email Wednesday, he urged students enrolled in his class, Culture and Belief 51: “Making the Middle Ages,” to sign the petition, writing that the University investment required would be modest given the educational benefit students would receive.

Smail said that he asked the General Education Office to let him limit the size of sections in the course. CB51’s sections have about 13 students each, he said, adding that he does not think “faculty should generally have to lobby for [small sections].”

Smail also said that it is his impression that section sizes are currently limited to 18 students, but prior to the 2008-2009 financial crisis, the Office of Undergraduate Education was often able to accommodate smaller section sizes.

Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris said that the target section size for most lecture courses is 18 students, though the size “varies depending on the type of course.” For example, for courses with labs, studio courses or “quantitative Methods courses,” the target size is 15 students. For language courses, it varies from 10 to 18 students.

Members of the Teaching Campaign also asked for signatures at  a town hall meeting last week, co-sponsored by the group and the Graduate Student Council, that attracted about 40 people. That discussion, which ranged from section sizes to teaching fellow payment to the hiring process for teaching fellows, will be followed by two other similar meetings  in March.

At the first town hall meeting, graduate students raised concerns over the size of sections, highlighting the  lower-quality discussions, increased work for teaching fellows, and even safety risks in laboratory settings that they said result when sections are too big.

According to an email from one of the petition’s organizers, graduate student John. M. Nicoludis, the document will continue to circulate for the “foreseen future.”

—Staff writer Dev A. Patel can be reached at dev.patel@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @dev_a_patel.

—Staff writer Steven R. Watros can be reached at steven.watros@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @SteveWatros.

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