Campaigning with Limits

The Harvard Teaching Campaign has been vocal, but has struggled to win over admins

On the first day that she taught a section at Harvard, Margaret Doherty walked into a Robinson Hall classroom only to realize there were more students than chairs.

“I spent the first 15 minutes of that very first section carting chairs from one classroom in Robinson to the other,” Doherty, an English Department teaching fellow, recalls.

That semester, she was teaching two sections of an English lecture course. Each section included about 18 students, a number that she says caused unexpected problems as she found herself sitting in her office for five extra hours of individual meetings with students each day the week before a paper was due.

“That was really challenging, and I don’t think I gave students the right amount of attention that first semester,” she says.

Concerned that large sections like these might diminish the quality of the undergraduate experience and hinder their ability to train as professors, a group of teaching fellows united this spring to demand that the University restrict sections to 12 students.

Though the Harvard Teaching Campaign has drawn support from various departments and faculty members, the self-described “grassroots” coalition has yet to reach out to University administrators, who say that the universal section cap is neither needed nor practicable.

CAMPAIGN FOR A CAP

Citing pedagogical research and personal anecdotes, Campaign members contend that smaller section sizes can benefit both students and teaching fellows.

According to Doherty, pedagogical research suggests that class discussions involving more than 14 students are not as effective as those with fewer members.

“We thought that if 14 is the maximum, why not have it slightly below the maximum?” Doherty says of the campaign’s ambition for a 12-student section cap.

The section cap would replace the current size goal, which, according to Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris, is 18 students for most lecture courses; though that number “varies depending on the type of course,” he said in February.

Doherty says that in her seven years as a graduate student, she has seen section sizes increase from eight to 12 students each up to 18 to 22, a rise that she says has decreased student engagement in sections.

Teaching Town Hall
Graduate students chat after a town hall meeting about the teaching fellows system in March. Students cited late paychecks, large section sizes, and teaching appointments as problems with the current system.

History professor Daniel L. Smail, who supports the Campaign, dates the growth back to the 2008 financial crisis, which he says caused the Faculty of Arts and Sciences to cut back on teaching fellows.

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