Scrambling for Stability: The TF Experience at Harvard

Teaching fellows play an important role in educating Harvard undergraduates, but for many, decades-old problems associated with shopping week, unclear expectations, and time commitments still pervade.

In section for Advanced Literary Sanskirt, Caley C. Smith discusses The Vedas. Alana M Steinberg

Five years into his unfinished Ph.D. program at Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Caley C. Smith is preparing to return to his home in Georgia. To him, a 30-year-old graduate student in the Department of South Asian Studies, the decision makes sense—more money, less stress, and the opportunity to focus solely on his dissertation.

It’s late October 2014, and by the looks of it, Smith, whose thin blond hair hangs down his forehead with no discernable part,  is overwhelmed. He describes the physical toll that comes from scrambling to find a teaching position at Harvard, and the challenges that follow shortly thereafter.

“It's very, very stressful. I break a lot of teeth—I grind my teeth at night, and I break teeth. I never broke teeth until I came to Harvard," he says.

During his third and fourth years of graduate studies, Smith, like hundreds of GSAS students, sought a teaching position as part of his funding package. Serving as a teaching fellow is a job that is guaranteed by the program during those years. But for a sizeable portion of graduate students, including Smith, those appointments, even when promised, prove to be elusive and filled with stress.

It’s safe to say that Smith is not your typical TF. He expends a bulk of his funding attending academic conferences, forcing him to cut back in other areas of his life. Smith says his room in Somerville, for instance, is a converted office space, and therefore does not contain a true closet. He hangs “self-installed hooks” to the walls, and has recently taken to preparing a concoction of rice, mustard, and ketchup as a primary form of sustenance.

Smith is idiosyncratic, but his experiences as a TF at Harvard are not all unique.

In recent months, the graduate-student led Harvard Teaching Campaign (of which Smith is not a member) has gained momentum. Over a dozen departments and committees have signed on to the campaign, whose chief initiative calls for a flat cap of 12 students in all mandatory discussion-based sections and lab groups. That cap, activists say, would not only serve to benefit TFs, but also improve the undergraduate education experience.

Beyond this initiative lies decades-old problems embedded in the TF experience. Despite increases in funding and hiring for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and even HarvardX, many TFs continue to feel overworked and underappreciated.

In many ways, the experiences of TFs are inherently non-standardized; they vary greatly from department to department and from seminar to lecture course. In other regards, though, many TFs share common struggles: searching for work, navigating sometimes unclear expectations, and balancing teaching with the completion of their degrees.

Small changes, many TFs claim, can drastically improve both their lives and those of the students they teach, which leaves many wondering: just how feasible are those goals, and how bad is it to TF at Harvard, anyway?

TRAINING A TEACHING MILITIA

It would be almost impossible for an undergraduate to leave Harvard without receiving supplementary instruction from a graduate student. When FAS first introduced TFs in 1939, they numbered just a “few individuals,” according to the most recent set of TF policies and procedures. Now, TFs make up a small army of more than 1,200, with various individuals  leading labs, seminars, and weekly sections in a swath of departments ranging from Biology to Classics.

For a large portion of Ph.D. students at GSAS, teaching is practically non-negotiable—third and fourth year students in the humanities and social sciences are expected to teach as part of their funding package. Students in the natural sciences, meanwhile, have varying requirements, but generally teach fewer sections than their humanities-oriented counterparts.

TFs can have a number of roles and responsibilities: they follow  instructions from course heads, attend lectures, digest course  material, lead discussion sections, and grade assignments. Some don the title of “Head TF,” managing course logistics and expectations for other TFs, and a smaller group are knighted Departmental Teaching Fellows. “DTFs,” as they call themselves, lead teaching seminars at the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning intended to prepare the next wave of graduate student-teachers. Many of these seminars are mandatory for TFs in several departments such as Sociology and Music.

When it comes to preparing soon-to-be TFs, administrators say they are dedicated to improving training resources, and for good reason. A sizeable portion of graduate students entering the classroom have no prior teaching experience.

The Bok Center, along with departmental guidance, forms the locus of these resources for both new and returning TFs. “The Bok Center has a very long tradition of working very closely with departments, with programs, to really develop training opportunities for graduate students,” says Robert A. Lue, faculty director of the Bok Center. This past winter, the Bok Center expanded a two-day teaching conference ordinarily held before the semester to a weeklong series.

Caley C Smith
Caley C. Smith teaches a section for Advanced Literary Sanskrit.

In recent decades, the University has taken additional steps to bolster teacher training. In 1994, the Faculty Council passed TF training guidelines, allowing individual departments to determine their standards. The GSAS has also instituted mandates for English proficiency, offering a communications training course in the Bok Center to help international students meet that requirement.

According to Lue, demand for Bok Center offerings is high. Courses in the Teaching Certificate program are in special demand; there, TFs enroll in a minimum of three teaching seminars, after which they demonstrate what they have learned in videotaped sessions.

“There’s such a hunger for them among graduate students that they close out within [about] 24 hours every time,” Lue says. Xiao-Li Meng, the current GSAS dean, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Despite expanded offerings from the Bok Center and GSAS, many TFs say that training remains uneven, varying greatly by department or program. In a recent GSAS Student Council survey, for instance, about 600 graduate students representing the humanities, natural, and social sciences indicated that they had received “minimal or no training for teaching.”

In the undergraduate classroom, such discrepancies can create increased stress for TFs, some of whom say that they are forced to learn on the spot.

“I do wish there had been more pedagogical training from the departments, particularly ahead of time,” says William E. Baldwin, a teaching fellow in the Department of English.

Others simply remain unaware of the Bok Center’s offerings.

Only when Smith was halfway into TFing the popular course Culture and Belief 22: “The Ancient Greek Hero,” he says, did he learn that he was expected to attend the Bok Center’s pre-semester teaching conference. He candidly adds, with an apologetic shrug, that as of the October of his fifth year, he still didn’t know where the Bok Center was located (it’s in Science Center 318).

But other TFs say that their departments’ training leaves them readily prepared to teach undergraduate students.

“No complaints. If anything it was too much, maybe,” James F. Angstman, a TF in Molecular and Cellular Biology, says of the preparation for a laboratory and discussion section for MCB 52: “Molecular Biology” before the fall 2013 semester.

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A SHOPPING CIRCUS?

Shopping week, when students pile into a variety of often overcrowded classrooms, embodies intellectual exploration for many students. However, for graduate students dependent on teaching positions (in 2014-2015, TFs in their third year or later receive $20,520 a year to teach the equivalent of two standard sections a semester), the period might be more aptly named “anxiety week.”

"Every semester, it's a big ambiguity: Am I going to get a job or not?” says Esra G. Sahin, a TF in the Anthropology department.

“I have been in situations where I've spent months and months preparing for a course, and then it didn't get enough enrollment, and so I had to go teach another course," Baldwin says.

Smith’s decision to return to Georgia largely revolved around the uncertainties of shopping week.

“I felt like the insecurity and the chaos I felt in sort of looking for the job was adversely affecting my ability to do research and make me an effective educator,” he says. Smith plans to pursue non-profit work while completing his dissertation in Georgia.

In recent years, the Office of Undergraduate Education and FAS Registrar’s Office have implemented new measures to better predict course enrollment, most notably Pre-Term Planning. Before each semester, undergraduates, under the penalty of a fine, submit a non-binding list of courses online. Pre-Term Planning had succeeded in lowering the number of post-shopping week TF hires in General Education or Core courses, Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris, who declined to comment, told The Crimson in 2012.

Shopping week, however, still poses problems for administrators who process TF appointments.

Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education Stephanie H. Kenen is the chief enrollment predictor for General Education classes. At the beginning of each calendar year, Kenen says, the OUE contacts faculty and compiles a list of Gen Ed courses for the following academic year. Then comes the guessing.

According to Kenen, undergraduates generally have a firm idea of their course load for concentration and secondary requirements, but waver on Gen Ed courses until closer to the start of the  semester. Various outside factors, such as the course’s “buzz” on House email lists or motivations to enroll in a course with certain students, make predicting Gen Ed enrollment especially difficult, according to Kenen.  

“PTP is really not helpful for Gen Ed,” Kenen says.

Instead, Kenen, who is also the administrative director of the Program in General Education, says that she and her staff meticulously estimate Gen Ed enrollment based on historical data, course evaluations, the frequency with which a course is offered, and other qualitative measures.

Though Kenen does not use computer algorithms, she tracks this data on a spreadsheet titled “2014-2015 Preliminary Section Allocation Report.”  Kenen says the OUE sends these numbers to course instructors for Gen Ed classes before the semester so that they can hire the requisite TFs.

Even with these measures, Kenen says she has to reposition about 75 to 100 TF appointments after shopping week. Last Saturday, she woke at 6 a.m. to send emails to professors who would have to either cut or hire additional TFs.

The uncertainty associated with shopping week is nothing new, but historical efforts to remodel the system have met with strong opposition. In 2002, then-Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby proposed that students submit their course selections one semester in advance. Shopping week would have been maintained in the form of an add-and-drop period.  However, faculty and students swiftly backlashed against this new system, many arguing that shopping week was an integral part of undergraduate education. Kirby’s plan was eventually tabled.

“I think it’s time for us to start the conversation again. I think you hear it a lot more, even in the last couple of years than five years ago,” Kenen says.

MONEY MATTERS

The constant fluctuations in assignments and enrollment, TFs say, can also mean large delays in payment. TFs generally receive their pay on the 15th of every month, including a payment before the term and an off cycle check to accommodate late appointments, Robert LaPointe, a senior admissions and financial aid officer at GSAS, wrote in an email. He added that timely payment depends on when an FAS department processes a TF appointment.

Elaine F. Stranahan, a TF in the Linguistics department, says that she had repeatedly brought up payment problems with administrators before the matter was resolved. Now, she’s not taking any more chances.

“I watch my paychecks like a hawk because I know that it’s my responsibility to advocate for myself. I’m responsible for making sure that I get compensated by the school when I’m doing work for it. It’s not fair,” Stranahan says.

In an emailed statement, Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education Noël Bisson wrote, “We do everything we possibly can to pay Teaching Fellows on time and accurately, but sometimes there are factors beyond our control that cause a situation. When this happens, we work as quickly as possible to remedy it."

FAS spokesperson Anna Cowenhoven wrote in an email that the university is unable to comment on specific cases.

As with other concerns TFs have raised, Stranahan is not entirely the outlier. Although many TFs, such as the MCB Department’s Angstman, say they have had no problems with timely payment, about 200 TFs said in the GSC survey that they had experienced significant delay—defined as more than two weeks—in receiving pay.

Kenen acknowledges that payment problems are a “hardship” for graduate students, but says that few graduate students actually report problems. “The number of them is quite small, and they are very vocal,” Kenen says.

Former GSAS Dean Peter T. Ellison says that pay delay problems might be solved if the College could commit to hiring TFs before enrollment was finalized. “A lot of things could be improved if we freed up more money for the instructional support budget, if we were more liberal allocating it to teaching fellows in advance. If we could allow ourselves to commit more fully to our teaching fellows and take them as respected members of the teaching community here rather than as perilously vulnerable adjuncts, everyone would benefit,” he adds.

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OUTSIDE THEIR COMFORT ZONE

TFs who are unable to secure positions before the semester often have to teach outside of their area of expertise.

“Even if there might be space in a class on the exact topic that a student is writing their dissertation on, they will opt to get in to the class where they can be guaranteed space first,” says Summer A. Shafer, president of the Graduate Student Council of GSAS and a TF in the History department. “There are a lot of very, very qualified teaching fellows who have taken other positions because shopping period has created a situation in which the job security for that particular class just does not exist.”

Smith puts the dilemma in simpler terms: "There was this problem I felt where in order to sort of survive, you had to be ready to teach something that was not your expertise or even something that you weren't particularly familiar with," he says.

Some TFs say that last-minute hires, and hires in areas of non-expertise, contribute to a less-than-ideal undergraduate experience. “Sometimes I barely know what is on the syllabus, and I’m scrambling to make sure I have a sense of when their papers are due," the English Department’s Baldwin says.

“It’s just not a good thing for anybody when someone comes on board at the last minute,” Kenen says.

Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana, for his part, says the College is “committed to making sure our classes are appropriately staffed and sectioned.” He adds that the OUE is continually researching ways to improve planning while still allowing for the flexibility built into the shopping week system.

Despite these concerns, some TFs still believe in the benefits of shopping period for undergraduates, even if it places additional pressure on graduate students and results in a less productive first week or two of the term.

"I like it in theory, even if it's difficult in practice," says Tyler M. Schwaller, a graduate student in the Divinity School and TF in the Gen Ed program.

Others, pointing to institutions such as Stanford or Columbia, argue that undergraduates can maintain the benefits of shopping week by simply shopping informally during the first few weeks and then utilizing pre-existing or extended weeks for adding and dropping courses.

"No one wants to take those benefits away from undergraduates. We just want to find a way that doesn’t make the first month of class a circus,” Smith says.  

NAVIGATING THE MURKY WATERS

Out of shopping week and into their sections, many TFs encounter additional pressures to satisfy course instructors.       

“The biggest source of stress was not knowing early on how much autonomy I had as a TF,” reflects Baldwin. He describes his first experience teaching a section, in which he found himself unsure of expectations and therefore “not doing things that needed to be done.” Other TFs have conveyed the opposite problem—that is, doing too much and needing to change their section assignments or grading policies to better reflect those designed by the professor of the course.

Baldwin is not alone; many other TFs have reported difficulties in understanding exactly what is expected of them going into the semester. At a GSC meeting in November, Vice President John Gee briefly summarized the 2014 spring survey results, noting that “only about half of TFs said they had a clear understanding of what they were responsible for doing when they were teaching as opposed to what their course head is responsible for doing.”

The online teaching fellow handbook even readily acknowledges this institutionalized vagueness: “teaching fellows’ responsibilities vary from course to course and are seldom formally spelled out.”

The handbook urges TFs in uncertain situations to rely upon resources both in and outside their departments for questions and support, a resource some have found to be quite useful. For Trevor Baca, a sixth-year graduate student in the Department of Music, weekly course-wide staff lunch meetings have proven to be invaluable. “The situation was clear: We will buy you a free sandwich and you will talk about your grading so that there will not be fairness accusations between sections,” he says.

GSAS Dean for Student Affairs Garth O. McCavana did not agree to answer questions over the phone or in person, but wrote in an email that he directs students to resources such as the OUE or, if necessary, intervenes directly with departments to resolve problems.

The expected time commitment for teaching likewise remains unclear. Each TF should expect to spend roughly 10 hours on each section per week, according to the official TF policies and procedures handbook. The GSC’s survey interviews with TFs, however, indicate otherwise.

The median survey response was 10 to 12 hours spent preparing and teaching a standard section each week, while 16 percent of responders reported spending 16 hours or more. Only 37 percent believed the time commitment of teaching had been clearly explained to them.

With the uncertainty of this time commitment, many TFs feel as though it is impossible to have the best of both worlds, to conduct engaging sections and still have time to research and write their dissertations.

“Obviously if you’re pursuing a degree...and want to do research full time, you can’t make teaching section your top priority,” says Samuel A. Mehr, a third year graduate student and teaching fellow in the Psychology department. Many other graduate students tend to agree, with 41 percent of survey respondents labeling teaching as “a major obstacle to degree completion.”

And for many in that 41 percent, speaking up is not always an option. “Your future career depends on the very close relationship you have with your adviser and the other professors,” says Cristina V. Groeger, a TF in History and an active member of the Harvard Teaching Campaign. “Many TFs do a lot more [hours], but they don’t want to bring it up to their adviser because they might threaten that relationship.”

CAMPAIGNING FOR A CAP

Their posters plaster the walls and offices of Emerson Hall. A large television loops through Philosophy Department announcements, but frequently pauses on the straightforward declaration: “Harvard Teaching Campaign. Smaller Sections. Better Learning. Endorsed by Department of Philosophy.”

Although less than two years old, the organization fighting to institute a 12-person cap on all mandatory sections has swiftly transformed into an organized lobbying unit. They’ve acquired 1,600 petition signatures, garnered departmental endorsements, met with high level administrators from both GSAS and the College, and have recently spawned an undergraduate wing.

The campaign points to many problems—some of which were raised as far  back as 1997—that large sections allegedly cause for the undergraduates attending the university. In some cases, for instance, the classroom is unable to accommodate the number of students enrolled.

“Sections often meet in a room that’s often too small for the section, and everyone gathers around the table, and then everyone gathers around the outer wall,” Smith says.

Baldwin addresses issues beyond the problem of space. “I don’t think anyone’s ever had a good conversation with nineteen people at the same time,” he says. “It feels like you both shortchange the students who are not doing well and also shortchange the students who are doing really well. You can’t give either of them the time you need.”

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Shafer agrees, adding that larger section sizes have allowed some undergraduates to get through sections without truly participating.

“If you’re not somebody who’s inclined to lend your perspective…you can duck in an eighteen person section and get through the whole semester without contributing anything substantial,” she says.

Larger section sizes create problems for graduate students as well. According to Smith, the time commitment necessary for teaching large classes has made it difficult for him to teach more than one section a semester and work on his dissertation at the same time. As a result, he feels he may need to teach less and make less money—or leave altogether—in order to have time to work on his own projects.

“I could work a 9-5 job, make twice to three times as much as I’m making now, and I would have my weekends free,” he says. “And then I could write on my weekends.”

Lue, on the other hand, does not believe that a cap on section size would necessarily translate to a better learning experience for undergraduates. “Twelve is not a magical number,” he insists. Leaning forward in his chair, he instead re-emphasizes that the bigger issue is to ensure all TFs have adequate training. “You can have a superstar TF with 20 of you and it’s the most amazing section you’ve ever had. You can have six of you and a TF that’s not trained, and it’s terrible.”

Even in an ideal situation with TFs who are all adequately trained and prepared, Lue believes that having more students may be preferable for sections whose activities consist largely of group work. “There should be a dialogue where the section size is…based on the pedagogy, not the course,” he says.

Campaign leaders frequently point to the 2009 financial crisis as a turning point for sections and undergraduate education. When Harvard’s endowment plummeted more than $10 billion, FAS began to increase the size of sections by more strictly enforcing the guideline of an 18-student ceiling (last modified in 1998), maximizing section sizes whenever possible.

Ellison served his tenure as GSAS Dean before the crisis. According to him, many of the people who ended up leading sections during that time were teaching assistants, individuals either not associated with the University or involved in some capacity other than being a graduate student.

Without interested and available graduate students, Ellison found himself in a “last minute scramble” to find people to lead sections who were frequently unprepared to do so. Even today, he believes most departments have a shortage of teaching fellows and still need to rely, although less so than in the past, upon outside help.

“In general when we looked at teaching evaluations and other things, teaching assistants got much poorer evaluations,” he says. “They didn’t have the preparation, they were dragged in at the last minute, they weren’t necessarily familiar with Harvard and Harvard students, so it was not an ideal arrangement.”

If the Teaching Campaign succeeds in its mission to cap section size, Ellison believes the University will have to go back to finding more people outside the graduate school to teach the increased number of sections.

“If the argument goes, if capping sections sizes will allow more students to teach in their preferred courses, that’s probably right. Does it mean that we will improve the instruction in the non-preferred courses? No,” he says. “It would just put us back in a situation of this mad scramble to fill sections, leaving us to pull people off the street who are ill-prepared to do it.”

Groeger understands this to be the main concern of those hesitant to accept the Teaching Campaign’s proposal, but still does not believe it poses a major problem. She argues that the number of TAs who would need to be hired in response to a section size cap would not increase by much, if at all. “If a graduate student was offered the choice of having three sections of 12 [instead of two sections of 18] and getting paid an extra section, we imagine that this would generate a lot of graduate students who would be willing to teach more sections,” she says.

She suspects many courses could use the same number of teaching fellows, and simply have each one teach an additional section; no extra hired help would be required, and the workload for individual TFs would remain relatively flat.

“More people would be teaching in their specialty, which is going to improve education quality. If you have to bring in TAs, that’s the price of improving education,” Smith says.

Caley Smith
Caley C. Smith is a TF in South Asian Studies and currently teaches Advanced Literary Sanskrit.

A WHOLE NEW PERSPECTIVE

Several months after first being interviewed for this piece, Caley Smith’s luck appears to have turned. He’s visibly more relaxed, and sports a new haircut, shorter and parted to the right.

He seems to have a generally contented demeanor, and almost immediately utters the phrase that proves things truly have changed for him: “I haven’t broken any teeth this semester.”

No, Smith did not head home. In fact, he was unexpectedly appointed as the sole instructor of a spring term Advanced Sanskrit course back in December, and experienced a powerful sense of security as a result. Gone are the stresses of shopping week, large sections, and unclear expectations.

“Not only am I excited to teach it because it’s something I love to teach, but I had a lot of time to prepare and know what I was going to teach, and the stress of actually maybe being here and then not finding work…isn’t there,” he says.

And it is, in his own words, “a whole different degree of mental agitation.”

One Thursday, Smith packs his fragile dictionary in a box and heads to the classroom on Bow Street. Eight students join him at the table, as he guides them through the course syllabus—his syllabus.

He cracks jokes and animatedly describes a set of ancient ritual texts they will be translating. When it comes time to arrange an optional reading and translating hour he had developed for the course, students list off scheduling conflicts. Smith assures them it won’t be a problem; he will review the same text at two separate hours if need be.

Confused, one student asks Smith if this repetition will bore him.

No, he says. And why would it? He’s teaching a subject he loves.

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