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Cabbages and Kings

(This is the last of three installments.)

By Shane E. Riorden

The lecture-examinations system at Harvard plus the lack of social integration of the student body along lines of similar intellectual interest has created a situation in which the average student is getting far less from his education than he could.

This brings me back to the central problem of teaching method and organization of the College. As I said yesterday, the tutorial idea seemed to be one of the best answers. The reason I say this is that it offers under the present system the only opportunity for real intellectual exchange and personal relation between teacher and student. The difficulty of the system is its expense. The question then is, are the available instructors being used to best advantage? I think they are not and what I suggest for consideration as a substitute is the seminar system, particularly as used at Swarthmore College. I feel that both the tutor's and the student's time would be far better spent in a four hour seminar of ten students than in ten individual one hour tutorial sessions. My experience as an auditor in a graduate seminar here leads me to believe that Harvard generally does not understand the seminar system--it is not just a small lecture where the auditors sit around a table. At Swarthmore, students who are taking a well-conducted seminar do not do it in addition to lectures and the attendant cram examinations. The group, which has been carefully selected on a basis of common interest, meets once a week or even bi-weekly in a four to five hour informal session for which each student has written a paper on one aspect of the day's discussion. At the meeting each student reads his paper which is then criticized and discussed, not by the instructor alone, but by fellow students as well. The instructor serves as a moderator and export and keeps the discussion to the point.

There is of course outside reading in addition to the paper, but the normal curriculum includes only two seminar courses in one term. This eliminates the crude examination system of marking, puts a premium on intellectual effort and ability (both in speaking and writing), offers a maximum of intellectual stimulation and honest competition, and can give the group the close integration within which many individuals do their best work. I do not believe that the system would increase the work load of the instructors since it eliminates lectures, sections, and correcting of dull, poorly-written, illegible bluebooks. A few hours after the end of each seminar should be sufficient for marking the papers, because the instructor would already have heard them and furthermore heard them discussed.

I imagine that this system would not be adaptable to certain science and language courses and would perhaps not be used with incoming Freshmen, but these are exceptions that can be worked out with some time and thought once the general method has been tried and approved. If the College feels that the lectures by the intellectual giants of the University are still desirable they could easily be continued, but would not be a basis for examinations or marking. The honors theses and the general examination can also easily be retained.

At Swarthmore, and perhaps other places, this system has been confined to Juniors and Seniors honors candidates. I think, however, that with certain modifications it could be used throughout the College to great advantage.

It might be argued that seminar students could still go to professional tutoring schools to get their papers written, but I believe it would be a pretty dull seminar leader who could not tell whether a student was familiar with the materials he was writing about and discussing informally with critical fellow students.

Another objection that might be raised is that the variety of course offerings would have to be cut. Unquestionably the course content of many subjects would have to be adjusted to the new method, but there is no reason why the same areas of knowledge cannot be covered just as thoroughly if not more so.

Such a radical criticism and proposal as this is may seem somewhat presumptuous on the part of an undergraduate. But as one who has become increasingly dissatisfied with Harvard teaching methods, I have felt obliged to put my thoughts down on paper. Much thought and experimentation are needed to make this plan a reality, if it is found to have any merit, but above all there is a need that the administration direct its attention to Harvard College as such and not just to Harvard University as a research center for which Harvard College is the source of teaching personnel and future alumni contributions.

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