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A Faculty of Friends and Fellow-Scholars?

BRASS TACKS

By David Beach

EVERY YEAR the college admissions office sends brochures to applicants declaring "Almost every member of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences is both a teacher and a scholar and teaches undergraduates as well as graduate students...Most professors are anxious to work with undergraduates; a freshman may well be taught by a Nobel Prize winner or a world-famous scholar." And likewise every year, a starry-eyed freshman class arrives here expecting the College to live up to this bill--that students work with Faculty members as "friends and fellow-scholars."

The expectation dissolves quickly. Studies by the Office of Instructional Research and Evaluation show that one of the biggest disappointments freshmen contend with is the dearth of direct contact with the Faculty. The report of the Task Force on Pedagogical Improvement cites a recent study which shows that while 58 per cent of Harvard undergraduates expect "the chance to learn from great teachers" before they come here, only about 17 per cent feel that this expectation is realized. A recent survey conducted by the Daily Princetonian shows only 54 per cent of Harvard freshmen claiming that the Harvard Faculty is "strongly interested in the academic problems of undergraduates," and a mere 29 per cent of polled seniors agreeing. Faculties at other Ivy League schools--Princeton, Yale and Penn--show a greater concern for students according to the survey returns.

Members of the Harvard community have long recognized the deficiencies of student-faculty contact. This year's Task Force on College Life discussed at great length the problems of bringing students and professors together on a casual basis. Essentially though, as on administrator said recently, Harvard is no longer a place where many professors lead a simple "collegiate life" with intimate involvement with students. Instead, professors race through a myriad of obligations, protected by secretaries and confined by office hours, escaping Harvard for their quiet homes in the suburbs at each work day's end.

The Task Force on College Life cites a study which says that confrontation between students and Faculty members occurs most frequently--and first--in formal situations such as courses and tutorials. This given, one should begin to examine the quality of teaching done by the Faculty to more fully understand why students are dissatisfied with their faculty relations.

The job of the Task Force on Pedagogical Improvement, chaired by Wilga M. Rivers, professor of Romance Languages and Literatures, was to conduct such an examination. In an effort to define the ideal teaching situation, an early (and since revised) draft of the Task Force's report says:

Actual teaching should be geared to nurturing each student's capacity for independent critical judgment and the synthesis of new knowledge. For this, students need opportunities to observe mature minds at work, to use their own maturing judgment in the reflective consideration and interrelation of facts and ideas, and to refine their personally developed concepts in the cut-and-thrust of intellectual discussion.

Is this what the average Harvard College student experiences at Cambridge? As Harvard is viewed by many students and professors, the answer is, "Occasionally yes; as a general rule, no."

TO BEGIN its study, the task force had to challenge a basic Faculty misconception--that a renowned scholar is necessarily an effective teacher. As one administrator said recently, there has always been a "pseudo-religious assumption" at Harvard that there is no difference between teaching and scholarship. The task force did question this assumption, and it did so gingerly and subtly. Realizing that teaching is a highly personal discipline, the task force bent over backwards to avoid hurting feelings. But as a result of the "kid gloves" approach, its report, released in February, offers eight weak and rather obvious recommendations to the Faculty, each designed to provide more incentives for teaching, to affect changes to improve conditions for teaching and to create means by which Faculty members can improve teaching skills.

For the most part, they are recommendations the Faculty will ignore. The only proposal with any teeth calls for an evaluation of teaching ability to accompany all future nominations for appointment to the Faculty, promotion and tenure. It is a response to a statement in Dean Rosovsky's 1974 Letter to the Faculty on Undergraduate Education: Faculty hiring and promotion policy, which ideally seeks a balance of abilities, in practice favors research over teaching; the lack of institutional rewards for teaching in general, and lower level instruction in particular, inevitably works to the disadvantage of undergraduates, especially in their first two years."

Rosovsky has already asked department heads to comply with this recommendation when nominating persons for tenured positions. It is questionable, however, that such evaluations of teaching ability will have much impact. The task force's own "guidelines for appointment" are notable for their exceptions to the task force belief that teaching ability should really be an important criterion in the appointment process. For instance, the report says that departments may still go ahead and appoint "minimally competent teachers," if they promise to somehow redress imbalances at a later date.

DECADES OF TRADITION and the structure of the selection process itself make it difficult to pay much immediate attention to teaching ability. The ad hoc committees for tenure are usually composed of President Bok, Rosovsky and two experts in each candidate's field from outside the University. David C. McClelland, professor of Psychology and a member of the Task Force on Pedagogical Improvement, said last month that the opinions of the outside experts are very influential and "guarantee that people get tenure only if they publish books that outsiders read." He said that he remains very skeptical about how much teaching is taken into account.

Even Bok, who has been fairly supportive of efforts to increase the quality of teaching in the College, said in his President's Report for 1975-76 that scholarship should remain the most important factor in the appointment process:

There is no way of knowing whether the enthusiastic, dedicated young teacher will continue to be successful after the age of 45. Thus, scholarship must remain the decisive factor, not only because it is intrinsically important but because it offers the most reliable assurance that even dull teachers will continue to have something of value to communicate.

Bok said in his President's Report that is is harder to attract outstanding professors today than it was 25 years ago. Now there are many more first-rate universities competing with Harvard for the best available people. Many of these institutions attract the top professors with specially high salaries (the "star system"), a practice that Harvard can not match because it has a relatively uniform salary structure.

Charles P. Whitlock, associate dean of the Faculty for special projects and coordinator of the task forces, said earlier this month that the administration is currently discussing alternate salary policies. He said that competition with other schools is forcing Harvard to change. Although it is unlikely that the University will institute a star system because of the divisive influence it could have on the Faculty, the University may have to start offering salaries according to fields or to develop a program of special non-salary compensation.

BBUT WHATEVER the University does about salaries, it may have to be less selective about who it hires in the future. Because of the competition with other schools, the criteria for teaching ability in judging a teaching applicant may be hard to meet.

The Task Force on Pedagogical Improvement also recommends that departments work to improve the teaching ability of teaching fellows, which theoretically would improve graduate students' prospects in the job market and the quality of undergraduate instruction.

It is clear that teaching fellows are an increasingly important part of the undergraduate educational experience. They have taken over much of the instruction in introductory mathematics and language courses. They staff the sections of General Education and middle-group courses. And they play such an overwhelming role in the tutorial program that in many departments their numbers violate current Faculty legislation which says 70 per cent of the undergraduates in departmental tutorials must be taught by Faculty members.

Since teaching fellows play such an important role, it seen sensible to recommend that they have more opportunities to improve their teaching skills. But such a recommendation is dangerous because it obscures several more fundamental problems. First, departments often award teaching fellowships as a part of a graduate student's financial aid, and the selection process may not take teaching interest of ability into account at all. And second, it would be better for undergraduates if departments not only improved their teaching fellows but replaced many of them with Faculty members, especially in tutorials which play a pivotal role in many concentrations.

With the present size of the Faculty it is unnecessary for graduate students to do as much teaching as they do at present. Rosovsky's 1974 Letter reveals that between 1952 and 1974 the size of the Faculty grew by 102 per cent, but the undergraduate population grew only by 14 per cent. During that time, however, the proportion of courses in which undergraduates enrolled actually decreased by 28 per cent.

Where did all those additional Faculty members go if they were not teaching more undergraduate courses? They went two places--to concentrate on research and graduate students and also into small upper level courses.

In the '60s, federal funding for research soared and lured many professors away to new labs and projects. ("It was the federal money that corrupted us," an administrator said earlier this month.) The funds also created another distraction by spurring the growth of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS)-- a 45 per cent growth in the number of students between 1952 and 1974.

IN THE DECADE ending in 1972, the number of 200-level courses (primarily for graduates) rose by 57 per cent, while the number of lower level courses grew only by 14 per cent. The effect of the disproportionate growth is evident in figures for 1974-75 which show that while 43 per cent of the courses the Faculty offered had fewer than nine undergraduates enrolled, these accounted for only seven per cent of al enrollments. Only about 12 per cent of the courses had over 50 persons, but they included fully half of all enrollments.

Thus, the Faculty is teaching more small courses, but these are primarily for graduate students. Meanwhile, undergraduates have become more clustered in the big lecture courses where they have contact with teaching fellows instead of actual Faculty members.

And so, in the past couple of decades a serious imbalance had developed between the amount of teaching resources devoted to GSAS and the amount left over for the Colleges. As Rosovsky said in his 1974 letter, "Plainly, we can identify inequities--from the point of view of the average undergraduate--in the distribution of teaching resources."

The Task Force on Pedagogical Improvement did not deal with these serious issues of resource allocation--such matters are the domain of the Task Force on Educational Resources. The pedagogy report,k with its proposals for greater evaluation of and improvement in teaching skills, focused on the quality of existing teaching and, as a result, its recommendations are for cosmetic improvements that, while necessary, will have little impact on the far more important problem of the present quantity of undergraduate instruction.

THE TASK FORCE on Educational Resources will not complete its report until next fall. Whitlock said recently that the group's study has taken much longer than expected because of the difficulties involved in determining how resources could be better distributed between the Colleges and GSAS and among concentrations.

By next fall, it the educational resources task force deals strongly with these issues, especially now when GSAS is shrinking in size, its report could very well supplant the report of the Task Force on the Core Curriculum as the most change-provoking document to come out of the University's review of undergraduate education--a document that the Faculty will not be able to ignore.

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