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Student, Teach Thyself

BRASS TACKS

By Peter M. Engel

WITH THE POISE EXPECTED of a fine actor, the performer recites his final line and exits, stage right, to the thunderous applause of his audience. Only there is no curtain, just a podium on a platform, and the orator heads not backstage to be received by an admiring fan, but to the Faculty Club where he joins colleagues for lunch.

The audience disperses, setting off for lunch or for another performance, where they will once again play spectators and scribes. The show completed, they will compare notes on this or that lecturer's ability to entertain, amuse, or inspire. They invariably pay attention to ther performer and not to the part: "He was better last time," some will say, or: "She was a little weak during the middle, but came on strong in the end."

This scene is not an uncommon one. Increasingly, students assume the passive role of spectators, watching instead of participating, recording unthinkingly and then closing their books and minds until required to open them again at the next lecture. By the completion of the term, this automatic procedure has resulted in the accumulation of binders of notes, which students cram before exams as if they were just so much other reading and not what they had written themselves. The breakneck pace of reading and exam period does not allow much time for reflection; even so, the student may get a little thrill, when, upon rereading his notes, the course assumes shape, fuses and becomes coherent for the first time. Too bad that it could not have happened sooner.

Large lecture classes anaesthetize the student's aggressive instinct toward self-instruction and undercut the goals of college education. Rather than encouraging him to think and argue critically, Harvard relegates him to the role of spectator. Too often papers and tests provide his only chance to stand up for himself; but in courses where the student is not asked to participate during the term, he will more likely meet a final exam calling for systematic memorization and regurgitation than one challenging his judgement.

And having handed in his bluebook, he may never see it again--or at best, it will be returned with a modicum of criticism. The student who receives a 'C' on his exam--with no other comments on the page--will leave the course with the same ideas that earned him a mediocre grade. The test is not, as advertised, a 'learning experience'; it will only have succeeded in reinforcing those mistaken views more firmly.

AS A STUDENT REPRESENTATIVE to the Committee on Undergraduate Education (CUE), I have participated in the struggle for smaller classes, better teaching and more student/faculty contact. The realization I have emerged with is not that such goals are impossible, but that the process for achieving them is glacially slow. Time and again, Dean Rosovsky's words to the students ring true: "You are here for four years, I am here for life, and the University is here forever."

In this phrase, Rosovsky invokes the two biggest stumbling blocks to educational reform at Harvard. First, the main agitators for change are invariably students, each of whom attends Harvard for a fraction of its 350-year history. In what amounts to little more than an overnight stay in Cambridge, no student preoccupied with the exigencies of academic life can afford to take on the institution. By the time he has learned the ropes, he has sheepskin in hand and is 'among the company of educated men and women.'

Second, in contrast to the flux of students, Harvard and its reputation have stood firm over the centuries. As deeply entrenched as Widener Library is a way of thinking hostile to educational reform: Harvard's collective ego, a chest-thumping, self-assertiveness that blinds the school's faculty and administration to the faults of the institution. Chief among these misconceptions, the leitmotif of all CUE meetings, is an implacable faith that since Harvard is the best, no student should receive academic credit for work done elsewhere, work that is by definition sub-par to a Harvard Education.

The most egregious case of this ego at work is the Faculty Council's resounding rejection last May of the CUE study abroad legislation. The Council's ostensible reasons for its nearly unanimous opposition to the proposal concerned 'quality control' at other colleges, the difficulty of estimating how many students would go abroad, and the logistical problem of creating a bureaucratic structure to monitor the program.

At Stanford University, 30 per cent of their students participate in a study abroad program, but the Council ignored this fact, since technical feasibility was not really the issue in the decision. Rather, Harvard's reputation was at stake, for to grant credit widely for study abroad would be to admit openly that another university can provide an educational experience equal to a year at Harvard. The collective ego recoiled at such a thought, and the problem of study abroad became moot.

The same affliction strikes at the core of Harvard's system of promotion. Despite President Bok's assertion to the contrary, the mechanism of the tenuring process seems to deny the importance of teaching ability. In his address to students last April, Bok explained that for the ad hoc tenure committee to accept a candidate, he "must be the best person in the field available in the world." But as an academic 'field' is by necessity narrowly defined, in order to provide the department depth in one area, that doesn't leave much room for consideration of teaching. As one administrator has said, "Being an excellent teacher is a good way to get a job, but not a good way to get a job here."

Not that Harvard does not want to be known for its classroom instruction--"The faculty is interested in having good teachers," the administrator adds, "as long as it doesn't show their own inadequacies"--rather it desires, in Bok's words, a faculty that will "teach through the written word."

Because appointment decisions deemphasize classroom teaching, graduate students or assistant professors have little incentive to pay attention to their teaching, and the atmosphere of 'publish or perish' is perpetuated through the ranks. Asked at the meeting last April if he knew of any measures to encourage better teaching, Bok paused, thought a while, and replied, "That's very hard. I welcome any help you can offer."

Students need not throw up their hands and resign themselves to seats in the back of the lecture hall. In order to improve teaching at Harvard, a conscientious effort must be made at all levels of the educational bureaucracy, from tenure appointments to the hiring and training of section leaders. Bok's appeal is welcomed, for improvements can be made; but to achieve them, students must change roles from spectators to actors in order to overcome the inertia of a self-satisfied institution.

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