Social Studies: A Second Class Elite?

Lack of Funds and Faculty Plagues Ninth Largest Concentration

Just twenty years ago, you probably wouldn't have known anyone majoring in Social Studies. Once a small, experimental concentration, Social Studies is now one of the ten most popular concentrations in the College, with a sophomore class of more than 100. Within the past decade alone, enrollment in the concentration has more than doubled. And if the recommendations of the faculty committee charged with reviewing Social Studies are implemented, the concentration will shed its elite status and grow still more. The stakes in Social Studies are high.

As members of this largest-ever sophomore class, we have already found Social Studies to be an exciting, challenging course of study that so far has fully met our expectations. We are, however, concerned that it continue to live up to this promise.

While Social Studies is billed as an "elite" concentration, its 250 concentrators do not, in effect, receive all of the same benefits as students in most departmental, and even in non-departmental, concentrations. Although some of these inequities can be attributed to Social Studies' status as a degree-granting committee, many seem a direct consequence of a lack of University Hall enthusiasm.

It seems clear that Social Studies has not been given the resources it needs to keep up with the increasing number of students it must now accept. Nowhere is this lack of resources more visible than in sophomore tutorials. As recently as last year, every sophomore tutorial had two tutors for its eight students. This year, all of the tutorials taught by junior faculty--and these are a majority--have only one tutor for the same number of students. Sophomores were never informed of a reason for this over-the-summer halving of the tutor-tutee ratio, but the administration's failure to adequately fund Social Studies may have played a part.

A quick look at the Fields of Concentration booklet seems to lend credence to this interpretation. Although History and Literature and Social Studies now have almost exactly the same number of concentrators, Social Studies has the equivalent of only 6.90 full-time teaching fellows while History and Lit has 17.20.


Concentrators in History and Literature obviously do not pay any higher tuition than do Social Studies concentrators, but somewhere in the administrative process money is allotted for two and a half times as many teaching fellows. A reasonable question might be how this occurs and why.

This question of Social Studies funding is one of the more glaring omissions of the faculty report. The report offers no statistics or examples of how Social Studies is funded in comparison to other concentrations, but its very last words are unambiguous: "The material support available to the program should be set at a level comparable to that of other departments." Clearly the implication is that it now is not.

Underfunding affects the concentration in more ways than just faculty-student ratios. For example, because Social Studies is not a department, concentrators who want to arrange independent study with a professor or graduate student do not have departmental funds to draw on. A routine matter in most other departments, independent study is far from routine in Social Studies.

Without the funding to hire its own senior faculty, Social Studies is left in the hands of a committee of professors from other social science departments. Despite their good intentions and sincere efforts, these professors have competing time commitments and a primary responsibility to their own departments.

Social Studies does have a handful of junior faculty members who do have a commitment to the concentration, but they cannot be offered tenure in Social Studies, which now has no tenured positions. The concentration has been repeatedly demoralized when dedicated junior faculty members have left for tenured positions elsewhere. The report of the faculty committee conceded that the ability to offer junior faculty tenure is "an important incentive to performance and stimulus to morale."

To rectify the problem, the committee recommended that the Social Studies junior faculty have the opportunity to obtain joint tenure in Social Studies and some other social science department. But this "solution" in turn creates a new problem of decreasing junior faculty's incentive for commitment to Social Studies.

As it now stands, Social Studies junior faculty are some of the most dedicated and hard-working teachers at Harvard. The faculty report singled them out, saying "There is reason to believe that the personnel in Social Studies assume in this regard an unremunerated burden exceeding that of other concentrations and departments."

But the report's recommendations provide that even if joint tenure is granted any tenure decisions would be made by the Faculty member's allied department "in accordance with their own criteria of selection" If other departments are going to be making the tenure decision, it may prove difficult for Social Studies to compete for the time and effort of a junior faculty member who has even a slight chance of being tenured, since it cannot reward this effort in the tenure consideration process.

With its limited number of junior faculty positions, the concentration is highly dependent on graduate students to teach its tutorials--but it is no graduate students of its own. Thus, Social Studies must rely on other social science departments to supply graduate students, but as the faculty report stated, "Some departments have never been able or willing to furnish tutors in Social Studies."

The academic offerings of the department seem to be contingent on the concentration's ability to attract the right graduate students. Junior concentrators returned this fall to learn that there would be no junior tutorials on any American topics--probably because of an inability to find graduate students in this field who were willing to work for Social Studies.

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