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Why Not the Best?


By Gary D. Rowe

IT'S A scandal. Each semester undergraduates who come to Harvard expecting to be taught by some of the finest minds around put their educations in the hands of an assortment of talented and less-than-talented graduate students. The quality of one's education here is, as a result, randomly determined.

The problem seems almost too simple, and it is indeed tempting to argue that since Harvard attracts an exceptionally fine group of students to its Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, graduate student teaching is not a bad thing.

And it isn't. Many--maybe even the majority--of graduate students are wonderful teachers. As long as the situation is carefully controlled and regulated, the curriculum substantially benefits from graduate students working closely with professors to provide undergraduates in large courses with close attention.

The problem, then, is not so much that Harvard relies on graduate students to teach, but rather that it does so in an uncoordinated way. Heavy use of TFs--unlike the rest of the curriculum--is not a carefully-planned, thoroughly-discussed element of the University's educational strategy. Instead, it is an attempt to improvise in response to immediate needs. The trouble is, this improvisation has become a permanent part of Harvard University's repertoire.

TEACHING FELLOWS are not chosen because of their brilliance or stellar teaching ability. Rather, they're selected because (1) Harvard graduate schools are expensive and teaching a section is a mutually beneficial form of financial aid, and (2) professors teaching large courses need a hefty number of section leaders quickly and are consequently unable to be as selective as they would otherwise want to be.

As a result, Harvard puts its graduate student population in a no-win situation. While most would like nothing more than to plow ahead with the dissertation, they instead wind up--thanks to that angry landlord, the growling belly, and rising loan debts--leading two sections and a sophomore tutorial, grading two arm-fulls of midterms, and receiving midnight phone calls from confused and worried students. Why not the best, you ask?

So each semester resumes clutter each professor's desk. Talented Faculty of Arts and Sciences graduate students still do the bulk of the teaching, but the less-than-competent manage to slip through the cracks. As a result, undergraduates get whomever's available.

Worse still, desperation often forces faculty members to hire students from outside the Faculty of Arts and Sciences for teaching support. Law, Business and--worst of all--Kennedy school students all wind up responsible for the education of scores of undergrads, despite their lack of training in the fields they wind up teaching. And so the argument advanced by defenders of the status-quo--that section leaders are the distinguished scholars of the future--falls apart, a disingenuous defense of an unacceptable situation.

EC 10 offers a good example of the scandalous chaos that currently governs the hiring of TFs. In the Economics Department, a student's introduction to the discipline depends entirely upon the quality of his section leader. Since teaching is done almost entirely in section, you would expect Ec 10 teacher selection process to be especially rigorous. Yet look around the kiosks of Littauer and count the number of "Do you want to teach Ec 10?" signs you find. And observe how many soon-to-be-lawyers are training our future economists. Under the present system, any Tom, Dick, or Harry with Harvard affiliation, can, with a little bit of luck, wind up responsible for teaching 20-plus the fundamentals of economics.

Such lax hirings standards translate into shabby teaching. Last year, according to an Economics professor and member of the Committee on Undergraduate Education, the Department hired five poorly qualified instructors to teach Ec 10. That's in addition to all the qualified TFs who are just bad teachers.

The CUE is right to crack down on poor Ec 10 section teaching. But the University must also make a coordinated effort to deal with problems a TF-intensive educational system raises. It's a problem that patchwork solutions no longer can contain. Instead, a comprehensive solution is demanded.

This is part one of a two-part series on graduate student teaching at Harvard. Tomorrow, some solutions.

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