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A Teacher's Lament

Commentary

By Christopher Poulios

THE admonitions of William Bennett and Allan Bloom came to light the day I received my letter of rejection from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS). As a teaching assistant and aspiring applicant to the doctoral program in Government, I became rudely awakened to one of the most serious deficiencies in undergraduate education at Harvard.

When considering my application for the doctoral program, GSAS ignored my outstanding record as a teacher of undergraduates.

When I was recruited to take on a burdensome load of three sections during the fall semester and two sections in the spring, I realized the tremendous responsibility involved in entering a doctoral program at Harvard. After all, it is ordinarily the honor of admitted doctoral candidates to help teach some of the most gifted young minds in the world.

Thus, with my Harvard masters degree and two years of college teaching experience serving as my chief battle scars, I set out to prove myself in the major leagues of academia.

In addition to the usual requirements, such as grading section participation, term papers and blue books, I was determined to go the extra mile. I assigned weekly commentaries, I distributed three to four page synopses containing information from my own academic and professional experience, I interjected relevant anecdotes and bits of humor, and I raised controversial questions for often combative classroom debates.

Above all, I never neglected my responsibility to be accessible to students. On more than one occasion, I made special trips to Cambridge in order to confer with students beset with sudden problems or questions. I gave pointers to juniors and seniors contemplating their honors theses. I even took an extended leave of absence from my regular job in New Hampshire to concentrate on my teaching assistant duties.

The students responded by submitting evaluations of my performance described by several colleagues as "phenomenal" and "incredible." But, as I soon learned, even "phenomenal" teaching doesn't get you very far at Harvard. When I inquired about my rejection from the doctoral program, I was told that excellent teaching is not concomitant with the makings of a true scholar.

THIS is the root of the dilemma of the undergraduate experience at Harvard. At a university of this caliber, can the personages of teacher and scholar truly afford to be separated? It is already a travesty that professors are too caught up in research to engage in any meaningful interaction with students. Should the same be expected of teaching fellows and aspiring doctoral candidates?

A true scholar must balance research pursuits along with the cultivation of younger scholars. If they cannot, then it is the students who suffer the pains of negligence and superficial knowledge.

The point seems so obvious, yet Harvard ignores it: outstanding teaching should be recognized as an intellectual art form rather than a practical or vocational skill. The undergraduates at this institution did not overcome rigid admission requirements and astronomical tuition fees to receive the same type of education available at their local overgrown state universities.

The University needs to recognize undergraduate education as a paramount responsibility instead of a peripheral obligation to which only minimal attention is offered. Accordingly, the quality of graduate education will also suffer as Harvard produces an entire generation of academics adept at theorizing and producing mountains of research, but unable to convey it all effectively to the next generation.

Christoper Poulios is a teaching assistant in the Government Department.

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