A Matter of Honor


IT IS NO SECRET that undergraduate education is woefully neglected on the Harvard campus. Students know it. Writers of college guides know it. Faculty research is the University's prime concern, and teaching--particularly teaching of lowly undergraduates--almost always takes a back seat.

In recent years, even a few administrators have begun to take note of the problem. Former Dean of the Faculty A. Michael Spence and incoming President Neil L. Rudenstine have both stressed the need to divert more money and resources to the teaching of undergraduates.

Sadly, however, undergraduate education at Harvard seems to be a case of the fish rotting from the tail up. Administrators can divert money and attention toward the College, but the root of the problem lies in the departmental bureaucracy. To put it simply, Harvard is plagued by an excess of "teachers" who simply do not want to have to teach.

ONE PARTICULARLY DISTURBING TREND illustrates this point beautifully. Last spring, the Government Department instituted a new policy that enraged many students. Because of a severe shortage of thesis advisors, the department decided to institute a minimum grade-point-average requirement. As of 1993, students who want to write senior theses--and thus qualify for honors degrees--will need to maintain an 11.5 GPA on the University's 15-point scale.

Although ill-conceived and unnecessarily exclusive, the Government restrictions were not particularly arduous. This spring, however, the English department has decided to follow suit, instituting a set of honors requirements that make Government look like the Great Undiscovered Gut Concentration.


Honors English students are now required to have a B-plus average in order to enter the junior tutorial program. In order to qualify to write a thesis, they must raise that average even higher, to a 12.5 on the 15-point scale. Essentially, a student who gets even one or two bad grades can now be barred from tutorials, barred from writing a thesis, barred from the department's honors program, even though the student may have cum laude grades.

THE REASONS ENGLISH DEPARTMENT administrators give for the change sound depressingly familiar. Too many students writing theses, not enough tutors, conflicts between graduate and undergraduate education. Incoming Head Tutor Lydia A. Fillingham '80 told The Crimson last week that part of the problem was that the department had received extra funds for graduate student fellowships, further reducing the department's pool of teachers.

In other words, the department decided that it could not handle the number of students writing theses. Rather than addressing the problem by encouraging faculty members to teach more, English has decided to cut a few more students out of the honors program.

The department does not seem too concerned about the fact that students at Harvard pay money for their degrees--quite a lot of it, in most cases. Tutorials are rare opportunities for students to interact closely with experts in their fields of interest. Theses are, for many students, the culmination of an academic career. By shutting students out of honors programs, by depriving them of the opportunity to take tutorials and write theses, the University is keeping them from getting their money's worth.

THE PROBLEMS FACED by English and Government are real, but they have chosen the wrong solution. The only long-term answer (and the one identified by Spence) may be an expansion of the number of senior faculty members teaching in popular concentrations. In the short term, there are a number of other methods by which the department could alleviate its shortage of teachers.

One simple step would be to increase the amount of undergraduate teaching done by senior faculty members, who have already been granted tenure and thus have less pressure to achieve as researchers. Such an idea has been advocated by no less eminent a figure than acting Dean of the Faculty Henry Rosovsky. But given Harvard's propensity to kowtow to every whim of its most senior professors, such a move seems unlikely.

Hence we have another suggestion: a fundamental change in the structure of honors programs and departments facing teaching crunches. Certain departments, among then Applied Math and Classics, do not require students to write theses in order to graduate with honors. These are by no means lightweight concentrations--they simply have other strict requirements. If English and Government want to cut down on the number of thesis writers, it should make the thesis optional, and institute a set of rigorous distribution requirements for honors candidates who opt not to write one. This would cut down the number of students who write theses merely to get honors, while allowing those students who truly want to write theses to do so.

We're here for an education. If Harvard isn't going to help us get one, it at least shouldn't prevent us from trying.

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