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During Thanksgiving break my first year at Harvard, my father came home from work to ask a question that had been bothering him all day. "Is it true that you have to watch lectures on TV and that professors at Harvard don't even teach undergraduates?" he asked, annoyed that his colleague had made disparaging comments about what he considered the best college in America. "Dr. Smith says his daughter Maria isn't even going to apply to Harvard for that reason and that she'd rather go to Yale".
"No it's not true. Professors do teach. And though my Ec 10 class has 900 students, I still don't have to watch the lectures on TV," I responded. (I listen to them weeks later on tape cassettes at Boylston, I added silently in my head).
I was too lazy to say `I told you so' and that my fears about Harvard had sort of come true--my fear, that is, that the list of core courses taught by big name professors advertised in the application booklet as proof of professorial invovement in undergraduate life through the Core was just a clever way of allowing the College to answer in the affirmative that "Yes, professors do teach undergraduates".
You see, by that time, I had passively accepted the fact that, unless I summoned the courage to accost a professor during office hours, I would never know a tenured member of the University nor would he or she ever know my work. (For all our parents know, we could just as well buy the videotapes of Harvard lectures that people are marketing in high brow magazines these days.)
I understood how the system worked--that unproven graduate students, possessed of varying degrees of familiarity with the course matter and instructional ability, would always decide my academic fate. They were the ones who would re-teach the lecture we had heard the professor read earlier that week. They were the ones who would grade my tests and my papers. In fact, unless I had roommates proofread my papers, teaching fellows would be the only ones to read my papers at all.
To a certain extent, sections haven't been that painful. I've had a little luck in getting assigned to sections led by highly competent and intelligent graduate students. In 20 or 30 years, when they have electrified students at other institutions, they might even make it to full faculty members here. The good TFs, of course, have been able not only to clarify points in lecture, but also to have challenged my understanding and analyses of those topics. They have been able to lead and mediate excited discussions between all members of the class, rather than redeliver the professor's lecture.
The key to the success of the section I thought, was the size. The small classrooms in Sever and Robinson Halls were the compensation for sitting in a crowded lecture hall with, as the Confidential Guide and everyone else likes to put it, "300 of your closest friends". A small group, obviously, facilitates discussion, intellectual stimulation and personal attention. And, in a small group, everyone has to talk.
But this spring, I noticed a disturbing trend. My section for Bernard Bailyn's Historical Studies B-31 was huge. Approximately 20 of us sat in desks arranged in a giant horseshoe around our hapless TF. Had we been more alert, we could easily have organized a thrilling game of "Red Rover" or "Keep Away" during our mind-numbingly dull discussions of the Stamp Act.
This fall my Core section has also pushed the distinction between "section" and an unpopular lecture course. At least the section was packed for the first two meetings. Last week, our ranks had shrunk to 15, but that was because, I suspect, we had a paper due that day.
Last week, I found out that larger section sizes were actually the result of a mandate from the University making the crowding acceptable. Needless to say, I was more than shocked or annoyed when I heard that the minimum section size for core classes had been raised to 17.
In raising the minimum, Harvard is taking away the one compensation we have for suffering in crowded lecture halls just so we can say to our parents that "Yes, professors do teach undergraduates" when really they're just lecturing to us.
Harvard students are highly intelligent, selfmotivated beings. No one will say that we are lacking in aggression. But we still need a little nuturing, at least from a graduate student.
Maybe I was spoiled in high school. I attended a small private girls' school where class sizes rarely entered the double digits. If class size ever, heaven forbid, enter the teens as it did in AP English and biology, an angry editorial would appear in our school paper.
And now here I am at a far more prestigious institution where my parents are paying three times what they paid to send me to high school and, in many ways, I am getting a less than stimulating academic experience.
A standard of 17 students in a core section is just too big, especially when you consider that section-size always goes over the set figure. "Filled to capacity" in the Core doesn't mean 17, it means something closer to 20 or 25. We try to set such high standards for academic excellence at Harvard that it is a shame to see the University waste our learning opportunities for easier housekeeping. The size of Core sections at Harvard is definitely one standard that should not get any higher.
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