June Shih's October 19 Opinion piece ("Not Big Enough for All of Us") makes valid points about problems associated with the large size of Core sections at Harvard.
As a teaching fellow for Ec 10, the largest Core class at the College, I would like to add some comments about sections from the perspective of someone leading a section, as well as advice that may help students through this traumatic experience.
My current Ec 10 section has 24 students, meaning that it is nearly "filled to capacity." It was a challenge to learn the names and faces of every student in my section in the first week.
Nevertheless, I, as well as all the other section leaders of Ec 10, spent a lot of time staring at students, trying to associate names with faces. The effort has paid off since I can recognize my students in the Yard and call on them by name in class (even if I still make an occasional mistake or get confused when someone changes hair styles or wears a baseball cap).
Yet even though we enjoy every one of our students, section leaders I have spoken to generally prefer the smaller sections because they give us a chance to connect quickly with the students without as much strain and effort.
My main complaint with Shih's piece is that she does not seem to recognize that students must also exert some effort to make all sections, large and small, work.
She writes that she listened to the large Ec 10 lectures "weeks later on tape cassettes at Boylston." If this is the case, I would not be surprised if she found lecture discussions in section to be boring or confusing. After all, it is difficult to follow a discussion about a lecture if you haven't bothered to either attend the lecture or watch a tape of it beforehand.
She complains of another class in which the students "could easily have organized a thrilling game of 'Red Rover' or 'Keep Away' during our mind-numbingly dull discussions..." While I realize this is said in jest, perhaps instead, she or one of the other students could have added something interesting to the discussion, making it more lively.
Discussions are not a one-way street; if students don't prepare and try to participate, discussions will not go well, no matter how good or dedicated the section leader.
I'd like to critique my favorite line of Shih's editorial. She says, "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."
Although it sounds like a cliche, I must emphasize that we are not in control of your academic fate--you are. This line by Shih is symptomatic of the passivity of some students.
In my first year of teaching, I had students that I never saw outside of class. Others, however, came to office hours (not only before exams or days when problem sets were due) and even called me at home to discuss the material or questions on an exam.
These students benefited from my unproven degree of familiarity with the course matter, or because they had the initiative to work harder. They were also the students who were easiest to help both during and after the academic year.
It is certainly much easier to write a recommendation for the B or C student who worked hard and tried to improve his or her understanding of the material than for the A student that a section leader hardly knows.
During the year, I helped several students with their problem sets in political science or mathematics courses. I have also given advice to and answered course-related questions for former students of mine who are now taking other economics courses.