How Well Does the Faculty Train TFs?

News Feature

Joel S. Orlina '96 says it is not a coincidence that his physics teaching fellow's phone number begins with the sequence "666."

The TF might not be the Devil himself, but he is certainly not the ideal instructor for a clueless physics student, Orlina says.

Like most undergraduates, Orlina hoped for a section leader who would clarify confusing concepts and enhance the overall course experience. He didn't get one.

"He doesn't inspire my confidence," Orlina says of his TF. "He doesn't seek out problem are as."

And Harvard has no real means of ensuring that Orlina's TF or any other section leader will be the kind of teacher undergraduates seek.

Although individual departments have the option of training their graduate students in the basics of leading a section, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) has no TF training requirement. The FAS does not teach its teachers how to teach.

Both Dean for Undergraduate Education Lawrence Buell and Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles say they want to see a change in that policy. "I would definitely support an FAS-wide initiative to make sure that we have strong TF training across the board," Buell says.

But right now undergraduates still have no guarantee that their tuition dollars pay for teachers, not underprepared researchers forced into the classroom by their departments.

That is indeed the description for many of the graduate students thrown into the teaching trenches, graduate students and undergraduates agree.

"Most of us teach because it's part of the reason we're here. It's part of our training, linked to our financial aid, so in that way we have to," President of the Graduate Student Council Carlos A. Lopez says.

Many of them have simply never taught before. One answer for untried TFs is definitely education, says James D. Wilkinson '69, director of the Bok Center for Teaching and Learning.

"Because there is constant recycling, there is a constant need for training," Wilkinson says.

Trained or not, these aspiring academics play a key role in the education Harvard provides to its undergraduates. Enormous lecture courses with large section components are an unavoidable fact of life for most College students.

A professor with 450 people in his or her course can't grade all the papers or talk to all the undergrads. TFs fill this gap.

But they don't always fill it well. Nearly every undergraduate has a TF horror story he or she can trot out on request.