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Primarily Not For Grads

By Nancy RAINE Reyes

How do you understand the phrase "Primarily for Undergraduates" that is found in the beginning of many course listings in the Courses of Instruction? I understand it to mean that the classes following such a heading are for students who are for the most part (that takes care of the "primarily" part of the phrase) not graduate students (that takes care of the "undergraduate" part).

If this is in fact the true definition of the phrase, why then do so many of these classes--and most importantly the sections of these classes--have a larger number of graduate students than the word primarily indicates they would? It is true that the presence of graduate students in sections can sometimes be beneficial. But it is also true that the presence of these students is detrimental not only to undergraduate students but also to the structure and the dynamics of the section as a whole.

In sections where discussion is crucial, students need to feel comfortable expressing their opinions. Without this comfort the open interaction between the teaching fellow and the students, as well as between the students themselves, cannot happen. In fact, the section which lacks these factors can fall apart and fail disastrously.

To avoid this, section leaders need to create a comfortable and workable atmosphere that encourages and welcomes the insights and arguments of students. Many Harvard teaching fellows have enough problems with this aspect. And when graduate students are added to the equation, disaster is the only outcome.

Harvard students who are currently in sections with graduate students argue that the presence of graduate students causes sections to lose their main function: to help students. They feel that graduate students are often domineering in section discussion. Because of this domination, undergraduates feel intimidated from expressing their opinions or arguing with other students. This fear of discussion in a section causes a lack of essential and beneficial undergraduate interaction. Thus, nothing is gained by undergraduates from the section. It has simply turned into a forum of exchange for graduate students and teaching fellows.

It can be argued that a strong teaching fellow can overcome this pitfall by good and consistent moderation and by the encouragement of open discussion. But frankly, this is a formidable challenge that many of Harvard's inexperienced teaching fellows would have a difficult time meeting. The addition of graduate students causes teaching fellows (many of them graduate students in their own right), to become wrapped up in the opportunity to exchange insights with their equals. The rest of the section is ignored and they leave feeling frustrated and stupid.

Harvard undergraduates are calling for something which they should not be denied: intellectual interaction and exchange with their fellow undergraduate peers. Students need a forum of intellectual exchange unencumbered by the often intimidating and dominant presence of graduate students.

This issue can be tackled in two ways. One is that although many classes do have separate graduate sections, not all the graduates are in them. Graduates should be required, if enrolling in one of the "primarily for undergraduate" classes, to limit themselves to attending and participating in graduate sections only. The other alternative to solving this dilemma necessitates a little more work that administrators may find much too difficult and time consuming for their ever-increasing agendas--hiring more experienced teaching fellows who can tackle the challenge of sophisticated moderation in section.

If Harvard students cannot be assured that they will primarily encounter non-graduate students in their "primarily for undergraduates" classes, then they should at least be assured that the presence of graduate students in their classes will not hinder the necessary benefits of a productive section. As it stands now however, sections with graduate students are anything but productive. They have simply become a 50-minute time period where Harvard students are overcome by intimidation and frustration.

Nancy Raine Reyes' column appears on alternate Saturdays.

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