In the musical "A Chorus Line," one of the dancers complains about her audition ratings in a song called, "Dance: 10; Looks: 3."
Harvard should have been singing that song earlier this month--except here it would be called "The Harvard Name: 10; Harvard Teaching: 3."
When U.S. News and World Report again anointed Harvard number one in its annual survey of universities, it came as no surprise. But behind the glamour of being tops six years in a row was a less expected rating: Harvard placed only 17th in teaching quality.
A Harvard professor I spoke with last year said, somewhat sarcastically, that if he had wanted to know his students really well, he would have taught at Swarthmore.
Although that is by no means the opinion of most Harvard professors--many of whom are superb--the comment and the survey give evidence for a problem in Harvard's attitude toward teaching. As it stands, the teaching is generally adequate, but it could be so much better.
Of course, as administrators have conceded for years, professors here aren't hired for their teaching ability. Harvard gives tenure to "the best in the world," but that means books published and papers written, not the amount of knowledge imparted to eager undergraduates. If a professor can also teach, it's a bonus, not a requirement.
As President James B. Conant '14 said in favor of research, "It is not sufficient to train investigators and scholars, no matter how brilliant they may be."
Research is crucial, but it should be balanced with teaching. Here are some ideas, already used by excellent teachers here, that can help:
Professors, especially in the humanities and social sciences, should hold an undergraduate section for every departmental (non-Core) class they teach.
If that is impossible, professors should sit in once a semester on each section of their classes, including Cores. That helps de-mystify faculty members and often encourages students to seek further contact in office hours.
One of the best teaching experiences I've had here was in a history class where the professor invited undergraduates to join his graduate section. About six chose to come, and not only did we get his helpful paper comments and intelligent discussions, we also came to know a professor face-to-face in a setting more casual than a seminar.
Departmental seminar offerings should be increased dramatically. Even more important, professors should offer more Freshman Seminars. This year, sadly, only about 25 percent of firstyears will be able to take one.
These small-group settings offer students a chance to interact directly with a professor rather than slugging through huge Core and introductory courses.
Tutorials offer a similar experience, but again, not every department offers them as full courses. In honors concentrations such as History and Literature and History of Science, small tutorials are the focus, and undergraduates often cite these intense courses as the best part of their Harvard studies.
In order to help shy or intimidated students, professors could also hold mandatory small-group discussions of paper proposals--with, say, four to six students--during 15 or 20 minutes of their office hours.
That would make professors seem more like human beings and give students an excuse to come to office hours--which, for lack of student attendance, often seem more like wakes than question-and-answer sessions.
There are also the obvious suggestions, such as insisting that professors and teaching fellows speak clear English and having teaching fellows speak clear English and having teaching fellows attend class, as the Faculty Council has proposed.
If more professors took the time to sit in on sections, offer seminars and invite students to know them outside of lecture, Harvard could make its teaching score match its reputation.
And, more important than a rating, Harvard's teachers would carry on a university's most important function--guiding the next generation of excited, effective teachers and sending this generation of students into the world with enthusiasm and dynamism.
Sarah J. Schaffer's column appears on alternate Fridays.