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It's amazing how much influence the annual college rankings from U.S. News and World Report have. Last year, Harvard fell from the number one spot for the first time in several years. Why did we fall? Well, according to U.S. News' precise and scientific calculation based on countless indices of excellence, our classes were too large and our professors too inaccessible.
Falling off U.S. News' pedestal caused much commotion last fall on campus. Harvard students seemed to have a collective identity crisis. There were endless debates and meetings with Faculty and administration officials to discuss this problem. Oddly enough, now that we have returned to number one, no one is so worried about class size or accessibility of professors.
We forget, however, that there is a world beyond Harvard, a world in which earnest high school seniors gobble up U.S. News' annual rankings. Despite our return to the top, those seniors recall last year's fall and the reason for it. And when they make campus visits, as they are doing presently, they invariably ask about class sizes and the time professors devote to undergraduates.
Many pre-frosh hosts will have negative responses to these questions. Excluding workloads and the weather, there is perhaps no more popular topic about which Harvard students complain than class size and professors. Amidst the grumbling, only infrequently does anyone note that these so-called problems are much more a function of student, not Faculty, behavior.
Take, for example, class size. We complain about large classes, while forgetting that no one, not one single person, is required to take large classes; each person takes them voluntarily, based on his or her interests or the class's popularity. Students take Ec 10 because they have an interest in economics and want to explore that interest before committing to a concentration. Likewise with other classes: students take Justice or First Nights because they have no background in moral philosophy or classical opera, but want to learn about them.
Now some may object that lecture size is immaterial and say that section size is what really matters. Admittedly, the average section is indefensibly large and the administration should loosen its belt to hire more TFs. But in not a few cases, particular sections are over-subscribed, leaving the other sections with less than 10 students. McLean Professor of Ancient and Modern History Steven Ozment faced this problem this fall. In History 10a, he secured funding for two additional sections to be offered on Fridays. Although the first sections all had well over 15 students, Professor Ozment literally had to beg students--he offered gourmet cupcakes as bribes--to switch into the Friday sections.
Even if one's section is too large, one has recourse to office hours and appointments. TFs unfailingly accommodate students seeking to meet outside of class; they are, after all, only TFs. Professors, however, have schedules that are more rigid. Research, travel and paperwork consume their time. Still, if professors do not spend enough time with students, we are more to blame than they are. Seniors, I have learned, have many reasons to spend time with professors. They typically have taken small seminars with some professors. They spend the spring of their junior year looking for a thesis adviser. They spend the fall of their senior year hitting up professors for letters of recommendation. In all these activities, I have yet to find an aloof or harsh professor. In fact, I have found only professors with the utmost interest in their students.
Harvard is a research university, and its professors may be researchers and writers before they are teachers. Even so, that these men and women have dedicated their lives to scholastic study indicates the passion they have for their discipline. Like all humans, they want to share their passion with others; they want to give it to others. Students are the likeliest recipients of this desire, but we seldom receive it.
I seriously doubt that Harvard has a professor who does not appreciate time with serious and interested undergraduates. When one shows up with a sparkle in his or her eyes and an insatiable curiosity, professors see themselves as they were at our age. They recall when they were mere puppies in their studies, and they recall the professor who sparked their passion. Professors surely want to do the same with us, but they rarely get the chance because we spend too much time complaining about them and their large classes. If we would take the initiative and seek out the professors with whom we share a common passion, they would welcome us warmly, and we would find a teacher, in the fullest sense of the word.
Thomas B. Cotton's column appears on alternate Fridays.
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