Lost in the Crowd

Now that your study card is in, let's take a look at your schedule. How many of the classes are you taking that have under 20 students and are taught by a professor? For most of us the answer is possibly one, and probably none. And many of us have plenty of friends at other schools that regale us with stories of intimate classes with wonderful professors--not just on obscure topics like medical developments in Asia Minor in the eleventh century, but on subjects at the heart of their liberal arts education.

U.S. News & World Report's infamous college guide claimed that Harvard spent more per student than nearly any other college in the country and yet had a percentage of classes with enrollment above 50 comparable to a state school system. Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Education Jeffrey Wolcowitz told me that last year, over half of Harvard's classes had under 20 people. He also said that U.S. News may have counted courses like Math 21a, Expository Writing 10 and Spanish A as courses with large enrollment, when they are in fact taught entirely in sections of 20 and under.

But even if mistakes were made, the magazine's figures are not mythical. Take a random sample of 15 undergraduates, and I submit to you that most will have taken a significant percentage of large classes. Few students would claim that multivariable calculus, basic writing and beginning language skills need to be taught by Ph.D.s. But they do expect to learn philosophy, history and literature in a setting where argument, debate and questions thrive--in small classes led by members of the faculty.

Why does Harvard, a school with so many resources and talented faculty, so often land us in impersonal lecture halls and sections? What are other-schools doing differently? U.S. News also noted that our student to faculty ratio is twelve to one, four more students per professor than at Princeton. Proportionally, they have 50 percent more faculty members than we do, a fact that spells larger classes and less personal attention.

But this difference cannot account for the discrepancy we see. Indeed, a few more students per class, even five to ten more, probably doesn't amount to much. Other forces must be at work, and two in particular are the likely culprits.


Over-enrollment, thy name is the Core. Without the Core, the average class size in a student's Harvard career would plummet. At other schools, distribution requirements are fulfilled in small seminar rooms tucked away in departmental buildings. Here, we often have to hope we make the lottery. Without addressing the limited choices offered in certain Core divisions, the University cannot seriously reform the quality of undergraduate teaching.

But more importantly, faculty members must teach and must be rewarded for teaching well. So many appointments require little to no teaching, affording the professor independence and freedom to proceed with his or her research. What good is a twelve to one ratio if each professors teaches a significantly smaller load of courses than do their colleagues at another school? The Independent published a brilliant article a few years ago showing the uncanny correlation between getting the Levenson Award for outstanding teaching and being passed over for tenure. Whatever Harvard's criteria for academic excellence, being an educator is not central among them.

The bottom line is that Harvard cannot have it both ways. Either it must admit that research must come at the expense of undergraduate instruction or it must change the way it does business.

In truth, I have enjoyed my classes here. I like sitting in the back of the room. When I have tired of that, I have scoured the course catalog and have discovered some wonderful small courses. And mother Harvard would probably defend her record by saying she must sometimes neglect her young in order that great minds can think great thoughts for the world. But let her be frank about her priorities, for we who have sat in Sanders and Emerson 105 countless times will not be easily fooled.

Ethan M. Tucker's column appears on alternate Thursdays.