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Visiting Professors Add Spice to College Life

By Chana R. Schoenberger

Kathleen Coleman had never visited the United States before. So when Harvard's Classics Department offered her a year-long position as a visiting professor of Latin, Coleman, who teaches at Trinity College, Dublin, jumped at the chance.

"This seemed a wonderful opportunity," says Coleman, who has taught four classes during her stay in Cambridge.

About 75 professors from outside Harvard have visited the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) this academic year, filling named lectureships, using the University's library facilities and teaching courses while regular Faculty memberstake sabbaticals.

"A number of faculty would consider it an interesting opportunity," says Carol J. Thompson, associate dean of FAS for academic affairs.

Why Visit?

According to FAS Dean Jeremy R. Knowles, visiting professors come to Harvard both to advance their own research interests and careers and to serve the University's teaching needs.

Knowles cites four main reasons why outside scholars would choose to serve as visiting professors at Harvard.

Some named prestigious lectureships--including the Norton Lecture appointment, which rotates among scholars of art, music and literature--must be filled annually by visiting experts.

Into this category also fall practitioners who fill unnamed lectureships, often supplementing departments short of Faculty members. The vast majority of those appointments occur in the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies, which regularly features studio courses taught by non-academic working artists, Thompson says.

"Visiting lecturers are the title because nothing else quite fits that works for the studio people," she says.

When full-time Faculty take sabbaticals, Knowles says, a department will often hire a visiting professor to teach an introductory or otherwise popular course if no other Faculty member is interested.

"Usually the person or group who specializes in that area tries to think about who would best compliment the instructional balance," Thompson says.

In addition, Knowles says, some professors from other schools ask to spend a semester using the Harvard libraries and teach as well.

"It can be a sabbatical year where they want to do research but they're happy to spend half-time teaching," Thompson says.

Another category includes "people who departments would like to hear from," including scholars whose work Harvard Faculty find interesting, Knowles says.

Some visiting professors, including Knowles himself, do work so interesting that their colleagues eventually propose they join the tenured ranks of the Faculty.

Finding Visitors

Because of the constant interaction among academics, Faculty members and administrators say, word of possible visiting positions circulates through a world-wide grapevine.

"Classics is a small world," Coleman says, who explained that word of mouth played a role in her invitation to spend this year visiting Harvard.

"There's sort of a network of people who talk to one another," says Visiting Professor Eric Yesson. "When there's a job opening, word gets around."

According to Thompson, the FAS administration plays a small role in locating prospective visiting professors.

"Visiting professors are found through suggestions from faculty in conjunction with the chair," says Nancy B. Shafman, administrator of the Music Department, which has five visiting professors and two endowed lecturers this year.

Back To Cambridge

For some professors, visiting Harvard for a semester is a return to their past.

Elhanan Helpman, a visiting professor of economics who teaches at Tel Aviv University in Israel, did graduate work at Harvard.

Helpman, who taught a fall graduate seminar as well as Economics 1542: "International Trade Policy" this semester, has served as a visiting professor at Harvard twice before.

"I have many friends here, and at the moment Harvard has the best economics department," he says.

Visiting Professor of German Gail Finney says her fond memories of Harvard aided her decision to spend a sabbatical term here.

Finney, who taught in the German Department as an assistant and associate professor between 1980 and 1988, is visiting from the University of California-Davis, where she is a professor of German and comparative literature.

"I liked Harvard very much," she says of her time as a Faculty member. "The students, my colleagues, Harvard's standards, Harvard Square and Boston. Hence I did not hesitate when invited back for a term."

Yesson, a visiting professor in the government department, previously served as a predoctoral fellow at the Olin Institute, part of Harvard's Center for International Affairs.

After teaching at Brown University for the past two and a half years, he returned to Cambridge to teach courses on foreign policy.

After years of teaching at MIT and the University of California-San Diego (UCSD), Wayne Cornelius, a visiting professor in the government department, decided to return to Harvard as a visiting professor this year.

"I began my academic career here in 1971," Cornelius says. "Now I'm back full circle."

Ethnic Studies

Cornelius, who is teaching courses on immigration and Mexican politics, comes to Harvard by way of a specially-created visiting professorship for ethnic studies.

According to Knowles, the ethnic studies committee, headed by Professor of Chinese Literature Leo O. Lee, awards four ethnic studies positions each year.

"The Dean set aside some special slots for visiting scholars to teach ethnic studies courses," says Werner Sollors, Cabot professor of English literature and professor of Afro-American studies. "Every year we invite numerous scholars to teach courses in various fields."

Because ethnic studies is not an academic department, the program has no tenured Faculty members.

Individual departments often propose individual academics for joint visiting appointments with ethnic studies.

Sollors is primarily responsible for the upcoming visit of Hector Calderon, a prominent Chicano scholar of literature who will arrive at Harvard next semester under the ethnic studies program.

According to Sollors, Calderon, who will teach in both the English and folklore and mythology departments, is "one of the leaders" of his field.

"I'm really excited and looking forward to having him here," Sollors says.

At Home at Harvard

Once professors decide to accept a visiting position, they face the challenge of finding housing in the relatively expensive suburbs of Boston.

Often, visiting faculty try to win a resident scholar's position in one of the undergraduate Houses.

Resident scholars can usually rent a suite within a House for less than they would pay to live off campus. They can also eat for free in the House dining hall.

In return, resident scholars contribute to the House community by giving lectures, performing in recitals or otherwise interacting with students.

According to Bernbaum Professor of Literature Leo Damrosch, the chair of the English department, visiting faculty consider House suites desirable.

"We help them find housing," he says. "Usually they do want and get apartments in one of the Houses."

Finney, who spent five years as a resident tutor in Eliot House during her prior professorship at Harvard, chose to live in Quincy House this semester.

"This time I wanted to be centrally located again, and since I knew the Master of Quincy House, [Dean of Continuing Education and University Extension and Senior Lecturer on English] Michael Shinagel, from before, I contacted him about renting a suite here for this term," she says.

Resident scholar spots are competitive, however, and visiting faculty often end up renting living space off campus.

Cornelius says he wanted to live in a House apartment, but was unable to secure a position.

"I tried, but I couldn't find any accomodations on campus," he says. "The in-House accomodations were all full or promised to other people, so I was not able to get one of those."

Cornelius quips that Boston's legendary drivers contributed to his desire to live in the Houses.

"Do you think I'd want to come back and drive in Boston?" he laughs.

Some visiting faculty members end up improvising their housing arrangements.

Visiting philosophy professor Tim Maudlin, on leave from Rutgers University, says he spent the first semester of this year living in an apartment which belonged to the philosophy department's administrative assistant, for lack of anywhere else to stay.

For some visiting professors, however, the living question is hardly a factor at all.

Yesson found his commute significantly lessened when he switched from Brown to Harvard.

"I was teaching at Brown but living in Cambridge," he says. "That certainly played into the decision."

Students sometimes complain that visiting professors raise their grading standards when teaching at Harvard, an outgrowth of the common perception that Harvard students are fundamentally more intellectual than students at other schools.

Visiting faculty say they have noticed disparities in the student populations.

"It's a totally different type of undergraduate teaching experience," says Cornelius. "That's one of the reasons I decided to come back for a visit."

Cornelius--who is spending his visit at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies--notes the vastly smaller size of Harvard classes.

"Here I can teach everything essentially as a seminar," he says.

"My smallest upper-division undergraduate course at UCSD has 150 people," Cornelius says. "Here, my smallest is a junior seminar, which has about 10 people including auditors. And there are 14 in my so-called lecture class."

Finney, who, like Cornelius, teaches in the public University of California system, also points out the essential differences between state schools and private schools such as Harvard.

"Given the selectivity of Harvard, undergraduates are obviously better trained and more talented, in general, than undergraduate students at a public institution like UC-Davis, although there are exceptions," she says.

Visiting assistant professor of economics Matthew Kahn, who will be teaching at Harvard for two more semesters, says Harvard for two more semesters, says Harvard students are more assertive than students at his home institution, Columbia University.

"Harvard undergraduates have tremendous self confidence," Kahn says. "At Columbia, when I ask a class of 35 students a question, I'll see 3 hands raised, while at Harvard, 20 students will fight for the 'air time.'"

Kahn also praises the quality of Harvard's graduate students.

""Harvard undergraduates also benefit by having as [teaching fellows] some of the best new economists who genuinely care about teaching and conveying basic economic ideas," Kahn says. "That improves the quality of any undergraduate course immensely."

Not all visitors are overwhelmed with the exceptional talent of Harvard students, however. Maudlin says the differences he has noticed have not all been positive.

"There seems to be in seminars, from what I can see, less discussion than we would have," he says. "There's more of a sense of people presenting a position than people jointly inquiring."

When he first began teaching his graduate seminar on the philosophy of science last semester, Maudlin says, he had trouble getting the graduate students to contribute ideas to the discussion.

"I had to be extremely provocative," Maudlin says. "It was a few sessions before they said anything."

Enjoying the Visit

Harvard's reputation is undeniably one draw for visiting faculty. In addition, visitors get research privileges at the world's largest University library collection.

Coleman notes that Widener Library has useful material that Trinity College lacks.

"The Widener library is much larger than Trinity and has excellent international holdings, whereas Trinity's strength is especially in British and Irish publications," she says.

Finney also praises Widener's resources.

"The facilities at Harvard, above all the library system, are superior to those I have experienced elsewhere," she says.

For some professors, however, the ability to work within a certain department has a strong influence on their decision. Kahn says he chose to come to Harvard because of the quality of economics department.

"I think the major factor was the opportunity to eat tacos at Loker Commons," he jokes.

"The second factor is that Harvard's economics department is outstanding."

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