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Learning Outside the Box

By Hoon-jung Kim

We wish we knew them better, but we seldom seek them out. While I could be referring to acquaintances from pre-frosh weekend or those attractive section-mates, I am, quite unfortunately, talking about our professors.

The dearth of student-faculty contact at Harvard has troubled administrators for years. And every year, graduating seniors list it as one of the issues the university most needs to address. Part of the blame does fall on the faculty's shoulders. There are some professors who place such a priority on their research that they seldom make time for undergraduates. But all members of the faculty are required to hold office hours or to be available through an appointment. Most professors welcome the chance to interact on a more personal level with their students. More often than not, we are the ones refusing to accept their open invitations.

When I think back to my first year, I was bombarded with all sorts of advice and information from my upperclass friends and random brochures alike. They told me to "seek out those professors" and they sung of the glories of "Harvard's resources." The only office hours I remember using, however, were those of my Chem 10 TF, for help with problem sets. My attempts to meet with my professors went as far as highlighting their contact information on my syllabi.

I would make excuses to myself for not seeking out my professors, often variations on the theme of "I'm too busy." But in retrospect, what it all came down to was fear. A fear that something unintelligible might come out of my mouth and an equally strong fear that they didn't really want to see me anyway. These were scholars that the entire world looked up to--what could I possibly offer them?

This kind of fear--the fear of exposing one's intellectual shortcomings--is about as common on this campus as the chickwich. This fear is so powerful that it keeps us from inviting faculty members to dinner or visiting office hours for a conversation.

My attitude towards my professors and TF's has changed dramatically over the years. The more contact you have with faculty, the more down-to-earth they appear and the more realistic your perspective becomes. My thesis research, in particular, has led me to interview many professors in multiple departments. Although I had not taken a class with any of them, all were generously giving of their time and energy. Some gave me copies of relevant papers they had written; others referred me to useful sources. Common to each encounter was a renewed sense of my place in this University. While I certainly did not feel I was at the level of any these professors, I was able to engage in an exchange of ideas with each one. My thesis journeys have helped me realize that this University is not just a collection of Ph.Ds preaching to a collection of students. It is a community of thinkers who can learn from and with each other.

In February, members of the Undergraduate Council successfully lobbied Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis '68 to allow senior faculty members to eat unlimited meals in the Houses and in Annenberg when accompanied by a student. Can't make it to a professor's office hours? Had a conflict with your House's student-faculty dinner? The faculty lunch program, offered every day from 11:30 a.m. to 2:15 p.m., offers maximum user-friendliness. But when was the last time you saw a professor in your dining hall during lunch?

Meaningful interactions with professors don't require doing enough research to write a thesis--or any research at all. Some friends and I recently co-hosted a Core class professor for lunch at our House. I think we were all surprised at how much fun we had. It wasn't a stressful who's-done-the-reading atmosphere. On the contrary, it was a refreshingly spontaneous conversation on topics outside the immediate scope of the class. And our professor was sincerely interested in hearing our opinions.

Yes, it was only one lunch, and perhaps our professor won't remember our names. But perhaps he'll remember our conversation. I know that my friends and I certainly will. And when we come to his lecture next week, we'll see him differently. Instead of being an unapproachable intellectual demigod, he'll be someone who came to lunch with us last week--and someone who might have lunch with us again.

So I encourage you to dig out your syllabus and e-mail that professor you've always wanted to talk to. You'll be surprised at what a little effort can do. The only thing you've got to lose--your fear--is something you'll be better off without.

Hoon-Jung Kim '01 a social studies concentrator in Leverett House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.

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