A Department by Any Other Name

On any given Monday morning, kiosks around campus are bombarded with brightly colored posters: the English department extends a cordial

On any given Monday morning, kiosks around campus are bombarded with brightly colored posters: the English department extends a cordial invitation to a parlor discussion on close reading, or the math department sponsors a seminar on number theory. For the naive student, unaware of which department offers a strong advising system or which one caters to the needs of its junior faculty, differentiating among the undergraduate giants like government or history and the often-forgotten departments like folk and myth or Classics can be daunting. And a student’s individual needs only complicate the matter; would a hands-off, self-directed environment be ideal or an intimately personal one with a handful of senior professors with whom to schmooze? Ultimately students will choose a department based on their areas of interest, but once that happens, the learning process and time spent at Harvard can be greatly enriched or regretfully hindered by the characteristics that set the department apart from the rest.

Though many students think of their professors as autonomous agents who control a class from the lonely podium in the front of the room, interfaculty relationships have a lot to do with making a department run like a well-oiled machine. Small departments, in particular, mention noticeable friendly interactions between professors. Richard Thomas, chair of the Classics Department, seems particularly impressed by the healthy social atmosphere in Classics. Professors support each other in intellectual pursuits by collaborating in workshops, attending outside lectures and sitting in on their colleagues’ seminars. Thomas also emphasizes the importance of less formal events like faculty dinners, monthly lunches, and the departmental favorite—the spring picnic. It stands to reason that professors who get along with each other will be ready and willing to collaborate when helping students as well. “Classics is in a way a self-contained, interdisciplinary study,” Thomas explains, citing this as a reason for much of the interaction among diverse academics both in and outside of the department.

The mutual respect that arises from working with highly accomplished peers goes a long way toward developing a sense of unity, even in departments that highlight the achievements of individual superstars. Though the music building sits, as chair Thomas F. Kelly jokes, “in the icy shadow of the Science Center,” it is inhabited by faculty “who not only have wide ranges of interest but also often outside musical careers”—for example, famed classical pianist and Robinson Professor of Music Robert D. Levin ’68. However, this makes for anything but the stereotypical “diva” atmosphere assumed to pervade music departments. According to Kelly, “though we have many programs which could ignore each other, we rejoice in each others’ differences and accomplishments.”

Similarly, the math department, where, chair Benedict Gross says, self-grouping into “cliques” would be easy, fosters much interaction among the resident mathematical scholars. Due to the especially small size of the department, many faculty members are forced to work side-by-side, on joint papers and joint seminars.

This creates a “very cohesive” atmosphere, Gross says. Professors meet once a day for tea and even socialize outside of work; Gross plays squash with colleagues, and treasures this time not only for social benefits but for research possibilities as well, because “you never know when a question will come up.”

It would be somewhat naive to assume that larger departments, with more faculty and students to provide for, could create the same warm environment that characterizes some of the smaller ones. In the English department, for example, chair Lawrence Buell notes that the workplace doesn’t tend to be the site of “very much schmoozing around the water cooler.” With many faculty members travelling frequently or taking sabbatical, the department often has to rely on departmental meetings to bring faculty members together.

But according to Professor Robert Kiely, “Morale here has never been better in my memory.” Buell adds that as English departments go, Harvard’s excels at creating a sense of the “collective.” In a department where faculty are much too busy to attend one another’s classes, the faculty come together for departmental colloquia—seminars that provide a forum for discussion and constructive criticism. Professor Thomas seemed to cature the general consensus: “Harmony is better than disharmony.”

Not every department enjoys the intellectual and social cohesion that seems to bubble from the Barker Center or Paine Hall. In the history and government departments, monthly faculty meetings, hiring seminars and occasional Christmas parties are the modus operandi for social cohesion. “It’s sad we get together so often to do administrative things, but not enough to enjoy our company intellectually,” says history department chair David Blackbourn. And sometimes disagreements among faculty concerning the basic principles that govern the discipline can hinder collaborative efforts.

The government department has long dealt with a division between faculty who support a quantitative-based study of government and those who do not. Faculty members say that this conflict is indicative of the general political science field and that it has not caused a rift in the department. “There have been controversies in the discipline that have led to debates. I don’t think Harvard is substantially different from other political science institutions on the whole. It reflects accurately the state of the discipline,” says Professor Jeffry Frieden. This theoretical disagreement has not degenerated into departmental in-fighting either, according to assistant professor Barry Burden.

“There are clashes about ideas,” adds Burden, but “we’re a big enough department that there are just going to be some disagreements. If we were all in agreement we wouldn’t get very far.”

Though they may not gather for a spring picnic, Government professors seem to agree that this ideological disagreement is a healthy, not destructive, quality of the department.

Roderick MacFarquhar, government department chair, says he would be worried the department was becoming too bland if there was not a diversity of opinion between professors. Similar feelings pervade the history department. “We’ve been fortunate, and my sense is that this is true of history departments across the U.S., that although there are very wide differences of approach and methodology and even definition of what history is and can be that these arguments have been debated in friendly and collegial fashion,” says Blackburn. “I think we can on the whole still see what the other people are getting at whatever side we’re on, that the language is in common. The majority of people are able to recognize good work of whatever kind.”

For some of Harvard’s larger departments, simply not having enough space in which to house all its faculty can be the biggest hurdle when trying to create department atmosphere. Nearly 15 years ago the government department was forced to share its home in Littauer with the growing economics department. Since then, government faculty has been forced to inhabit make-shift offices scattered around the campus. government professors currently occupy space in Littauer, Coolidge Hall, the Center for European Studies (CES) and the Kennedy School of Government, and they are anything but happy about this change in scenery.

“The single biggest problem is geographic dispersion,” says Frieden. “Less than one-third of the faculty have offices in the same building. I rarely see the colleagues that are not in my building.” Blackbourn is sympathetic to the government department’s space dilemma. While the history department’s headquarters in Robinson Hall, professors have office space in Coolidge and CES as well. Blackbourn calls the history department a “friendly place to work,” but acknowledges that the geographic reality limits the ability of the department to get together as a whole.

The informal collaboration of faculty members is key to academic and social prosperity, according to history associate professor Catherine Corman. She and five other female junior faculty members who have young children sit in a “cluster” in Robinson Hall that they call the “pink-collar ghetto.” Much of her most productive informal input has come from this group, Corman says.

Praising the 1996 Barker Center renovations, Kiely refers to the “pre-Barker Center days” as a time when faculty members “could go weeks without seeing colleagues,” and indeed, this seems to be the case in various other departments as well. Thomas describes a similar situation, when the Classics department was divided about four years ago, between half a floor in Boylston (shared with Slavic Studies) and space in Widener and Pusey where senior faculty resided. This created a “virtual versus actual community,” according to Thomas, where senior faculty often came to Boylston only to check their mail. In a continuing effort to work against that trend, the Classics department has supported, along with other Boylston departments, the return of the Boylston Café as a venue for increased socialization.

A department can’t begin to worry about fostering social cohesion or housing all of its senior faculty without first ensuring that the academics who will make names for themselves in a given field make their way to Harvard’s campus.

What all of the Harvard departments seem to share, regardless of their size or prestige, is a demand for new, quality faculty members. While this is an innocent enough request, the brunt of the departments’ pressure falls on the junior faculty to produce academic work worthy of tenure. Faculty members say that this is an inherent part of academia, but at Harvard this pressure is magnified. Though tenure is certainly a generic debate not unique to Harvard, there is always some “tenseness surrounding the fact that the future for junior faculty is uncertain,” Buell says. “If you’re senior faculty, you’re an oligarch. Junior faculty can’t know how invested to get in the department.” Regardless, Buell still claims that the English department’s junior faculty is an “upbeat group” respected by senior faculty. Kiely agrees that “the Harvard tenure system makes being junior faculty difficult,” though he says little personal tension occurs as a result of this difficulty.

Many professors in the history and government departments say that the junior faculty are a self-selecting group who are self-motivated when it comes to pursuing tenure. “Mostly we tend to hire the kind of junior faculty who are extraordinarily talented and put a lot of pressure on themselves,” Blackbourn says. They have in common an enormous inner drive. The hiring of junior faculty is taken very seriously now because we’re hiring people who could be tenured down the road. They realize this.”

Pressure to publish is an inherent part of the job description for junior faculty. Publishing has become such an integral part of academia that Professor of French History Patrice Higonnet says that there is a joke about it among academics.

He says the joke is that Jesus has been nailed to the cross and there are two rabbis with him. The younger rabbi is weeping and the older rabbi asks, “Why are you weeping?” The younger rabbi answers, “He was such a great teacher.” To which the older one replies, “But what did he publish?”

Higonnet says that because it is such a general pressure in academia, the pressure to publish has been “interiorized” at Harvard—it is all part of a day’s work. “There is no question that Harvard expects faculty to do both serious research and teaching.”