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World's Greatest University, World's Worst Teachers

By Arianne R. Cohen

I have stumbled upon a dirty secret: our teachers need teaching lessons. Except it’s not a well-kept secret, because I sit through lectures alongside hundreds of fellow students, watching as brilliant minds mangle their genius into incomprehensible, wandering lectures. The secret was put under a spotlight last week, when the economics department announced that, in response to student complaints, Lecturer Robert H. Neugeboren ’83 would take four weeks off from teaching Economics 1010a, “Microeconomic Theory” to better prepare his lectures. While it is not fair to highlight individuals in campus-wide problems, the Neugeboren scandal is indicative of a much bigger problem: a lack in teaching ability at Harvard.

I do not want to imply that all Harvard professors are bad teachers—I have enjoyed many phenomenal lecturers, including professors who sing to make a point (Harvard College Professor and Knafel Professor of Music Thomas F. Kelly), snort in imitation of high school German teachers (Harvard College Professor and Weary Professor of German and Comparative Literature Judith Ryan), and tell stories about their kids as illustrations of medieval medical history (Kass Professor of the History of Medicine Allan M. Brandt). But for every good teacher I’ve had, there is another who deserved the Teaching Police: there was the professor with organizational skills based solely on conversational whim, the professor who spoke in a whisper and looked up from his feet only when the fire alarm went off and the multiple professors who spent fourteen 52-minute sessions reading directly from thick pages of text. And let’s not forget the quality teaching fellows (TFs) who accompanied these professors. There was the one who started crying at a student question, the one who spent sections discussing his girlfriend and the one who regularly lost control of her cleavage, distracting half the class from any insight she may have had, had she done the reading.

Despite the problems, Harvard tends to ignore complaints about teaching ability. I know one particular TF, for example, who has inspired repeated complaints from students, and yet is hired year after year—I’m sure for doing a fine job of photocopying and running student-interception for professors.

But the student outcry in Economics 1010a last week was so loud that a response was unavoidable. So the department chose to paint its decision as an example of quality administration-student communication: “It was clear that there was a problem and we addressed it pretty quickly,” Oliver S. Hart, chair of the economics department, told The Crimson. “I think it’s good for students to voice their concerns.” That’s a crock. Students should not have to ring sirens on ineffective teachers; it’s not their job. Neugeboren’s last three CUE Guide ratings for Economics 1050, “Strategy, Conflict and Cooperation” all had students complaining of disorganization. Though CUE rankings can be biased, how did someone with questionable CUE Guide rankings and ten years of small-group teaching experience end up with 305 students and no supervision? Neugeboren’s average class size went up six-fold, and no one stuck their head in, just to see how things were going?

It is not hard to trace how these situations arise across campus: Harvard professors are recruited from other schools on the basis of academic rigor and achievement. Those not hand-plucked after brilliant articles and Nobel-winning volumes struggle to gain tenure, a process of political correctness and thousands of pages of academic writing. Not teaching ability.

So where, you ask, would an academic develop teaching skills? Labs and libraries are not a mecca of social skill and public speaking ability. “They should learn in school,” you say? Yes, they should. But most graduate programs require extra semesters and tuition to complete a college-level teaching certificate, an unlikely choice for a starving graduate student eager to obtain university status with a brilliant dissertation. And we all know how successful required TF positions are for graduate students with no teaching talent whatsoever.

So instead, the Harvard System of Teaching Excellence functions as follows. The powers that be wait for the Lab and Library Rats of the world to produce some good work, before sticking ’em up on a podium in front of hundreds of students. Then all are surprised when mumbling incoherency stutters past their whiskers. This continues for 20 years or so, until the rat’s academic legend overshadows his lecturing—who would ever question the teaching ability of an almighty University professor? Certainly not the department head who is 20 years his junior, nor his TFs, who roll their eyes and spend sections deciphering lectures.

Notably, some departments do provide beginning training for teaching fellows. All TFs receive some form of training regulated by the dean for undergraduate education, and the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, for example, goes farther than most, requiring all new teaching fellows to undergo a semester of teaching classes. But the requirements end there. Many teachers take voluntary trips to the Derek Bok Center, which offers a myriad of confidential services for professors and TFs, from seminars on educational theory to teaching observation and feedback. The center provides specialized training for course teaching staffs throughout the year, in addition to instruction and videos on lecturing skill. Despite its many visitors, the center is still the most under-used resource on campus (after free therapy at UHS), as it seems that Economics 1010a could have benefited from such attention this year, as could ten of my past classes. It’s free, it’s in the Science Center. There’s really no excuse.

The University needs to acknowledge that intelligence and academic success are not synonymous with teaching skill. Harvard recruits the best and the brightest—which is as it should be at a research institution. But Harvard is a teaching university as well, and the best and the brightest teach undergraduates every day. The best and the brightest need to learn to teach. Really, who can learn effectively from teachers who don’t know how to teach?

Arianne R. Cohen ’03 is a women’s studies concentrator in Leverett House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.

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