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Professors Push TF Reform

Faculty say teaching fellow hiring system should prioritize skill

By William C. Marra, Crimson Staff Writer

As the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) proceeds with a plan requiring departments to preassign teaching fellow (TF) positions to graduate students, some professors are pushing for a more radical—and costly—transformation of the TF system that they say would improve teaching quality.

History Department Chair Andrew D. Gordon said that while the preassignment program—which is being implemented gradually across the humanities and the social sciences—is “on balance positive,” graduate students should be assigned as TFs based on teaching ability, not financial need.

The University currently requires third- and fourth-year graduate students to serve as TFs in order to receive financial funding. To make assignments merit based, Gordon said the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) should be endowed independently of the FAS and that this should be the University’s highest priority in its upcoming fundraising drive, even above funding for the new campus to be built in Allston.

East Asian Languages and Civilizations Chair Philip A. Kuhn said the current system does not take into account graduate students’ ability or desire to teach, resulting in inadequate instruction for undergraduates.

“We must make sure that the TFs are those best suited for teaching at the College, not just those we need to finance,” Kuhn said. “A Harvard education should not be hit or miss.”

He said the solution to the “hit or miss” problem would be to unlink financial aid and teaching fellowships—in other words, to have enough money to fund graduate students’ education without requiring them to spend time in the classroom.

“Until there is a well-developed plan to endow the Graduate School, until we do that, we will always be stuck with this ‘make the best of it’ kind of situation which I don’t think is appropriate for Harvard,” he said.

Gordan said a GSAS endowment would allow departments to fund graduate students without requiring them to teach.

“That to me should absolutely be the top priority,” he said. “I hear promises that that’s what we’re going to do from Larry Summers and Bill Kirby, that we’re going to make it a priority, but I don’t see it actually launched.”

At last month’s Faculty meeting, both University President Lawrence H. Summers and FAS Dean William C. Kirby gave their support to raising funds for GSAS.

“It will categorically be a major focus” of the next funding campaign, said Summers. “I assure you that this is a central priority.”

The University currently ensures graduate students “full funding” for four of their five years of study in the social sciences and humanities. Starting this spring, incoming GSAS students will be guaranteed funding for all five years.

The preassignment plan, which has already been implemented in some departments, is designed to give graduate students more time to prepare for their courses, and to relieve the stress of last-minute scrambles for teaching fellowships that happens at the beginning of each semester.

“TF assignments [in most departments] aren’t made or finalized until after term has begun...It is this regressive practice that we are changing, requiring departments to make these assignment decisions well in advance and in a responsible way,” said GSAS Dean Peter Ellison.

While professors said that the plan works well within the existing TF structure, they also said that in the long run the system needs to be overhauled.

“We do the best now with a very imperfect system. You can call it being caught between a rock and a hard place,” Gordon said. “We have to offer good teaching to undergraduates…[but] there’s a lot of pressure to put graduate students in the classroom [as section leaders].”

Gordon said that even under a system where TFing is not required, it should still be encouraged, because part of a graduate education entails learning how to become a good teacher.

Logan S. McCarthy ’96, who is a chemistry graduate student, agreed.

“Requiring some teaching seems to be really important to the mission of training potential future professors,” he said.

The current plan does not affect graduate students in the physical and life sciences, who serve as TFs during their first and second years and are subsequently funded by their research advisers.

—Staff writer William C. Marra can be reached at

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