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Making Sections Work

Requiring more professor oversight is the way to make TFs better teachers

By The Crimson Staff

Bad teaching fellows (TFs) can make section about as educationally edifying as a trip to the dentist’s office. Aside from a set of remarkable grad students who know the material and possess the skills to teach it, in section—often the pedagogical equivalent of pulling teeth—leaders range from the clueless to the unhinged. Yet when it comes to undergraduate education, the College puts TFs both good and bad on pedagogy’s front lines.

Harvard’s current solution to TF teaching (or the lack thereof)? As the Committee on Undergraduate Education reviewed last Wednesday, the College’s facile approach consists of optional mid-term TF evaluations and optional classes at the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning. In the long-term, the preliminary report of the ongoing Harvard College Curricular Review suggests creating fellowships for outstanding TFs and making short training courses in evaluating student work mandatory for grad-student teachers. Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences William C. Kirby also believes that instituting a system of preregistration—an unpopular ogre of a policy that we fiercely oppose—might improve the general quality of TFs. None of these policies or proposals is a real solution to uneven TF teaching.

The simple truth is that bad TFs will always persist at the College. A large research university, even with a faulty-student ratio as low as Harvard’s, will have to tap grad students to teach. But as we have insisted for years, the College can do much more to make TFs better teachers than endowing prizes or offering brief crash courses on grading, which will undoubtedly be easy for grad students to coast through.

Instead of fellowships and training programs, we again encourage the curricular review’s committee on pedagogy to make greater course-head oversight of TFs mandatory. More sections should be taped, and the College should require course heads to review the recordings and complete written evaluations of their TFs. Professors should then deposit those evaluations in a permanent file accessible to other course heads. The College should also require professors to meet often with TFs to discuss sections and course material.

Finally, professors should do more of their own grading. Evaluation of student work is just as essential to the learning process as course lectures. Yet TFs are almost always the ones grinding through final exams and term papers, making grading at the College often radically subjective and frustratingly inconsistent. Indeed, students often complain that the grades they get reflect the random personal biases, understandings or misunderstandings of their TFs more than the relative quality of the work they did. These claims must, of course, be adjusted for some students’ frustration at getting low grades. But considering the mountains of anecdotal evidence available, it is clear to us that TF grading at the College is hardly fair.

We do not expect that more professor oversight will eliminate the problem of inconsistent TF grading at the College. But we believe that professors, who have a great deal more experience judging student work and have a better handle on the expectations of a particular course, should grade at least a share of student papers and read over work TFs have already graded for quality control.

All too often at Harvard, aloof superstar professors let their TFs do most of the real teaching, whether the grad students are ready to handle discussion sections or not. This hit-or-miss method of undergraduate education is the critical problem facing undergraduate education at the University, and we expect the College to do more than make TFs take a class or two to fix it.

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