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Missing Their CUE

The test of a pedagogue begins during shopping period

By J. hale Russell

I’m in a class where I’m not sure who’s teaching: the star professor with dozens of books to his credit, or the graduate student whose mother beamed with pride when her daughter obtained the title “Head TF” While the professor delivers fabulous lectures twice a week, it’s clear he has no clue what’s going on with course requirements, and the Head TF’s paper topics, e-mails and midterm exam hints bear little relation to anything we’ve been taught by that guy with tenure whose name appears in the course catalog listing.

Some try to excuse this all-too-common travesty with the disingenuous reasoning that this stems naturally from Harvard’s standing as a research institution, and that students seeking professors more engaged with their courses should pack their bags for Amherst or Swarthmore. But the argument that research and teaching are incompatible is plainly a lie; I’ve taken plenty of lecture courses where top-name professors write their own exam, practically beg students to come to office hours and even teach a section of their own. These professors kept doing their research, too—I never once heard them complain that we were getting in their way, and they even said that their interactions with us helped them outside the classroom.

A professor’s responsibility is not just to accumulate knowledge, but also to “profess” it to others. Thus I was mostly grateful to hear that students on the Committee on Undergraduate Education (CUE) had written a report recommending improvements to shopping period. After all, good pedagogy has to begin somewhere—and preferably with the first few days of class. The report’s “new” ideas for faculty are really rehashes of things teachers should know to do anyway, but for some reason frequently don’t: posting syllabi on course websites early and often; completing class lotteries before Study Card day; and coordinating sectioning efficiently.

But the document’s final recommendation causes some concern: “Professors should be encouraged to begin discussing course material in the first class to give students a better idea of their pace and teaching style.” Though the report does not recommend eliminating professors’ administrative announcements and explanations of course expectations, it could easily be construed that way—or at least taken as carte blanche to cut such overviews to a minimum, in favor of jumping straight into the course’s first lecture. Encouraging professors to neglect the administrative details risks allowing them to become less engaged with the running of their classes, resulting in situations like my TF-led core.

Shopping period was saved for a reason: to permit shopping. A system in which professors skip over the details of the course will make it even harder to catch up if you miss the first session, but, even worse, risks allowing professors to become disorganized and complacent about course administrivia. Pedagogy includes not just what the course is about and why one should take it, but also how the course is structured, its methodology—yes, even the “due dates for papers.”

Though a university is not a commercial entity, a professor still has a responsibility to “sell” his or her course to undergraduates paying through their teeth to attend this university, and who must narrow down their selections from dozens of courses to four. Though students should certainly prioritize academic rigor and teaching style in course selection, they would be foolish not to base their decisions at least in part on the structure and administration of the class, and it is important for professors to speak about this.

Given the frequency of student complaints that professors don’t interact enough with students, the first lectures of shopping period—before the grind of getting through the material—provide that rare glimpse into professors as humans. In talking more informally about course expectations, going through the syllabus and setting up expectations, faculty naturally reveal far more about themselves as people than they will in the average lecture halfway through the semester. Students’ academic experience improves when they realize that the bespectacled figure lecturing to them is, remarkably enough, human, too.

Moreover, structuring the course is the professor’s first task as course head. In too many cases, professors complain that they cannot perform this basic job; too often I have heard professors say, “There’s so much I need to cover, and I don’t know how I’ll ever get through it.” This often leads to dire consequences: assignments that contain unrealistic expectations, or mandatory class meetings that occur outside of class time, or a TF who turns into course head instead of a TF with additional administrative responsibilities. To the complaining professor, I respond: “Too bad.” I have enough faith in the Harvard tenure process that faculty should be able to figure out how to do their job and organize their course, rather than complain about it. I’ve seen it done, and know it’s possible.

At the Kennedy School of Government, a laudable and tightly organized shopping system permits each professor to give a half-hour introduction to the course, setting up goals, answering questions, and providing a taste of the material to be covered. Because the lectures are shorter, faculty make their case more concisely, and prospective students can sample multiple classes that meet in the same timeslot without missing anything. Such professor-led snapshots of the administrative as well as substantive aspects of a course permit students to make real, informed decisions about the intellectual and organizational caliber of a course.

J. Hale Russell ’05 is an English concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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