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The Section Shakedown

Slow sections are not the result of TFs, but the silent students themselves

By Elise M. Stefanik

Preparing for the imminent rush of midterms and papers—students’ first brush with academic accountability—mid-semester is the time when Harvard students finally get into their groove. We’ve critically shopped our classes, poured over syllabi and now we’re just settling into our sections. Of course, it wouldn’t be too bold to say that our sections are the most significant aspect of our Harvard learning experience. Most of us desperately try to get into a “good section”—which is directly defined by a “good Teaching Fellow (TF)—“but it’s all-too-often forgotten that the TF alone doesn’t make or break a section.

Harvard students have a common understanding the ideal TFs. They’re well-versed on course material—this is particularly important as students’ lecture attendance decreases once semester doldrums sink in. We always trust that a stellar TF will fill in the gaps. A TF must also be a fair grader—of course, by “fair,” I mean “easy.” After the grade deflation push, this is the common conception of “fair.” Finally, TFs must administer section in such a manner that makes it somewhat interesting and bearable.

But perhaps we’re going about this all wrong. After all, is a good section solely determined by a good TF? In my experience, TF’s often begin section with a piercing or controversial question, only to receive deadly silence and vacuous looks from their students. In spite of the TF’s efforts, the section awkwardly rolls on and generally each student speaks up a couple times to garner the necessary participation points. Rarely does a section discussion have students sitting on the edge of their seats—let alone spark a heated debate. Yet, this negative environment is not the consequence of poor TFs; rather, it’s due to the students’ lack of interest and effort in section participation.

The purpose of section is to discuss the more nuanced ideas presented in general course material. The most effective way to flesh out complex issues is to share ideas in small group settings—which is why sections are ultimately the most important aspect of a course. In section, students can reform their opinions, test their ideas on others and, most importantly, grasp the material more confidently. It is the sole place to achieve these goals outside of the 400-person lecture class. Yet we still barrage that “one really annoying person in section who won’t shut up” as the cause of our misery. If we all participated a little more, perhaps they wouldn’t feel the need to ramble as much—really, it’s a win-win situation.

Each year, Harvard turns away countless qualified students who aspire to study within these Ivy walls. We’re supposed to be surrounded by the best and the brightest, yet it seems that we shirk any intention to cultivate the “intellectual curiosity” that gained us entrance into this institution. When a TF begins a section looking for student involvement, it’s our duty to both ourselves and our classmates to actively participate.

Perhaps it’s time for Harvard students to realize that the problem of sections is not inept TFs or a lack of compelling topics; instead, it is our own unwillingness to contribute.

Elise M. Stefanik, a Crimson editorial comper, is a government concentrator in Winthrop House.

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