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Visiting Professors Adjust to Harvard

By Ella A. Hoffman and Risheng Xu, Crimson Staff Writerss

Every year dozens of professors come to Harvard from institutions as close as MIT and as far as Australia to hold named and unnamed lectureships, to use the University’s library facilities, or to fill the shoes of regular Faculty members as they take sabbaticals or retire.

This year’s more than 64 visiting professors descended on campus, and even after the first stumbling block—securing a position—they face a variety of challenges: finding housing in a competitive real estate market, uprooting family, and adapting to Harvard’s teaching model.

Coming to Cambridge

Unlike the process by which a scholar gains a permanent appointment at a university, word of possible visiting positions circulates through a world-wide grapevine.

“The search process for visiting professor is very different from hiring a regular professor,” said Robert David ‘KC’ Johnson ’88, a visiting professor in the spring term from Brooklyn College, a division of the City University of New York.

Though they are transient, such instructors play an important role. Even though visiting professors may come and go in just six months, former History Department Chair Akira Iriye said that his appointment of Johnson and other visiting professors was “one of his proudest accomplishments while I was chair.”

In many cases, Harvard departments look to people they know and trust. Johnson, for example, is no stranger—he graduated from the college and, in the early ’90s, taught here as a graduate student and post doctoral fellow.

This spring, Johnson will teach a lecture course in constitutional history, a seminar in inter-American relations, and a section of the History sophomore tutorial. In a bizarre twist, he will be living in Quincy House—where he lived as an undergraduate.

Visiting From Afar

Harvard also attracts visiting faculty from further afield. This year visitors spring from as far as Australia and Germany.

Professor Craig Gotsman, a visiting professor of computer science from Israel, said that most visiting professors must take on the initiative to contact someone within a university themselves.

“The visiting professor usually contacts someone—a colleague, most likely—who would be willing to support the application,” Gotsman said.

Gotsman’s link to Harvard was Steven J. Gortler, Goldman Professor of Computer Science, with whom Gotsman had collaborated before and who aided Gotsman throughout the application process.

Many of these faculty members have to move not only themselves, but their entire families as well.

Visiting professor of physics Bernard Julia, from Ecole Normale Supérieure in France, brings his wife and four children.

Gotsman arrived from Israel with his wife and three daughters a year ago, and looked at many different options before settling on Harvard.

“I was considering institutions in the U.S., Canada, and England such as Georgia Tech, Cambridge University, and Waterloo University,” said Gotsman.

In the end, it was the location, coupled with Harvard’s prestige, which attracted Gotsman here.

“My wife had to find a job, the kids had to go to school, and I wanted to live in a large Jewish community,” said Gotsman.

Cash and a Place to Crash

Payment plans vary from one visiting professor to another.

Gotsman, who is a visiting professor for two years, is funded both by Harvard and his home institution.

“Every seven years, we get a year off for Sabbatical—Technion pays us during that time,” he said.

However, Gotsman said that he thought that one year at Harvard was too short, and decided to take an additional year off.

Harvard will pay Gotsman’s salary in his second year.

“I’m paid the equivalent of what an associate professor here at Harvard would be paid,” Gotsman said. “That’s 2 to 3 times higher than what a professor would be paid in Israel.”

In Johnson’s case, Harvard merely matches his salary at Brooklyn College.

However, just like at their own colleges and universities, professors must pay their own rent.

While departments generally offer assistance in finding housing, Johnson said, this can present a challenge.

Once professors decide to accept a visiting position, they must find housing in the relatively expensive suburbs of Boston.

“The whole move is just so difficult,” said Gotsman. “I don’t feel that the housing office was very helpful.”

However, Gotsman notes that this may be because the Harvard housing office is more accustomed to find professors housing in Cambridge.

“I wanted to live in Brookline because of the Jewish community there,” he said.

Julia also had to arrange for his family’s housing by himself.

“Housing was quite difficult to arrange as we decided to live in Brookline for the schools and because it is close to BU, where my wife works,” said Julia.

Being Taught to Teach

Teaching at Harvard for the first time, however, presents its own challenges.

CUNY, where Johnson teaches, has only lectures and seminars, and he said he looks forward discussion sections--he plans to lead some himself.

For Julia, the teaching format surprised him.

“I’m not used to the [Physics Department’s] Q-and-A service and having the lectures videotaped,” he said. “The way of teaching here is rich but strange.”

And Gotsman says that he feels the pressure of having to prepare two lectures per week instead of one, which is customary for Israeli universities.

Despite these difficulties, however, most visiting professors love their experience here.

“You can be a much more creative teacher because you know that the resources will be there,” Johnson said, citing the example of government documents. “There are things that Harvard can offer students that other schools for financial reasons cannot.”

“Classes here are smaller, so there is more individual attention for each student,” said Julia. “I was very impressed by the level of graduate students—I didn’t expect them to be so sophisticated.”

—Staff writer Ella A. Hoffman can be reached at

—Staff writer Risheng Xu can be reached at

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