Awkward Silences

What’s really wrong with sections, and what the College can do to fix them

Griping about sections is just about as tired—and tiresome—as lugging around that 400-page coursepack you’ve never opened. We all know your teaching fellow (TF) doesn’t speak English, we are all painfully familiar with those awkward silences, we know how awesome you are for mastering To the Lighthouse, albeit via Sparknotes, in under an hour.

Enough. It’s time to consider just what can be done to save the Harvard section, or whether it should be saved at all.

The purpose of a section is to reinforce, expand upon, and clarify the content of a course. Students should leave a section with a better understanding of readings and lectures. Rather than hear their fellow students make things up and regurgitate theory from Social Studies 10, students should enjoy sections in which their peers ask questions and offer new insight, while the TF’s supply answers and context.

It seems to me that the greatest source of section frustration stems not from the tangential problems of sections, such as pricey coursepacks and students with annoying voices, but from the disconnect between students and their TF’s.

Bad TF work can scare even the most prepared student into silence. I cannot count the number of times I have been asked questions at the outset of section that are either too open-ended to offer a decent response (“What makes this art?”), or worded in such a way that only the TF can possibly answer (“What kind of response might this work have elicited in seventeenth century Amsterdam?”), or so specific and poorly worded that nobody pays attention (“If Iqbal can be understood here to be attempting to confront a history of Muslim warfare and conquest, why is he couching his frustrations in images of nature and, specifically, trees?”).

It is easy to blame bad sections on students, and there’s certainly some justice in doing so: realistically, most students do not prepare all of the material for section each week. (In fact, I’d argue that, in most classes, at least half of the students have stopped doing the bulk of the reading by mid-semester.) How can we make use of an hour if we accept that most students are not ideally prepared to discuss the course material in depth?

The first step to better sections must be made by both TF’s and students. Better TF’s will only come about with adequate and uniform training. In the humanities, we should encourage TF’s to clarify the points of lecture, summarize readings, and offer relevant theories and context for the week’s discussion. There is a great disparity in familiarity with theory, and even a bullet-point summary of the tenets of a complicated theoretical argument would help students discuss the material in a meaningful way.

At the same time, students should be encouraged to focus on one aspect of the readings, or prepare short discussion questions, to ensure accountability and real engagement with the texts.

Rather than pose hopelessly vague questions to students who have skimmed sections of a 500-page assignment, the TF should have a concrete plan for what to discuss, and stay in touch with the students throughout the week.

As for the readings—and this may reek of anti-intellectualism and cynicism—an ambitious curriculum means nothing if it is not also practical. Apart from assigning less reading for courses, TF’s might send focus questions to students before section, so students who are strapped for time (a completely realistic expectation) can focus their reading on a few key issues.

The sad footnote to this story is that, if students are less than involved in their sections, they are decidedly apathetic about the ongoing Harvard College Curricular Review. Hopefully the College administration will take the steps necessary to resuscitate the discussion section, so that our new curriculum isn’t lost on students—and their pristine, 400-page coursepacks.

Rebecca D. O’Brien ’06, a Crimson associate managing editor, is a history and literature concentrator in Kirkland House.