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A Lesson on Activities

By Melissa Quino mccreery

Harvard students learn as much from their extracurriculars as from their studies, or so they like to say. Fortunately, the College considers this a good thing, proudly citing statistics about the hundreds of student groups, dozens of theater productions and scores of varsity, club, and intramural sports teams.

Recognizing this reality, the Task Force on General Education gave student activities special attention last week in its preliminary report with a proposed “activity-based learning” initiative. The goal? “To help students see how what they learn in class informs what they do in the ‘real world,’ and vice versa.” Although extracurriculars are indeed integral to the Harvard education, the faculty’s disconcerting initiative threatens to disrupt an already successful system.

The initiative is based on the perception of a twofold “problem:” first, that students have “a tendency…to regard their extracurricular life as separate from their academic experience,” and second, that “few formal procedures” exist for faculty to encourage students to connect the two. The first is not entirely true, and the second is not entirely a problem.

Overlap between extracurriculars and academics already exists. Harvard offers a host of pseudo-academic activities from the Institute of Politics to research labs. It is no coincidence that government and social studies concentrators dominate the ranks of the Harvard College Democrats and the Harvard Republican Club, and that the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra draws music students.

These connections are not universal—but, in many cases, that is actually a good thing. For some students, the separation of extracurriculars and academics enables them to pack more diverse interests into their lives. A Literature concentrator does not need to see a connection between her classes and her a cappella group in order to have a complete extracurricular life.

Where academic-extracurricular links exist, Harvard students are sharp enough to see and appreciate them. Where they do not, there is little purpose in inventing them or forcing students to find additional “more relevant” activities. Activities are meant to compliment our education, but that does not always mean that they can be neatly correlated to our studies. If they are connected, activities can give us insight into our fields. If they are not, they can give us insight into other fields. Either way, the faculty should recognize how valuable both approaches are and leave activities to student discretion.

The report offers several ideas for implementing “activity-based learning,” but they are all variations of assigning a paper or project in which students relate an outside activity—course-sponsored or independent—to a class. This sort of formalization is unnecessary. Experiences are important because they can bring course material to life; writing yet another paper about “what I learned” does not. Turning activities into homework does not make them more instructive. Rather, a formal process will in all likelihood foster a negative attitude in students who feel obliged to participate, and such an attitude would be detrimental to students and to organizations alike.

Under some suggested proposals, the projects would be optional. Even with this provision, the initiative does not promise to improve learning. The goal is to get students to engage in activities related to their classes, but they already do. Expanding such opportunities would be worthwhile, but formally tying them to classes serves no additional purpose. Although the faculty asserts that they “do not seek to bureaucratize extracurricular life at Harvard,” it will be the unavoidable consequence of creating “formal procedures.”

The ideals of initiative are noble—and might be justified if Harvard’s extracurricular atmosphere was somehow failing—but the proposal falls far short of its intent. In addition to the pedagogical value of activities, the faculty expresses hope that course-related activities will encourage teamwork and foster student-faculty interaction. But current student organizations are already built on teamwork.

And, while student-faculty contact could certainly be improved, this unwieldy framework is not the best means of doing so. If an activity requirement is mandatory, it will leave professors too overwhelmed to have meaningful interactions with students. If the project is optional, then the College can better facilitate student-faculty contact through a more focused initiative.

A narrower initiative to improve student-faculty contact would be far more effective at accomplishing the goals of this proposal. Such contact, formal or not, is the best way for faculty to encourage students to connect their academics to the real world. Faculty involvement with extracurriculars, however, should be kept as it is now. The Task Force is right in its first sentence: “Extracurricular activity is a Harvard success story.” And we want it to stay that way.

Melissa Quino McCreery ’08, a Crimson editorial editor, is a chemistry and physics concentrator in Quincy House.

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