Our Underachieving Faculty

Hey, professor, leave us kids alone

This afternoon, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) will consider legislation that would require all Teaching Fellows (TFs) to be evaluated by their students, even when the faculty who hire them refuse to be judged.

But as holes in the purview of the Committee on Undergraduate Education (CUE) continue to be sealed, the goal of the evaluation process, particularly for faculty, needs to be rethought. After years of Harvard students’ complaining about the poor quality of the teaching they receive, even from Harvard’s most distinguished faculty members, what we need is not a small increase in the number of graduate students that get evaluated. Rather, the Faculty should re-examine how CUE data can actually be used to improve the quality of undergraduate education at Harvard. After years of CUE Guides, we know who the worst teachers at Harvard are—it’s time we barred them from the classroom altogether.

I know what you’re thinking. We pay a king’s ransom to attend Harvard, in part so that we can learn from the most accomplished scholars on Earth. We travel here from across the globe to revel in their magnificence, and, by osmosis, to try to take some of their wisdom with us when we depart to better serve our country and McKinsey & Co.

But surely our star worship is misplaced, when those we so idolize can barely keep a hundred people awake for a full hour, to say nothing of the hundred people who couldn’t be bothered to get out of bed to come to class. And while there are some faculty members who truly are captivating teachers, they only teach “Justice” every other year.

The problem with the tenure process, as it presently exists, is that it ignores comparative advantage. Some academics are great teachers, others produce scholarship that changes the world. Still others, though they are few in number, manage to do both. Tenure is the light at the end of the tunnel that is the publish-or-perish lifestyle of graduate students. As a result, those who consider teaching, not research, their passion tend to drop off the tenure track early in their careers. Some of those lovers of pedagogy end up as non-faculty instructors at Harvard where, after teaching for six years without tenure, they’re asked to leave, barring an exception of the sort that FAS made for popular economics TF Bruce Watson in 2006.

Those who persevere might someday be rewarded with entrance to the Elysian fields of the tenured life, where grant money flows like water and job security is a non-consideration. Many tenured faculty members spend their time happily working on their pet research projects and supervising armies of graduate student assistants. When it comes to teaching undergraduates, however, they do the bare minimum.

Others sweat their way to tenure only to take the opposite approach. These faculty write less, and teach more. In terms of academic output, they do what they must to satisfy their departments, but their focus is on their teaching those who will succeed them.

In academic decorations, these two sets of faculty are often indistinguishable. They are each subjected to the same teaching requirements, and they are usually held in equally high esteem not just by their peers but also by their students.

If Harvard is to rightly consider itself a university that cares about the quality of the education that its students receive, it ought to remove from the teaching pool those professors whose allegiances are to their study carrel or their lab bench, and not to their students, undergraduates included. There is a place among the faculty for those who seek to contribute to human knowledge in the former fashion—that is, indirectly—and frankly, it’s unfortunate that we presently force them to compromise their research time for the sake of teaching wee, trivial undergraduates. These professors should be relieved of their teaching duties immediately and consigned to the research that is their passion. They should, of course, have their salaries adjusted accordingly. After all, if you don’t eat your meat, you can’t have your pudding.

Those faculty members who actually enjoy teaching—that is, the practice of encouraging learning, rather than the rote imparting of knowledge—should be encouraged to teach. So should non-faculty instructors, already in our midst, who are largely barred from doing so because of administrative restrictions.

So by all means, offer tenure to the world’s best researchers, and bring them to Harvard to do what they do best. But when it comes to undergraduate education, there’s more to a great teacher than a long CV. As far as intuition is concerned, that seems pretty uncontroversial. One of these days, perhaps the Faculty will agree.

Adam Goldenberg ’08 is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears regularly.