What I Did Next January

Let students teach classes during J-term

Forget this summer—I’m hung up on my plans for next January. Nearly two years after Harvard’s administration approved calendar reform for the 2009-2010 academic year, students remain in the dark about the mysterious “J-term.” The creation of a J-term itself should be commended; many promising break options lie outside Cambridge, allowing students to work or travel over the four-week period. But, as the university puts its finishing touches on the schedule, it must remember to furnish offerings for the rest of us as well—those who lack the resources or the desire to set up shop elsewhere.

The best bet is January classes, though these offerings should not bear any resemblance to what’s currently in the course catalog. The shorter January should offer lessons in the general life skills that we bookworms have so often missed—a wood-shop class, for instance—or academic takes on our hobbies and amusements, like deciphering the true meaning of rap lyrics. But the most effective way for the College to remove all semblance of a Harvard J-term to actual school (and therefore drudgery) is to ask its students to serve as teachers.

Have a famous campus sex blogger lead a course on sex, dating, and what men or women want. Get one of our football players to pontificate for three weeks about the rules and strategies of the gridiron. The novelty would entice prospective teachers and curious extracurricular learners alike—not to mention set Harvard University apart in yet another way.

A student-run class wouldn’t automatically be inferior. As self-congratulating as it may seem, this is, after all, Harvard—many of our kids have already distinguished themselves in some field or skill set, often to the point of international recognition. On campus, too, presidents and editors-in-chief of student groups do not face legitimacy problems. They acquire their expertise with only a few years’ experience, yet they are often highly successful and respected.

With approval of student-taught classes firmly in their hands, administrators can veto any prospective educator who does not meet the same standard. Students interested in teaching their own seminars would apply to the administration in advance, with syllabi and lesson plans at the ready. They would have to answer tough questions about what qualifies them to teach the course, and they would have to interview to prove their mettle as a teacher. Finally, the course would automatically be graded pass/fail, keeping students’ GPAs out of the hands of their peers.

And to skeptical students—these courses would bear more resemblance to your favorite extracurricular than to your Lit and Arts A Core. The quirky subject matter would bring students of similar interests together and create some fast friendships. The (lack of) age difference would erase much of the resentful divide between teacher and student, leading to discussion seminars that are truly group-driven, not individual-driven, as too many fall and spring sections are. Finally, students would be no less likely to write a final paper for a peer than for a professor. We do far more work for our pet student groups out of choice—often with nothing in return but personal satisfaction.

Here’s an argument for University Hall: Far from relinquishing pedagogical control, this idea would add a new dimension to a Harvard education. We all know our students are smart, but it’s less automatic that they know how to effectively pass on their smarts to others. With a real need for talented teachers out there in the real world, this idea will expose at least a few soon-to-be grads to real-life experience in a noble profession.

There is a reason that students often seem more invested and interested in their extracurriculars than in their academics. This (admittedly revolutionary) idea is one way for Harvard to harness that for its own J-term innovation. The kids in those admissions videos are right: Despite having some pretty high-quality classroom instruction, we do learn the most from our fellow students.

Nathaniel S. Rakich ’10, a Crimson editorial writer, is a government concentrator in Cabot House.