Beyond The Classroom Walls

It is 5:00 p.m. on a Tuesday and the sky is already black. But the soft, warm light in the mahogany-walled Eliot library makes bearable the early end to the day. In the back left corner sits the only other student in the room. Headphones in, back straight, face calm, she has positioned her pen on a fresh sheet of lined paper, ready to take notes on her assigned reading. From far away, it’s easy to recognize which textbook she is perusing.

It is 5:00 p.m. on a Tuesday and the sky is already black. But the soft, warm light in the mahogany-walled Eliot library makes bearable the early end to the day. In the back left corner sits the only other student in the room. Headphones in, back straight, face calm, she has positioned her pen on a fresh sheet of lined paper, ready to take notes on her assigned reading. From far away, it’s easy to recognize which textbook she is perusing. The hard cover, the white and red color scheme, are both so familiar—even for someone who has never taken the course she is studying for. It is Professor N. Gregory Mankiw’s “Principles of Economics,” the main text for his celebrity course: “Ec 10.”

Mankiw is one of many professors who has extended his expertise to endeavors beyond the classroom walls, and he’s not alone. Professors from all disciplines actively engage in pursuits that aren’t always student focused. They write books. They appear as political commentators on news shows. They advise government officials. They play music. They run nonprofits.

Commenting on Harvard professors’ involvement in other activities outside of the classroom, Jennifer L. Martin ’13 says, “I’m for it. I don’t think that a professor should put their interests or goals on hold just because they’ve decided to teach. And if the research or work they have chosen to do happens to relate to the subject matter of the class, I think it can only heighten the learning experience. It helps to really show students like myself how what we are learning in class translates into the real world.”

But some are slightly more hesitant about faculty participating in “extramural interactions with industry and other external constituencies”—as outside engagements are called in the eighteen-page official Harvard University Policy on Individual FinancialConflicts of Interest for Persons Holding Faculty and Teaching Appointments. While in some cases other work can enhance the learning and teaching experiences of students and professors, it’s logical to question whether or not these involvements might detract from professors’ focus on the students.

How does outside work (especially of the political variety) affect objectivity toward subjects being taught? What is the right balance—how much energy can a professor devote to students when he or she is splitting time between other engagements? And where do professors’ priorities lie?


As illustrated by one student’s experience, learning from a professor with external commitments has its pros and cons. According to a junior concentrating in Human Evolutionary Biology who preferred to remain nameless for this article and is currently taking a cross-listed course (technically co-taught by Harvard Medical School professors) at MIT on drug development, the effects are twofold. Her professor, Anthony J. Sinskey, is the co-founder of bioscience company Metabolix, which is focused on providing sustainable solutions for the world demand for plastics, chemicals, and energy. He also happens to be on the board of Tepha, Inc., a medical device firm that employs biomaterial technology.

“Long story short,” she says, “he brings total credibility to what he teaches because he’s proven himself to be successful in the real-life industry. Plus, he can talk about real situations and examples between investors, boards of directors, researchers, etc. that are drawn from his real experiences. He definitely brings what would potentially be dry material to life.”

She identifies the drawbacks, saying “To be honest, I do feel like the professors aren’t great teachers, per se. They’ve all done and are doing incredible things in the pharma world and so the experiences are great to hear about. But while they could qualify for ‘Best Pharma Director’ they would never qualify for ‘Best Professor.’”

To avoid professors’ “extramural” engagements from compromising their abilities to teach to the best of their abilities, and to prevent the potential diminishing of the school’s “reputation and integrity,” Harvard’s administration is careful to establish certain rules pertaining to what is and is not appropriate behavior outside of the classroom; the section of the Conflict of Interest Policy document that addresses the “instruction and advising of students” notes, “A faculty member’s outside financial interests should not adversely influence his or her instruction, guidance, or supervision of students, trainees, or post-doctoral fellows.”

While this states a clear position on the issue, it doesn’t exactly provide specifics, something that professors determine for themselves on a case-by-case basis. Daniel E. Lieberman, Professor of Human Evolutionary Biology describes the process behind finding this balance: “If you focus more on the outside than your job as a professor at Harvard, then question it. But the job description is complicated. You have to teach but you also have to interact with the world. Harvard’s mission : make the world a better place. To do that we must engage with the world. What’s the right ratio, I don’t know.”

Despite the open-ended nature of this practice, Professor Jeffrey A. Miron, director of undergraduate studies for Economics, voices a need for this type of freedom. “If the university wanted to have a policy that said that [it] reserves the right to veto certain types of external acts of public activities, that [it] wants to vet op-eds before you submit them or something like that, I think the university should be legally allowed to have such a policy ... But I think it would be insane for a university to have such a policy because a lot of very talented people will not want to be academics if they’re going to feel muzzled.”

The difficult part, of course, comes from negotiating the divide between being a professor and cultivating “outside financial interests” at the same time.


On a clear, nippy Veterans Day, the doors to Harvard’s Mahindra Humanities Center are locked. All is silent except for the whisper of red and brown leaves and the deep sigh of the shuttle as it comes to a sluggish stop outside Lamont. At least from the outside, the glare of the November sun on the windows and the glass entrance makes the Humanities Center seem dark and completely empty. But inside it is a different story. The toasty, book-laden office of Homi K. Bhabha—Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of the Humanities in the Department of English and Senior Advisor on the Humanities to the President and Provost—is open for business. After entering the building (with some difficulty, of course) and even before stepping foot into his ground-floor office, his voice becomes audible. It is immediately clear from the echo that Bhabha and his assistant are the only ones home. Bhabha’s distinctive voice, mellifluous, rich, smooth like hot tar, spreads throughout the entire space. He is ending a phone call with a friend, sending his “warm regards.” Just as I reach his ground-floor office, he hangs up, stands, all the words on his “I Love Bombay” t-shirt fully visible, grasps my hand tightly, nods, and winks. No need for a verbal “hello.” The sincerity of his greeting is all in his gestures. Sitting down once more in his desk chair, he folds his left leg over the right, smooths back his salt and pepper hair with a flat palm, and begins to talk.

When asked whether he ever had any other professions before settling in academia, he smiles slyly and says, “In some sense, my career followed a very boring and predictable trajectory.” Now in his early 60s, the expert in postcolonial theory (Bhabha coined many of the neologisms and concepts in contemporary postcolonial studies) received degrees in English from the University of Bombay and Oxford. He has taught at institutions including Princeton and the University of Chicago, and has written a slew of books, scholarly articles, and essays. His “Nation and Narration” and “The Location of Culture,” for example, are both works that any student interested in multiculturalism or the complicated existence of once-colonized peoples and places would read. With his educational background, his affiliation with prestigious institutions, and his widely-recognized published literature, Bhabha may at first appear to live the life of the “typical” academic (if there really is such a thing). But in addition to teaching at Harvard, where he has taught courses such as “Contemporary Postcolonial Writers,” Bhabha is a modern art fiend.

“I was always very into art,” he explains. “As a teenager all I wanted to do was write poetry and and be an artist. I even worked with a sculptor in Bombay. I was just sort of a gopher, you know, just running around and doing tasks for her. But it was a great experience. Then, of course, I found out I had no talent. And I failed. But failure was a good thing because it allowed me to think about art. I could make art in language.”

While, self-admittedly, he might not be a Jackson Pollock or Dan Flavin, the scholar finds other ways to participate in and contribute to the interdisciplinary world of modern art. “I also write in the field of contemporary art, and in fact, I have a book coming out on my art writings with the University of Chicago about the intervention of art in cultural life, into social life,” he says.

In addition to writing, though, the Harvard professor also works with the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City.

“I’m an advisor to the director and curators of the MoMA, whose research scheme is one on contemporary art in a global context,” he says,  furrowing his brows slightly, and interlocking his fingers, suddenly a little more serious. Although the amount of time Bhabha devotes to his artistic endeavors is very much seasonal (depending on when exhibitions are set to take place and when he is teaching), his commitment to his duties at the museum is palpable. “I’m going to be working with one of the curators of MoMA who is doing the São Paolo Biennial in 2012.”

But Bhabha says that he does not lose sight of his academic goals in the midst of his artistic pursuits. On the contrary, his interests in literature, postcolonial theory, and modern art, like his fingers as he sits at his desk, are firmly intertwined. Bhabha’s life inside the classroom is inextricably linked to his life outside it. In fact, he believes his “extracurricular activities” are important for his job at the University.

As he tilts his head back and his eyes move slowly towards the ceiling, he says, “When I’m teaching a great work of literature, I try to the best of my capacity to be able to make students feel that enraptured feeling that you have when you look at a piece of art.”


If Professor Margo I. Seltzer ’83 were not working in computer science, she would play professional women’s soccer—preferably for the Boston Breakers. “I’m a total soccer groupie. If you haven’t seen the Boston Breakers yet, you really should,” she says jokingly on a Friday afternoon after having returned the night before from presenting a Distinguished Lecture at Brown.

Growing up in a small, rural town in upstate New York, which, as this Herchel Smith Professor of Computer Science likes to say, “had more cows than people,” she first became interested in computer engineering during her senior year of high school.

“That’s really when the first home desktop computer, the TRS 80 produced by Radio Shack, came out,” she explains.

Her love affair with computers—even with the TRS 80 in all of its retro, non-colored bulkiness—has lasted ever since. Seltzer’s various careers both in the classroom and outside revolve around these same machines and their brethren.

After receiving her A.B. in Applied Mathematics from Harvard/Radcliffe College in 1983, Seltzer left school to work for three different startup companies—Sequoia Systems, Stratus, and Kendall Square Research. At each place, she assisted other engineers in their “building of new hardware that required entirely different software.”

But soon she had a change of heart and left the world of startups (at least for a while) for the University of California, Berkeley, where she received her Ph.D. in computer science in 1992. After a pregnant pause, a deep breath, and a low, drawn-out “ooooooooook,” she reflects on what seems to have been an agonizing decision to return to the academic world nearly 20 years ago. “It’s a long story, but I guess fundamentally it was the realization that while I loved technology, I wanted to do something more interactive. Fundamentally, my role as an engineer was to fix, but I wanted to do more than that. I wanted to have close interpersonal relations with others, and teaching definitely gives you that.”

Since graduate school, Seltzer has taught the challenging, and perhaps even “glamorous,” Computer Science (CS) 50, CS 51, and various other courses on databasing and operating systems.

Still, she has not completely given up her career designing software. As Professor David J. Malan ’99, the current professor of CS 50, points out about his colleague’s responsibilities outside the classroom, “Margo Seltzer has done some really interesting work with databasing.”

In 1996, Seltzer and her husband founded the charmingly-named Sleepycat Software, Inc., which was primarily accountable for maintaining the Berkeley database packages. The two computer engineers ran their private company until 2006 when Oracle Corporation, a computer technology corporation that specializes in creating and selling hardware systems and software products, bought it.

Seltzer does not see her work in the classroom and her professional engagements as competing interests.  Speaking about her outside work, she says, “It keeps me grounded in the reality of what’s happening out there, and I can convey that to my students. My job at Oracle allows me to show them that it’s not all about textbooks and assignments. There are real engineers with real engineering problems and puzzles that need to be solved.”

Alan M. Dershowitz, Harvard law professor and jurist, echoes this sentiment, “Harvard is a wonderful place to teach because it allows you to integrate real world and academic work. I have been able to bring the courtroom experience I have into my classroom, and to bring the classroom experience I have into the courtroom. I think it’s made me a better teacher and a better lawyer by being able to do a little bit in both worlds. Over the years I’ve taken a small number of cases, most of which fit in very directly with my schoolwork, most of which are pro-bono—that is, I do them without fee for poor people, like death penalty cases—and I bring them into the courtroom and into the classroom.”

Even though there is a clear intersection between his professional and academic activities, he draws the line at promoting his own viewpoints. “I try my best not to bring my politics or my personal views into the classroom,” says Dershowitz. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for a teacher to use the classroom to propagandize students.”

Based on its policies, Harvard is an institution that recognizes the undeniable value in professors’ work outside teaching. Faculty members do have to report annually about their pursuits outside of academia so as to ensure that there are no conflicts of interest, but there seems to be a widespread respect for the diversity of interests professors possess.

As the introduction to the Harvard University Policy for Individual Conflicts of Interest states, “Faculty members’ collaboration with outside organizations and communities furthers Harvard’s mission of societal service and also benefits the University. Such interactions promote intellectual exchange, enhance professional development, spawn further discovery, and augment and renew the vitality of the University.”

Seltzer herself partially attributes her success in the technology industry and with her undergraduate students to the school’s support.

“Harvard has very generously allowed me to take one day a week for my Oracle work with the idea that what I experience with real computer engineers will carry over.”


As a child, Amy J. Wagers, now a stem cell expert and professor in Harvard’s relatively new department of Human Developmental and Regenerative Biology (HDRB), was the anomaly. She didn’t want to be a prima ballerina. Nor did she have any desire to be a heroic policewoman. Nor, for that matter, did she aspire to be a stethoscope-wielding, syringe-bearing physician. Instead, she wanted to do scientific research.

“Research. I’ve wanted to be a scientist since I was 10 ... I know,” Wagers says, laughing all the while, the lightness in her voice complementing the seriousness of her professional undertaking. “Let’s just say I was highly motivated.”

As an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins and Northwestern—she finished college in 1999 in three years, doing one year in Baltimore and two outside Chicago—her primary interest was in immunology. It wasn’t until Wagers was at Stanford completing her postdoctoral fellowship that her interest in stem cell biology was born.

“It was very serendipitous actually. I had been tested earlier to see if my bone marrow would be a good match for a transplant. One day when I was  working in the lab, my mother called me to tell me that I was, in fact, a match. So I started reading about it and really looking into procedure, which has a lot to do with stem cell biology. And back then it was such an exciting time for stem cell research. You could really see this incredible new field taking form. And the clinical relevance of stem cell science really drew me in,” Wagers explains.

Now at Harvard, she directs several courses for both undergraduates and graduates, including “Understanding Aging,” which she launched just as the HDRB program was getting underway, and a unique class which she has appropriately termed, “Boot camp in degenerative and regenerative biology.”

“It’s two and a half weeks during J-term, and the day technically lasts from 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.—we usually end at around 6:00 p.m., though. We study topics like organ development and epigenetics and we work in labs throughout Cambridge and Boston. It’s a great opportunity, especially for undergraduates, to experience science in many different areas in a sort of intensive way.”

When she is not running her winter “boot camp,” the professor is a faculty member in the Section on Developmental and Stem Cell Biology at Joslin Diabetes Center, which is affiliated with Harvard Medical School. “My job at Joslin is focused on using stem cell biology to study disease, and to come up with new ways to prevent and treat it. We’re looking at the ways in which cells and tissues operate differently in diabetics. We’re working to understand how diabetes develops, and how to correct some of the changes that take place in order to make these tissues function better,” Wagers says.

And just as it is for Bhabha and Seltzer, her two “lives” aren’t all that separate. In both jobs, Wagers is working to make a meaningful difference.

“You know,” she says, concerning her pursuits inside and outside of state-of-the-art Harvard laboratories and seventies-style lecture halls in the Science Center, “when you walk in through the clinic area of Joslin, you walk past sick patients, and it really reminds you of why you’re doing what you’re doing. And in a similar way, when you’re walking through the yard on your way to teach an HDRB class, and you pass all of these busy students, carrying backpacks, laughing, it reminds you why you’re doing what you’re doing.”


Perhaps even more than taking an interest in students, these professors offer a multidisciplinary model of work inside and outside of the University. Lieberman highlights the singularity of the student experience. “Students are a very restricted population of the world. Going places and talking with people—that gives you new perspectives and questions,” he says.

Figuring out how to find these new perspectives is an area where many students could use a little guidance, potentially stemming from professors’ own occupations.

“I think it’s awesome,” says Kimberly A. Goh ’13 of the multifaceted nature of professors’ work. “It shows Harvard students that even if you’re passionate about something, it doesn’t mean you have to devote 100 percent of your energy to it. Half of learning is trying new things and finding outlets besides academics.”