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Sections for Actual Discussion

There are easy ways in which sections can improve

By Hemi H. Gandhi

It’s 1 p.m. on Tuesday again. Dragging your feet to your section at CGIS, you can’t help but wonder why you must attend another class discussion that will be far from rewarding.

Unfortunately, section discussion at Harvard is often disorganized and unfocused. Material covered in section often fails to relate to lectures. Many times students conspicuously jockey for participation points, feeling painfully obliged to do so. Students in section hardly know one another, smiling at each other but often hesitating to freely opine on touchy topics such as affirmative action, legalizing gay marriage, or drug testing on animals.

Many of us have experienced similar “bad section blues.” While I’ve certainly had some rewarding sections and wonderful teaching fellows, I feel that, across the board, class sections could significantly improve, easing student frustration and providing more gratifying discussions.

In order to accomplish this, professors and TFs need first to explain clearly the goals and expectations of their sections. They should aim to clarify what students should try to take away from every section, how the material relates to the course’s overall goals, and how participation will be assessed and facilitated. This kind of clear and regular dialogue between faculty, TFs, and students can only improve the experience for everyone involved.

The second way to improve sections would be for TFs to facilitate student interaction better and students’ feeling comfortable sharing their ideas with one another. Often unfamiliar with the others in their sections, many students are less likely to be excited about openly discussing their opinions—no one wants to appear hostile by challenging strangers under contrived circumstances.

In freshman pre-orientation programs such as the First-Year Urban Program, many students’ most memorable experiences are the nightly group discussions. Students who have just recently met sit down to talk openly about thorny issues like identity, gender roles, class, and race. In my FUP group, for example, our discussion leaders’ effort to make us feel comfortable with one another eventually paid off, as we were soon unabashed about sharing of our different socioeconomic and familial backgrounds. With a little guidance, we made a clear commitment to listen and to try to understand one another, despite having just met. If TFs and students similarly make this a priority, it shouldn’t be difficult to replicate this type of open and conducive discussion environment during class sections.

Finally, in order to make sections more engaging for students, TFs need to be more open about sharing their intellectual enthusiasm with students. By nature, TFs at Harvard are accomplished thinkers and learners in their fields. They clearly have interest and passion for the subjects they teach, or they would never have decided to pursue advanced degrees in those fields. TFs need to share that love and excitement with their students, particularly in classes where the subject matter is new to most. Passion is always contagious. The more TFs explain why they are excited about their fields and the classes they teach, the more likely students will be receptive to engaging in and learning from these classes.

Over the last three semesters, learning at Harvard for me has been an incredible educational experience, but one that can definitely improve. Sections should be the first place to start.

Hemi H. Gandhi ’13, a Crimson editorial writer, is an engineering concentrator in Leverett House.

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