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It’s 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday night and Robert T. Bowden ’13 has two problem sets due within 15 hours. In the next five days, Bowden will also oversee six hours worth of Office Hours, assign sections to all 651 students in CS50, and attend lecture for six different courses.
In addition to being a full-time student and dabbling in the fledgling Harvard Poetry Society, Bowden is assistant head Teaching Fellow for CS50 and a TF for the Extension School’s CS61 course.
“It’s kind of overwhelming, the past couple of weeks,” he admits.
Bowden’s balancing act is not an isolated case. More so than some of its peer institutions, Harvard hires undergraduates to help staff a number of courses spanning departments from math and computer science to physics and statistics.
Juggling the roles of peer and instructor can involve a unique set of challenges—from fielding questions in the dining hall and over gchat to explaining concepts one has only recently mastered. But at least 150 students take on part-time teaching roles in addition to their own courses, and many are surprisingly passionate about putting in the extra effort.
“[It is] gratifying to come in on the other side, lead [students] toward a bigger understanding, help them do something that they thought was a little over their head,” says Matthew J. Chartier ’12, head TF for CS50.
“I can honestly say that it was the best experience I’ve ever had here,” says Anna V. Gommerstadt ’13, who was a TF for CS51 last spring.
PRE-REQS AND PERQS
In the Princeton Computer Science Department, 30 undergraduates are paid to help other students with programming questions several nights a week—but none teach sections. In Harvard’s introductory computer science class CS50 alone, 46 college students teach sections.
Undergraduate TFs have been preparing and leading sections, grading assignments, and managing office hours in CS50 for twenty years, according to David J. Malan ’99, the course’s instructor.
At Yale, students can serve as graders in the Math Department. But at Harvard, around 75 undergraduate course assistants in the Math Department are responsible for conducting problem sessions, staffing homework question centers, and grading problem sets.
For many departments at Harvard, undergraduate involvement in the teaching process is a statistical necessity—there are simply not enough graduate students to staff large introductory courses.
But professors are also keen to give the youngest members of its community considerable responsibility in the teaching process.
“We look for high quality both in terms of their ability to know the math, but also to communicate that math,” says Math Preceptor Juliana V. Belding, who manages hiring for the introductory calculus courses. Every applicant for the position of math CA must teach a short lesson as part of their interview.
Students who make it past the application process are rewarded with their own students, the opportunity to improve communication skills and understanding of course material, close relationships with professors, and a decent paycheck. TFs in CS50 make close to $3,000 per semester, according to Chartier, while first-time CAs in the introductory calculus courses earn around $1,800, says Belding, plus around $50 per student they grade. In all departments, those numbers increase with experience.
An additional benefit, students say, is the chance to review concepts related to their concentrations.
“It’s really true—you don’t know if you understand something until you know you can explain it to someone else,” Stefan K. Muller ’12 says. “It really forces me to understand everything and anticipate questions and come up with the answers.”
JUGGLING TWO ROLES
Each week, Muller spends almost two hours preparing for his 90-minute CS61 section. The process involves reviewing course notes, constructing analogies for difficult concepts, and working through (or sometimes creating) practice problems for his students.
Most TFs and CAs—who don’t teach sections—say the time commitment ranges from 10 to 20 hours a week.
For some, like veteran Math 19a CA Adrian Veres ’12, settling into a routine makes the extra responsibility more manageable. But for most, the job is like adding a fifth class.
“You can’t just not come one night,” explains Ye Zhao ’13, a Physics 15a TF and CS50 CA. “Your students actually depend on you.”
Jim W. Danz ’12 was a TF for three semesters and was head TF for CS51 last spring, but chose not to TF this year because of the time commitment. Although he does not regret his experience, he admits that without the job, he might have tried taking five classes, or gotten better grades.
Another challenge facing these undergraduate TFs is navigating the blurred line between peer and instructor.
Bowden has had classes with his students, and as a sophomore TF, found himself teaching material to seniors. But he says both situations actually enhanced his experience—he could connect with students more easily in section because he knew them outside of class, and his seniors loved him.
“I see them also as peers,” says Tony L. Feng ’12, a CA in Math 118 and former CA of Math 55, of his students. “If they want to hand in homework late, it’s hard for me to say no.”
That kind of empathy can be an asset, according to Melissa Franklin, chair of the Physics Department.
“They have their fingers on the pulse of the Harvard undergraduate,” says Belding of her CAs.
And since undergraduates are generally expected to take a course before staffing it, they are very familiar with its character.
“If you CA, it’s because you want to,” says Veres. “For grad students that’s not true. [Some] would rather not teach at all.”
But an undergraduate’s ability to relate to students can also be problematic, says Yannis K. Valtis ’12, who begins his fourth semester as Math 21a’s head CA this fall.
“Some students will take advantage of your willingness to be there for them—get a little bit too comfortable with how many times a day they can ask you a question,” he says.
“As soon as you become a TF, your inbox starts overflowing with questions,” Muller says.
A LEARNING CURVE
The job is not always a perfect fit for students. While the average CUE Guide score for undergraduate TFs in the Physics Department last spring was an impressive 4.43, Kevin A. Rader, who hires CAs in the Statistics Department, has observed that this is not fully reflective of undergraduate TF performance.
“Their average might be a little bit higher, but their variance is much higher,” he says. “Every once in a while they overcommit themselves.”
New CS61 TF Yonatan J. Kogan ’12 says a potential challenge may be explaining material in a broader framework when he has only mastered it in the context of a particular course, a concern that graduate students do not necessarily face.
And while graduate students take a year-long course to learn communication and teaching skills, Rader adds, undergraduates get little more than “on the spot training.”
“It’s kind of a double-edged sword,” says Gommerstadt, who is planning to teach CS51 again in the spring. “I’ve experienced in other classes undergrad TFs who don’t really know what’s going on.”
But undergraduates and faculty alike agree that the experience of TFing is a learning process in itself—and one that gets easier with time.
“I’m definitely not afraid to say ‘I don’t know,’ and Google it after section,” says Thomas M. MacWilliam ’13, a CS50 TF, of responding to tough questions.
A REWARDING INVESTMENT
The most challenging and exciting part of the job, according to Physics 15a TF Andrew R. Milewski ’12, is keeping students motivated.
“I don’t care what you have to do to engage them—stand on your head if you have to,” he says. “The energy you bring to the situation will be reflected back to you by the students.”
According to some of his students, Milewski sometimes brings snacks to section, offers interesting examples, and provides practice problems of varying difficulty, from “confidence-builders” to “face-melters.”
“If you’re not tired after a section, you didn’t bring enough energy,” he says.
Most undergraduates relish the “creative flexibility,” as CS50 head TF Chartier puts it, of teaching.
Others feel a commitment to give back to the academic communities that have defined their experiences at Harvard.
“I didn’t want people to rule out entering this new major at Harvard [Biomedical Engineering] just because of what they’d heard about its fundamental intro course,” says ES53 TF Anugraha M. Raman ’12. “I hoped that by TFng this class I could more directly convince my peers what an exciting and engaging field they were entering into.”
For all the time it took, Danz’s commitment to his role as head TF was one of the “anchoring” factors that convinced him not to accept an offer to leave college to work for a start-up company. Now, he says, he is glad he never left.
Ultimately, most undergraduates who take on the role of peer-instructor love what they are studying and love to share that passion. Their enthusiasm is usually hard for students to miss.
“One of my warmest moments that I’ve had at Harvard was reading the CUE evaluation that students wrote for me,” reminisces Valtis. He shares some of the comments students have written: “‘You taught me math,’ ‘If it wasn’t for you I would have failed the class,’ and ‘You made me like math or calculus.’”
For Valtis and his peers—many of whom are considering careers in academia thanks to their experiences—those comments are only the beginning.
—Staff writer Radhika Jain can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Julie R. Barzilay can be reached at email@example.com.
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