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Campaign To Reduce Section Sizes Gathers Momentum

A campaign for smaller sections started by teaching fellows at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences garnered the endorsement of the English Department, which on Tuesday voted unanimously in favor of a motion to limit section sizes to 12 students.

The endorsement is the latest support received by the Harvard Teaching Campaign, a movement of graduate students committed to improving the educational experience of undergraduates in part by urging the University to adopt a 12-student cap on section and lab group sizes. The Campaign’s cause has been endorsed by the Philosophy, History, and Sociology departments, as well as the Undergraduate Council and the Graduate Student Council.

The English Department’s endorsement cited four benefits of smaller section sizes: more inclusive and interactive discussions, better pedagogical training for teaching fellows, more teaching opportunities for graduate students, and higher-quality teaching by better prepared teaching fellows.

English Department Chair W. James Simpson said that members of the department swiftly reached a consensus with little discussion.

“When you consider the matter as a teacher, then the arguments all go in one direction,” Simpson said.

Simpson said that financial concerns would be the only reason not to adopt a section size cap and that these concerns are not the “primary responsibility” of faculty members.

According to Simpson, smaller sections are especially important for the humanities division due to the nature of the exchange that takes place during sections.

“In the sciences, a lot of sections are about the transmission of information…. Instruction in the humanities is transactional; it’s an event that happens between text and people and between people,” Simpson said. “For that happening to take place, it’s got to be a kind of theatrical event with the right number of participants.”

Though the Campaign’s past outreach activities have largely been targeted at faculty members, campaign members have recently ramped up efforts to garner support from the undergraduate population.

Cristina V. Groeger ’08, a History teaching fellow who is leading the campaign’s outreach effort to undergraduates, said their goal is to build an undergraduate organization working to support the campaign.

According to Groeger, the campaign does not aim to reduce the number of students taught by each teaching fellow, but rather to reduce the size of each section.

“A common question we get is: will [reducing section sizes] create a shortage of TFs? It wouldn’t, because a TF would be teaching three sections of 12 instead of two sections of 18, and the ratio wouldn’t be changed,” she said.

Stephen Squibb, an English teaching fellow, said the larger vision of the campaign is about “realigning Harvard’s institutional priorities towards the undergraduate educational experience.”

“I think section sizes should be smaller because it emphasizes the fact that this institution takes the educational experience of undergraduates seriously, and that it prioritizes that as much as a new building or any other initiative that soaks up so much of the money that this place has,” Squibb said.

—Staff Writer Zara Zhang can be reached at zara.zhang@thecrimson.com.

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