When I began teaching classes, I was lucky enough to have unusually small sections: usually under 10 students. My experience, consequently, was dynamic, and as a teacher, I was able to get to know my students personally.
Our interactions went well beyond the particular focus of the course: I assisted one junior who was struggling to frame his senior thesis topic, and worked closely with freshmen and sophomores to improve their writing. As for the students, a small section size pushed them to constructively participate in discussion—they all had a clear stake in the momentum of the classroom conversation. And they left our courses as far sharper students.
But in later years, I taught larger sections, ranging from 13 to 17 students. While I had many excellent students, the larger classroom size led to a clear deterioration of both the learning and teaching experience. In large sections, it is far easier for a few select students to dominate discussion while the rest slip into anonymity.
And it is far more difficult for me, as a teaching fellow, to fulfill my responsibilities of giving my students the time, attention, and feedback that they deserve. As section size increases, the classroom dynamic steadily begins resembling that of a large lecture course.
There is much talk about the “Harvard experience.” For undergraduates, socializing, networking, athletics, community service, and campus organizations are important components. But let us not forget that classroom education is the bedrock of this experience. It is the reason why students come to Harvard in the first place.
Smaller section size, as campaigned for by my peers, is an important component of the solution. But the other, oft-neglected component is improving conditions for the graduate students who teach.
As a Ph.D. candidate here, I am well aware that I am privy to far more support and resources than my peers at other institutions, and I am deeply grateful for it.
Nevertheless, simple comparison elides the fact that overall conditions—at Harvard and peer institutions—could be much better. Large sections compromise our ability to be good researchers as well as good teachers. Consequently, it is nearly impossible to complete substantial work on our dissertations while earning our pay as teaching fellows—and our salaries do not reflect the additional teaching burden we face. This, of course, ends up lengthening our graduate careers.
There are many other factors that deleteriously impact our ability to teach and do research. GSAS guarantees teaching for G-3s and G-4s, which is commendable. Yet, these are precisely the years where many of us, at least in the humanities, are off campus conducting research. I faced great difficulty securing teaching assignments after I returned from my research abroad. As a recent Graduate Student Council survey indicates, many of us have not receive our paychecks on time.
For me, there were a few times where, due to paycheck delays, I have had to dip into my meager savings in order to pay rent.
This problem is aggravated by the fact that it is becoming increasingly difficult for graduate students to live around campus as rents in Cambridge and Somerville continue to soar. Other universities located in cities with high costs of living, such as Columbia University, offer their graduate students subsidized housing.
Speaking as a former resident, I can testify that Harvard’s graduate student housing stock is, quite frankly, too small and too expensive. I know few graduate students who can afford a studio at One Western Ave., which can cost as much as $1,914 per month, or a studio in Peabody Terrace, which now goes for anywhere between $1,414 to $1,812 a month. At my current yearly salary of $26,020 (accounting for tuition waiver), I could have as little as $356 per month for food, transportation, and other essentials after paying rent for such a studio. This does not make for productive students or effective teachers.
We TFs take our work responsibilities seriously: We are committed toward maintaining Harvard’s academic excellence. But, quite often, we feel let down by the administration.
Last semester, I taught for one professor who was deeply committed to undergraduate teaching. After the Office of Undergraduate Education tried cutting a section from our large lecture—which would have put 18 students in each—our professor had to fight in order to retain the one additional section. This additional section cost Harvard a trifling amount, provided financial support to a deserving graduate student and—most importantly—gave all of our undergraduate students a far superior learning experience.
Such experiences sap the morale of undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty. Harvard should, and can, do better.
Dinyar Patel is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History.
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