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At Town Hall, Teaching Fellows Air Grievances

By Callie H. Gilbert and Dev A. Patel, Crimson Staff Writers

UPDATED: Feb. 20, 2014, at 2:06 a.m.

Students from across the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences raised concerns over section sizes, late paychecks, and teaching appointments at a Teaching Town Hall Wednesday evening.

The town hall, which attracted about 40 graduate students and lasted nearly two hours, was hosted by the Graduate Student Council and the recently formed Harvard Teaching Campaign, a coalition of teaching fellows, laboratory supervisors, and tutorial instructors that is “committed to improving the educational experience of undergraduates,” according to its website.

First in a panel and then in a larger discussion, students voiced several complaints about the systems that govern teaching fellows and their responsibilities, sharing stories about teaching for months without getting paid and scrambling to find teaching posts as enrollment numbers fluctuate during shopping week.

“A big part of what the University wants is a really amorphous system where everything is done on the fly,” said John Gee, the at-large representative for FAS’s Social Sciences Division on the Graduate Student Council. Many students also characterized the teaching fellows system as inconsistent and disorganized.

A major concern that students raised regarded the difficulties associated with teaching large sections, such as those with more than 20 undergraduates, and the impact of section size on the workload of teaching fellows and the quality of discussion in section.

“One of my sections had twenty-two students, and so there weren’t even enough spots for them all to sit down,” said one graduate student who was granted anonymity by The Crimson because the student feared that his or her relationship with faculty members would be negatively impacted.

“There will be more teaching [fellows] available and more predictability in our assignments if section sizes are smaller, and we can actually do what we want to do well,” said Rudi Batzell, a third-year graduate student.

For department in the sciences, large section sizes in laboratories raise further safety concerns for teaching fellows.

“When I have seventeen students in a section, I don’t have that time to check on all students, so they fall behind and make mistakes,” said a teaching fellow in the sciences. “There’s also a safety hazard because of chemicals in the laboratories.”

Another common complaint concerned the teaching fellow compensation system, which some town hall attendees described as disorganized and unfair. According to preliminary results of an ongoing survey conducted by the Graduate Student Council, a quarter of the approximately 450 respondents have experienced significant delays in receiving their paychecks, according to Harvard Teaching Campaign member Charles Petersen.

Summer A. Shafer, one of the panelists and president of the council, said that the classification of teaching fellows as employees of Harvard is unclear, resulting in tax filing problems for some students.

On top of class size and financial concerns, town hall participants also criticized the process of appointing teaching fellows. Many said that the structure of shopping week and the resulting uncertainty of class sizes leaves many graduate students in the dark as to whether they will serve as a teaching fellow in a given semester until after the semester has started.

Shafer said that because of the uncertainty regarding class enrollment and the demand for teaching fellows, she has been forced to request interviews and positions with professors in disciplines outside of her area of study.

“It was this uncertainty, this feeling of hopelessness and helplessness,” Shafer said.

Several students advocated for the elimination of shopping week, while others argued that an overall restructuring of the pre-term planning tool would be more beneficial.

As they exited the room, graduate students were encouraged to sign a petition sponsored by the Harvard Teaching Campaign that calls for the administration to set a limit of 12 students per section or lab group. The group also recently launched a survey of teaching fellows and other graduate student staff members and an official website to promote the campaign’s petition.

Throughout the town hall, students adopted a cautious tone, often refraining from naming specific courses or professors for fear of damaging personal connections.

“If you want to solve a problem, you have to raise noise,” Gee said. “However, that threatens the web of interpersonal relationships.”

Graduate students who attended the event said they appreciated the open discussion and overall willingness of participants to share their experiences, as well as the potential to collaborate with undergraduates in improving the teaching system. Some said they were surprised to learn that teaching fellows across different departments shared similar problems.

“I hope there will be a new sense of solidarity among graduate students with teaching issues now, and even better, some ideas about actions we can take to address these problems,” said linguistics teaching fellow Elaine F. Stranahan.

“You didn’t hear anyone dissenting,” said Byron M. Davies, a sixth-year graduate student. “You find that we’re all having this common experience.”

—Staff writer Callie H. Gilbert can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CallieGilbert95.

—Staff writer Dev A. Patel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @dev_a_patel.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: Feb. 20, 2014

An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the group conducting a survey of graduate students regarding their experience as teaching fellows. In fact, the Graduate Student Council sponsored the survey.

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