Section Size, Teaching Concerns Center of Latest Graduate Student Forum

Teaching Town Hall
Graduate students chat after a town hall meeting about the teaching fellows system in March. Students cited late paychecks, large section sizes, and teaching appointments as problems with the current system.

A crowd of more than 40 graduate students gathered in the Barker Center Wednesday night, meeting for the second time in three weeks to discuss a host of issues they say are affecting the work of teaching fellows and other teaching staff, including bloated section sizes and teaching assignments.

The meeting was closed to the press, with shades pulled down to cover the windows to the Barker Center’s Thompson Room, where it occurred. It lasted for about 90 minutes and ended with a loud round of applause.

After the discussion, graduate students who attended reiterated their basic concerns, which they said were aired at length during the meeting. Attendees said that, once again, a discussion over burgeoning section sizes dominated much of the conversation.

Kristen C. Roupenian, a teaching fellow for the Committee on Degrees in  History and Literature, said that most of her fellow attendees indicated their support for a movement to decrease section sizes during the meeting.

“[Large section sizes] makes it so much more difficult,” Roupenian said after the meeting, explaining that even marginal increases can greatly affect a teaching fellow’s workload. “[Smaller sections] would be so much better for undergraduates and so much better for graduate students.”

In late February, complaints over section sizes also dominated a large portion of a graduate student forum dedicated to issues related to teaching. Shortly after, several graduate students launched the Harvard Teaching Campaign, which aims to cap section sizes at 12 students. The movement has gained support from faculty members, the Department of Philosophy, and students within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Attendees said after Wednesday’s meeting that they believed they were making significant progress in spreading the word about large section sizes. But earlier this week Robert A. Lue, faculty director of the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, said that there are large financial hurdles to lowering section sizes.

“From my experience, you want a section size that is large enough so that you have a diversity of experiences in the classroom, but also small enough so that everyone has enough airtime to participate” Lue said. “I think it’s a good thing to strive for, but it is of course the fiscal reality that we are in.”

Also discussed at Wednesday’s meeting were alleged inadequacies in the assignment of teaching fellows.

Speaking after the meeting, Anna Aizman, who teaches in the Department of Comparative Literature, said that she often has to pick up teaching assignments that reside outside her primary interest,  Russian literature. Doing so, she said, usually means hours of extra weekly work.

“I do it because I have to,” Aizman said. “I do it because I worry about not having enough money not only to live, but also to travel and do my research.”

—Staff writer Dev A. Patel contributed to the reporting of this story

—Staff writer Matthew Q. Clarida can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @mattclarida.