The Harvard Teaching Campaign, a movement to cap the number of students in any Harvard College section or lab group at 12, started with about that many members. In recent weeks, however, a number of members of the Faculty of the Arts and Sciences as well as the University Philosophy Department have endorsed the effort.
We understand the pedagogical pitfalls presented by sprawling sections, and we appreciate the Harvard Teaching Campaign’s work to bring the problem to the forefront of discourse on campus. We believe FAS should approach section size on a department-by-department basis, focusing not on limiting section size to a fixed number but rather on making sure discussion-based sections remain discussion-based and participatory. Especially given the logistical and monetary costs that would come with section reduction, FAS should move toward smaller sections only where necessary.
At the heart of the Teaching Campaign is a petition urging Harvard to “fulfill its promises of excellence” by reducing section size. We, too, hope that Harvard will take advantage of its rich resources to provide students with an exemplary education. And yet in some disciplines, we believe that excellence can exist even in a section containing over a dozen students. A statistics teaching fellow, for example, can expound equations to 18 or 20 pupils with ease.
In other areas of study, however, we do note the need for section downsizing. It comes as no surprise that the primary backers of the Teaching Campaign work in the Philosophy Department and that History Department affiliates contributed most of the quotes featured on the campaign’s website. Certain departments, especially those in the humanities, use section as a mode of facilitating discussion among students. Such discussion misses the mark when not everyone can fit around the table or when time runs too short for each student to make his or her voice heard.
The Teaching Campaign highlights an issue Harvard cannot afford to ignore. But instead of imposing a rigid section-size limit on the whole College, FAS should look to those who know best: the departments themselves. Only those who have experience teaching certain courses can understand best practices and ascertain how many students should sit in those sections. If FAS works with professors to figure out what sections could use shrinking and just how much of it they need, Harvard can find a solution both flexible and effective.
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