Campaigning with Limits

The Harvard Teaching Campaign has been vocal, but has struggled to win over admins

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In response to these critiques, campaign member and chemistry Ph.D. student John M. Nicoludis says that he wants to fight the perception that courses in certain subjects do not need small sections to facilitate an ideal learning environment.

“[Sections] are all meant to be participatory, discussion-based learning environments,” he said.

But even if a 12-person cap would improve the classroom experience across the board, University leaders say that the policy could create a supply-and-demand problem.

“Reducing the size of every section offered across our curriculum would instantly provide a greater number of teaching opportunities but risks creating more sections than we have qualified teachers," Smith writes in an email.

The focus, Garber says, should be on making sure that section leaders are well-qualified.

With a lack of qualified individuals to fill teaching fellow positions, graduate students might be assigned to teach outside of their areas of expertise to staff the new sections created to accommodate the section limit, Winship and others argue. If departments must hire teaching fellows from other schools in the University or even outside of Harvard, they may lack any preparation for teaching and may not have attended the trainings conducted by some departments.

Another issue, Garber argues, is the College’s current course shopping system.

“You can't at the outset know exactly how many students that you will have,” Garber says. “Therefore, you can't always perfectly anticipate how many teaching fellows you will need.”

While he says that he supports the movement, professor Nicholas J. Watson, interim chair of the English department, wrote in an email that he does not know “if there’s too much the [College] can do to manage section sizes while it remains unclear if 40 or 400 people will sign up for a given course.”

Doherty and other Campaign members have said that they would compromise with administrators about the section cap for certain courses.

“Whether or not that number is 12 across the board, I think that’s something we’re open to discussing,” says Doherty. “If there’s a compelling reason that 14 is fine in a section for a science course, then okay.”

But without outreach to administrators, negotiations and other discussions about the limit have yet to take place.

Right now, I don’t really have a timeline, and the group as a whole doesn’t really have a timeline for when this would actually happen,” says Thornton.

Instead, members of the Campaign hope to attract support from other segments of the University community, from undergraduate and graduate students and their parents to faculty members and alumni.

“Once that happens, I think it will sort of unfold from there,” Thornton says.

—Staff writer Brianna D. MacGregor can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @bdmacgregor.

—Staff writer Steven R. Watros can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SteveWatros.