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Center of Attention

Students pursue one-person classes

By Lara C. Tang, Contributing Writer

Peeking out between the enormous enrollments of the CS50s and Ec10s of the Q guide sits NEC91r, a supervised research tutorial in the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations department. Its sole student in the fall of 2013, Christian G. Sidak ’17 was the only undergraduate to study Syriac-Aramaic at the time.

Sidak decided to attend Harvard with every intention of pursuing Aramaic. However, upon his arrival in Cambridge, he learned that the professor who taught Aramaic A, the beginner Aramaic course, was absent on sabbatical.

Unfazed, Sidak approached the director of undergraduate studies for NELC and petitioned for a class in Syriac-Armaic. According to Sidak, the petition process presented no challenges, as the department easily found a professor who was willing to teach a one-person seminar in the ancient language.

“Those who are concentrating in Near Eastern Studies are generally just interested in studying Arabic, Jewish studies, or modern Middle East,” Sidak said. “When you come along and you’re someone who isn’t interested in studying that, the department becomes very accommodating.”

Since then, Sidak still studies Syriac-Armaic in a one-on-one setting due to his advanced proficiency.

"I, probably, out of Harvard faculty and students, have the highest level of spoken Syriac, but that’s only because nobody does it,” Sidak said.

While Sidak remains the only student in his class, the support he received from the College to pursue individualized learning is not unique. For students who choose to pursue courses in which they are they only student enrolled—dubbed "n=1" classes—the personalized attention enhances their learning, but the lack of fellow students can hinder their experience.


Students pursuing ancient Aramaic and other endangered languages are not the only ones forced to enroll in n=1 classes. Languages as common as Danish, modern Greek, and even Italian each offer one-on-one instruction. Due to lack of enrollment, professors of these one-person language classes must adjust class curricula to cater to students’ personal interests.

Elizabeth C. Keto ’18 is currently the only student in Italian 40: “Advanced Oral Expression and Performance.” The course typically draws six to seven students, according to its preceptor Elvira G. Di Fabio.

Di Fabio said Keto enrolled as the only student posed a unique challenge for Italian 40, which is designed to have a group of students perform a play entirely in Italian at the end of the semester.

“Of course, I asked Elizabeth if she wanted to do a one-woman show,” Di Fabio said. Instead, Di Fabio said, they ended up talking about what her individual interests were.

Di Fabio eventually decided to restructure the class curriculum around Keto’s academic pursuits. A prospective concentrator in the History of Art and Architecture, Keto agreed to meet with Di Fabio at the Harvard Art Museums instead of a traditional classroom. As a final project, Keto would connect her analysis of museum paintings to course texts.

Di Fabio’s Italian 40 is not the only class that has had to adjust its curriculum due to one-student enrollment.

Faced with a scheduling conflict, James T. R. Loomos ’16, a Greek-American who grew up speaking Greek with his grandmother, enrolled in a Classics research seminar as an alternative to Modern Greek 105: “Greek Cinema.” Whereas Modern Greek 105 is taught in English, Loomos’s personalized research seminar is taught entirely in Greek.

“I wanted to study the Greek language,” Loomos said. “The smaller the class you get, the more attention you get. So because the class is tailored to me, I speak in Greek and write papers in Greek.”


Although students enrolled in these one-person language classes cite a personalized curriculum as the most rewarding aspect of the experience, many note that they also come with a great disadvantage is the absence of peer participation and conversation.

Mickey J. Mackie ’17, who grew up speaking Danish, has been studying the language in a one-on-one setting with the same professor for the past four semesters.

According to Rune Aabo, Mackie's teacher, Mackie’s proficiency is unmatched by other students at Harvard. However, these advanced language skills carry some inherent disadvantages, Aabo added.

“The drawback of a one-person language class is that [Mackie] relies on me solely for practice,” Aabo said. “She gets to practice [with Aabo’s beginner Danish class] too, but I’m the only point of reference at her level or above.”

Aabo notes that even adding one or two more students at the same level to the class would add to the student experience. Di Fabio agreed with Aabo’s sentiment.

“The syllabus for the Italian 40 counts on a community project. It is a course intended for a group of students–a small group of students–but more than one,” said Di Fabio, who said she would consider not teaching the course again with only one student.


While some professors of n=1 courses claim they would prefer teaching fuller-sized classes over smaller ones, students generally find the experience to be rewarding. Mackie attributed her positive experience to the close relationship she has developed with her teaching assistant.

“Rune and I are good friends. When you’re learning languages, you talk about everything,” Mackie said. “We’ve definitely shared a lot of personal stories with each other that I probably wouldn’t share with any other teacher.”

Other students also highlighted the importance of compatible teaching and learning styles.

“You better like your professor,” Sidak said. “If I didn’t get along with them, that would be a huge problem.”

A more manageable challenge, students note, is the increased accountability they feel towards their work because they are the only students in their classes.

“Coming from a typical lazy student perspective, you’re always the one that has to answer the questions,” Loomos said. “l have to turn in every paper, answer every question. But one of the reasons my Greek has improved so much this semester is because I’m the one that always has to be on.”

In general, students enrolled in n=1 classes said the experience is worth the pressure of individualized attention. However, they warn that students interested in pursuing a one-person class must have a high degree of interest in the subject they are learning.

“You shouldn’t be pursuing one-person classes lightly,” Sidak said. “They are meant to provide opportunities for students who are very passionate and are not able to pursue that passion otherwise.”

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