Teaching Fellows Praise New Gen Ed Targets

Teaching fellows reacted positively to recommendations for a new General Education program, specifically applauding the proposal to decrease section sizes—a change some graduate students have campaigned for more than a year to achieve.

A recent report recommending an overhaul of the College’s core curriculum—which was dubbed “failing on a variety of fronts”—says that Gen Ed courses should have a target section size of 12 students with a cap of 14, offer additional pay and specialized training for teaching fellows, and provide performance awards for top teaching fellows in the program.

The section size recommendation echoes the main goal of the Harvard Teaching Campaign, a movement of graduate students that has petitioned to cap section sizes at 12. Abigail Weil, a member of the campaign and a teaching fellow for a Russian language course, said she is pleased with the proposal.

Harvard Teaching Campaign Petition
Supporters of the Harvard Teaching Campaign proceeded through the Yard last spring before submitting a petition to cap section sizes at 12 students to Massachusetts Hall.

“I’ve seen my colleagues teach very popular Gen Ed courses…and they struggle,” Weil said. “My colleagues who are learning how to teach, learning how to grade papers, struggle to devote the requisite amount of attention to every student.”

Members of the committee that reviewed the program found that teaching fellows “face unique challenges due to the interdisciplinary quality of many Gen Ed courses.” Many teaching fellows said they struggle to prepare for the courses they help teach.

John Gee, vice president of the Graduate Student Council, said teaching Gen Ed courses often requires additional training. However, Gen Ed teaching fellows often receive less support and fewer resources than graduate students who teach department classes, who have access to specialized workshops in the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning.

Gee, who has taught sections with 15 to 18 students, said he agrees with the committee’s suggestion for training Gen Ed teaching fellows.

“I think that [the report’s suggestions are] partly due to the conversation that the Harvard Teaching Campaign and the Graduate Student Council started around section sizes,” Gee said. “But I also think that it’s just generally an acknowledgment of the fact that it’s easier to teach better classes with smaller sections.”

Gee also said that, if implemented, smaller sections would enhance the program for both students and teachers.

“They want Gen Ed courses... to be more than throwaway courses, and to be things that people have an investment in,” Gee said.

Weil said that while small sections are more important to some disciplines such as the humanities, the target section size goal would benefit all undergraduates.

“Especially with the tuition that undergraduates are paying...they should be able to engage in small, seminar-style learning,” Weil said. “We would love to see [the section cap] instituted throughout the College, not only in Gen Ed.”

—Staff writer Leah S. Yared can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @Leah_Yared.