Gen Ed Proposals Could Increase Job Security for Humanities Ph.D.s

Each semester, hundreds of students shop one of professor Shaye J.D. Cohen’s General Education courses on the Hebrew Bible, enticed by the possibility of fulfilling a requirement while taking an easy class.

Cohen’s courses have in the past received low workload and difficulty scores on the Q guide, Harvard’s course evaluation metric. And with 417 undergraduates enrolled in his Culture and Belief course last spring, Cohen’s class was one of the most popular Gen Ed courses offered.

Cohen, who chairs the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations department, says both the course’s difficulty and its size are by design, not by accident.

Exposing hundreds of students to his discipline is important for Cohen. And he said that “rigorous demands” for coursework likely would deter students from enrolling. But there is an additional factor in Cohen’s calculus: graduate student funding.

According to a report on the Gen Ed program released last spring, some professors in the Arts and Humanities division of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences have an incentive to teach larger Gen Ed courses in order to support their Ph.D. candidates—whose stipend primarily comes from teaching. Many departments in that division, including NELC, have relatively few undergraduate concentrators and require Gen Ed courses to create more teaching positions.


For Cohen, not offering large Gen Ed courses could mean his graduate students “would all go hungry” for lack of teaching positions.

Ph.D. candidates in the Arts and Humanities receive stipend support for their first two years at Harvard, during which they ordinarily do not teach. According to Graduate School of Arts and Sciences spokesperson Ann P. Hall, graduate students in their third and fourth years are generally paid by the Office of Undergraduate Education to teach courses, with an additional GSAS stipend that keeps overall financial support consistent with levels from their first two years. Teaching assignments are tied to undergraduate course enrollment—the larger the course, the more sections and teaching positions offered.

Cohen said he finds the current funding model problematic: In small departments that have large numbers of graduate students relative to their undergraduate populations, doctoral candidates have to look elsewhere for teaching appointments. Cohen suggested that the graduate students should be guaranteed a fixed value of funding from GSAS for a fixed number of years, with the expectation that students would still teach for one to three years during their time at Harvard.

“Every graduate student needs to learn how to teach, every graduate student needs experience in teaching, and every graduate student[’s training] should include a teaching component,” Cohen added. “You fix that, that will take off a lot of the pressure on the problems of the Gen Ed curriculum, which will allow the Gen Ed curriculum to just be discussed on its own.”

History professor Maya R. Jasanoff ’96, who sits on the committee reviewing the Gen Ed program, said the current expectation that graduate students teach in their third and fourth years did not “map well” onto the structure of the History department, where candidates spend their fourth year researching off-campus. After that time, Jasanoff suggested these candidates should receive guaranteed teaching fellowships for an additional year.

FAS will likely vote on a new General Education program later this semester—the current program, the review committee found, was “failing on a variety of fronts.” Among the committee’s recommendations are a reduced target section size of 12 students and a cap of 14, supplemental pay for Gen Ed teaching fellows, and additional benefits for departments that supply faculty to Gen Ed courses.

—Staff writer Melissa C. Rodman can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @melissa_rodman.

—Staff writer Luca F. Schroeder can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @lucaschroeder.


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