In many Harvard courses, lecture attendance falls victim to an all-too-common plight: After shopping week lecture halls—overbrimming with students sitting crisscross in aisles—attendance slowly but persistently decays, until classes are practically vacant. By the semester’s end, attendance is generally below 50 percent.
This phenomenon, which most Harvard students probably witness or contribute to on a semesterly basis, is borne out by research conducted by the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching in the fall of 2014.
The plausible reasons for this deflation are varied. Students may prioritize catching up on sleep or homework over going to class. Likewise, Harvard students’ bustling lifestyles may result in conflicting commitments. Perhaps midterm study crunches cause students to make one-week exceptions for themselves, which then solidify into habitual lecture dereliction. More cynically, students who would under regular circumstances attend lectures may imitate their more apathetic counterparts, for fear of showing excessive investment in a class.
Regardless of the exact rationale for their absences, students know they can catch up at their leisure; by virtue of near-universal lecture videotaping, students can ingest lectures at 1.5 times speed on their laptops whenever and wherever they please, ensconced in their dormitories or tucked away in a library. Ironically, students may skip lectures on occasion to watch other lectures they have missed, sparking an insidious positive feedback loop of chronic absence.
Despite its normality, the culture surrounding lecture attendance erodes the very foundations of undergraduate learning at Harvard. The lecture is the most basic unit of knowledge transfer at a university. In opting to ditch them, undergraduates are forgoing the privilege to take part in an intimate learning community and reducing a substantial component of their college experience to the consumption of videos.
The superiority of lecture attendance is so evident as to hardly merit justification. On a practical level, the benefits of actually going to class include the opportunity to interact and collaborate with peers, the ability to ask questions, and greater focus afforded by physical immediacy, among others.
Worse, poor lecture attendance is a double-edged sword, impacting faculty and students alike. Students’ presence is a basic gesture of decency and respect toward lecturers, whose time comes at as high a premium as ours. If lecture videos truly exceed the value of in-person lectures, as many an undergraduates’ habits suggest, instructors should be able to publish videos from years past to students enrolled in a class, rather than go through the strain and indignity of presenting to half-vacant auditoriums. A deep hypocrisy also underlies Harvard students’ indifference to lectures: on the one hand, we pine for faculty accessibility, but on the other, we lack a commitment to our most elementary form of interaction with professors.
All of this is not to categorically condemn lecture videotaping; it is simply to argue that videos should supplement rather than supplant lecture attendance. Videos are indispensable for review and make-up for occasional absences.
Nevertheless, the culture surrounding lecture attendance begs the question of how students can be encouraged to attend lectures. It is a thorny issue to address, since responsibility is particularly diffuse; any individual absence can pass under the radar, but absences en masse are painfully noticeable. Top-down approaches such as attendance tracking or grading stoop down to the level of coercion and paternalism, straining the relationship between the lecturer and the lectured. Similarly, petty tactics like pre-lecture spectacles degrade the classroom, conflating academics and entertainment.
Perhaps the best solution, if a little quixotic, is for each undergraduate to come to appreciate the privilege to attend lectures in person, and to act accordingly. Harvard students travel from every corner of the globe for the opportunity to study in Cambridge—why can't we take a stroll across the Yard to class?
Juan V. Esteller ’19, a Crimson editorial executive, lives in Eliot House
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