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Teaching Fellows Face Uncertainty During Shopping Week

Morals and the Mind
Professor Fiery Cushman lectures his Social Psychology class in 2016. This semester, Cushman had to add find several extra teaching fellows for the class.

Graduate students and faculty said fluctuating enrollments in the classes they teach can cause challenges for course staff, who often face uncertain schedules as a result of undergraduates shopping, adding, and dropping courses during the first weeks of the semester.

Psychology Professor Fiery A. Cushman said the beginning of the semester is often a chaotic time for him and his teaching staff.

“It’s a little bit of a scramble, because you’re trying to figure out exactly who your staff is going to be at the same time that you’re sectioning,” Cushman said.

Cushman teaches Psychology 15: “Social Psychology,” which had to add several sections this semester due to high enrollment. The class is tied for fifth most popular among undergraduates this semester. To handle increased interest in the course, Cushman said he began planning to hire an extra teaching fellow last week in coordination with Celia I. Raia, the psychology department’s graduate student coordinator.

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“On Friday, when all the enrollment numbers came in, there were some classes in the department with lower than expected enrollment. So, there were some TFs, doctoral students in psychology, who were looking to be reassigned,” Cushman said. “I spent the past week reviewing CVs and laying out what the options were. And all of those people knew there was a chance that they could be called up from the bullpen to fill in.”

In many departments, mostly in the humanities and social sciences, Ph.D. candidates are guaranteed two sections of teaching assignments during each semester they are eligible to teach. These semesters often fall in the third and fourth years of their doctorate.

Many Ph.D. candidates take on teaching responsibilities because it is required in many degree programs. Yet more rely on on teaching appointments for to bolster their stipends.

Graduate students who need to find new assignments after undergraduates finalize their study cards have several options. They can contact administrators in their department to find last-minute openings or use the Centralized Application for Teaching Sections, a tool some departments use to post openings, according to the GSAS Student Handbook.

Some teaching fellows, including those who come from outside Harvard, have no guarantee of a teaching offer. Arkadiy L. Maksimovskiy, a research fellow at Harvard Medical School who occasionally teaches in the psychology department, said waiting for enrollment numbers to come in can be stressful, both financially and in terms of scheduling.

“If you ask a graduate student, I would imagine it would impact their schedule a lot more. They have more at stake in terms of schedule, but not as much in terms of income,” he said. “For me, I guess it’s sort of the other way around. Income is certainly a part of it—it’s not guaranteed for me—and I kind of have to wait,” he added.

Maksimovskiy, who is a currently a teaching fellow in Psychology 1355: “The Adolescent Brain,” said that his appointment was finalized on Monday afternoon.

“If it’s a good match, all the professor can say is that it depends on the final enrollment in the class. That can go on for a while, and no one knows until shopping week is over. This semester, it was like, high probability Friday afternoon and it was finalized [Monday],” he said. “In the course of a couple of hours, you can go from not knowing whether you have this commitment, or you will. Things start moving very quickly.”

—Staff writer Shera S. Avi-Yonah can be reached at shera.avi-yonah@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter at @saviyonah.

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