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Expos Courses Exempt From 12-Student Target for College Discussion Sections

Students enter Sever Hall.
Students enter Sever Hall. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By James S. Bikales, Crimson Staff Writer

While Harvard College will aim to limit teaching fellow-led sections to 12 students next academic year, the mandatory freshman course Expository Writing 20 will not be subject to that target, according to an internal email obtained by The Crimson.

Expos sections are led by preceptors, rather than graduate student teaching fellows, but several preceptors said their sections should be subject to similar targets in order for them to fulfill their role in supporting freshmen transitioning to college.

Faculty of Arts and Sciences administrators began informing faculty and graduate students in June that sections next academic year should enroll about 12 students. All classes will be held remotely due to the coronavirus pandemic, including for freshmen, the only undergraduate cohort invited back to campus this fall.

The expository writing course is usually broken up into sections of up to 15 students, each studying academic writing through the lens of a different subject area. Expos preceptors typically teach two sections.

In the June 23 email to Expos preceptors, Dean of Undergraduate Education Amanda J. Claybaugh wrote that because Expos relies on a “carefully-selected and thoroughly-mentored teaching staff,” hiring more students into teaching roles to reduce section sizes, as other departments are doing, would not be “appropriate” for Expos.

“That said, we do expect that fewer first-year students will enroll in the fall, which will reduce section size naturally,” Claybaugh wrote in the email.

College spokesperson Rachael Dane wrote in an emailed statement Saturday that the 12-student target applies to teaching fellow-led sections, not “freestanding courses led by faculty.”

“Many faculty, in many departments, will be teaching seminars with more than 12 students in them this fall,” Dane wrote.

Some Expos preceptors said the course will be particularly difficult to run on Zoom.

Expos preceptor Margaret O. Doherty said handling 30 students under normal circumstances is “already a high teaching load, given the kind of teaching that Expos demands of its instructors.”

“We meet one on one with every single student multiple times a semester, we give intense and lengthy feedback on all of their writing,” she said. “Doing it online is going to require even more work and availability and flexibility from Expos preceptors.”

Doherty said the “most frustrating” part of the policy was that the College instituted it without consulting with Expos preceptors.

“I’m really disappointed that we had no say in this decision, as the faculty who do incredibly intensive, incredibly intimate, undergraduate education, and who have a lot of knowledge and expertise about the conditions under which that is best done,” Doherty said.

“All we’ve done is add a huge amount of work and demand, much more time without making any accommodations to make that more feasible for instructors who have their own commitments and families and crises during this pandemic,” she added.

Willa H. Brown, another Expos preceptor, said she and her fellow instructors serve in a unique role as one of the first and closest faculty contacts for freshmen.

“We’re often among the first people who see problems coming up,” Brown said. “As we moved to Zoom, and all of the work becomes sort of more onerous, to me it would make sense that our classes would actually be more heavily or carefully capped.”

Still, Expos preceptors have met frequently to plan how to continue supporting students in the virtual format, Brown said.

“Freshmen spend a lot of time with their preceptors and I think for a lot of freshmen, that’s a useful relationship, and a useful part of transitioning to college,” Brown said. “We like doing it, we’d just like to be able to do our best job possible.”

Brown said she felt the decision reflected a “continuing sense that non-tenure-track faculty just aren’t valued in the same way tenure-line faculty are.”

Both concerns about the status of Harvard’s non-tenure-track faculty and about section sizes existed well before the coronavirus crisis.

Non-tenure-track faculty petitioned Harvard in April to extend appointment caps in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Administrators never responded, and some faculty saw their appointments expire June 30.

In 2014, the graduate student-run Harvard Teaching Campaign led a push to cap all section sizes at 12 students. At least 10 departments endorsed the campaign, which also formed the basis for early organizing in favor of Harvard’s graduate student union.

—Staff writer James S. Bikales can be reached at james.bikales@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamepdx.

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College AdministrationFASCollege LifeFAS AdministrationAcademicsCoronavirusCoronavirus Feature