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Respecting Preceptors Means Reform

By Allison G. Lee
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

The preceptor system is here to stay, which is to say that preceptors themselves will continue to be shown the door. An optimistic committee review on the role of preceptors and senior preceptors within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences has reaffirmed the appointment cap system, under which all but higher-up senior preceptors are hired with a set time cap. When this expires, irrespective of their performance, they must leave. While the cap system has some logistical merits, the review hints at a broader problem in terms of how our institution engages with its non-tenure-track teaching staff. Preceptors aren’t disposable, and they shouldn’t be treated as such.

Harvard preceptors were unsurprisingly disappointed by the latest review process and its results. This tracks: The inquiry into their field of work irrationally excluded them all. Not only did the review committee contain no preceptors, senior or otherwise, but it also failed to hold any live consultations with preceptors after a planned in-person meeting was canceled last year amidst (understandable) Covid-19 concerns. The meager substitute our university offered — an online survey — does no justice to the discourse needed on how Harvard’s teaching faculty are treated, amidst concerns voiced by students and non-ladder faculty more broadly.

This complete lack of direct input is both troubling and indicative of our institution’s attitude towards preceptors themselves. We agree with Expository Writing preceptor Margaret Doherty’s assessment that the review seems to dismiss preceptors as nothing more than “just teachers” — temporary and easily replaceable. This outlook, which creates a hierarchy between shades of teachers, is colored with an unfortunate and ironic disdain for prioritizing instruction; a condescending and inaccurate depiction of how instruction, research, and writing interweave in academia that distinguishes between “true” scholarship and teaching.

Yet the notion that knowledge production and dissemination are separate fields stands starkly opposed to Harvard’s own presumed mission as a higher education institution. In this specific case, it’s also borderline absurd: Preceptors and other non-ladder faculty are “the bedrock” of many of our teaching programs, and deserve admiration for their crucial work. Failing to include their voices in a study of their own line of work is as counterproductive as it is disrespectful.

So the University should, and probably could, have managed a more thorough, inclusive review. But does that mean that its findings on the necessity of time caps are entirely wrong? Is our entire preceptor system kaput?

Not quite.

Despite the disappointing way the review regards preceptors, we too find good reasons for the appointment cap to stay. Preceptors are often newly minted Ph.D.s or rising graduate students who are paid to teach as they advance their careers and seek larger and more secure roles in academia. The position is largely transitional; an ephemeral post that must remain open to future doctoral graduates and young intellectuals seeking to develop their skills and fatten their resume. Successful preceptors are expected to spread their wings elsewhere and vacate their positions for newcomers, allowing the next generation of academics to emerge. Allowing un-capped preceptorships would break a virtuous cycle of renewal, limiting the already scarce paths to a career in higher education.

That doesn’t mean we don’t value preceptor-led classes, or the uncharted paths they can explore. In fact, we find many preceptor-taught courses innovative in their pedagogy and refreshing in coverage; popular and stimulating enough to merit outliving their original instructors. Such courses should be handed off to new, ambitious preceptors who can help preserve their educational value, without stifling access to entry-level university positions.

This transitional dynamic, however, must be bidirectional. If the role of a preceptor is but a stepping stone in a broader academic career, our university must provide the means for our budding professionals to fully develop, as well as an acknowledgment of and respect for their work. In the short run, Harvard should strengthen the resources dedicated to professional development for preceptors and expand its programs from the limited capabilities of Harvard's Derek Bok Center for Teaching & Learning, which the review highlighted as their sole source of career support. Particularly this year, amidst the ongoing pandemic and subsequent academic hiring freezes, the University should prioritize making sure that preceptors can realistically achieve their career goals within their capped appointment times. If we want the broader benefits of constantly attracting new scholastic talent, we must protect the future of those we regularly force out of our ranks.

Almost every undergraduate at Harvard will be taught or shaped by a preceptor at some point or another. These teachers — for they are, in the best sense of the word, our dutiful teachers — play just as important a role in our Harvard education as Harvard itself plays in the development of their careers. It’s about time we start acknowledging them.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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