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To the Editor:
With “Respecting Preceptors Means Reform,” you join the long tradition of abstractly calling for greater respect for preceptors at Harvard, while not supporting the kind of concrete improvements to our working conditions that such respect, if real, would entail.
Meanwhile, another Harvard tradition to which you appeal, that of using preceptorships as a path to “larger and more secure roles in academia,” is dead. You write that “Successful preceptors are expected to spread their wings elsewhere and vacate their positions for newcomers.” Here is some actual data to ground your lofty rhetoric: In the last six years, around 25 of our colleagues in the Harvard College Writing Program (which has the largest cohort of preceptors at Harvard) have left, most often because they were forced out by term limits. By our count, only three are now professors or on a tenure track. You are right that the paths to a career in higher education are scarce, but wrong that this is one. We appreciate your highlighting how excluded we were from the recent Faculty of Arts and Sciences review of the preceptor system, but your editorial reinforces many of its faulty assumptions about teaching, research, and the academic job market.
While more of our former colleagues have found lectureships elsewhere, just as many have quit teaching for administrative positions — often not because they wanted to, but because such positions aren’t term-limited — or left academia entirely. Stable teaching positions are being replaced everywhere by adjuncts who are not paid a living wage, nor given health insurance. The alternative to exploiting teachers in this way, and to Harvard’s rigid term limits, is not “un-capped preceptorships.” It is a system of potentially renewable contracts that would balance retaining the most excellent teachers and bringing in new ones. To be clear: Harvard’s very limited number of senior preceptorships do not constitute such a system. Those promoted into senior preceptorships replace many of their teaching duties with administrative ones. Harvard has no mechanism for retaining, as teachers, its most excellent preceptors.
If Harvard actually respects preceptors, then it should give us more manageable teaching responsibilities by reducing class sizes or our course load, which would benefit our students as well. It should support our research and writing with time and money, so that we are more competitive on the job market, as even teaching positions now require robust publication records. It should pay us in line with our peers at other institutions, so that we don’t have to teach extra classes in order to cover our bills, making it even more impossible to find time to write. And it should create a real path to longer-term employment for the most excellent teachers among us who want to keep teaching and make a real home at Harvard.
Katie Ana Baca ’11, Matthew B. Cole, and Ben M. Roth are all preceptors in the Harvard College Writing Program. Additional contributors to the letter can be found here.
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