For one night each semester, one of Harvard’s most famous courses, Computer Science 50: “Introduction to Computer Science,” throws a school-sanctioned all-nighter: the Hackathon. From 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., students stay up at the Science and Engineering Complex working on their final projects, fueled by Felipe’s burritos, Otto’s pizza, and absurd quantities of candy and coffee.
“Those still awake at 5 a.m. will be treated to breakfast at IHOP,” the CS50 website advertises. The event is presented as a fun and memorable way for students to collaborate on their work, and for many participants, that remains true. Hustling into different rooms in the Science and Engineering Complex, students group together to work on their code. Apparently, nothing exhilarates prospective computer science students quite like sugar, caffeine, music, and the sleep-deprived adrenaline of solving bugs and errors at the crack of dawn.
Meanwhile, for the undergraduate course assistants of the class, the Hackathon feels like a long, unpaid ordeal.
This year in particular, the undergraduate teaching staff of CS50 has raised concerns about the burden of work placed on them. Course assistants mainly hold office hours and small tutorials; enhanced CAs additionally lead sections and grade most assignments.
Under CS50’s fall 2022 contract, enhanced CAs may receive compensation for up to 10 hours of work per week, a reduction from the 12-hour maximum of previous years. Meanwhile, CAs may receive compensation for a maximum of only five hours of work per week.
“I think five hours for CAs is really unfair to them,” says Jacob J. Fernandes ’24, who has worked as a CA and an enhanced CA for CS50, citing the Hackathon as one source of unfairly compensated work.
Though CS50 is just one course among thousands, the class reflects wider labor issues at Harvard. Throughout the University, teaching fellows and CAs have mobilized in the past decade for better pay, benefits, and working conditions.
Graduate students began organizing in 2015 and successfully registered their union in 2018. Since then, they have gone on strike twice. Just this past year, undergraduates workers followed suit and began organizing their own workers union.
Despite what Harvard would lead students to believe, much of its undergraduate education relies on its hundreds of CAs and TFs. This is especially the case in large introductory courses like CS 50, Statistics 110: “Introduction to Probability,” Life Sciences 1A: “An Integrated Introduction to the Life Sciences: Chemistry, Molecular Biology, and Cell Biology,” and Life Sciences 1B: “An Integrated Introduction to the Life Sciences: Genetics, Genomics, and Evolution” which typically have one faculty member leading a lecture with hundreds of students. And while Harvard does mention its teaching fellows on the admissions website, nowhere does it reference the countless CAs who are responsible for the education of thousands of students in large STEM classes.
The experiences of CAs and TFs alike — in CS50 and beyond — have shed light on a number of teaching-related issues at the University: low wages, inadequate training for teaching staff, and inaccessible faculty. The question is, do these factors pose a barrier to the high quality of instruction that Harvard advertises? And if it does, is the Harvard paradigm evidence of a growing devaluation of higher education at large?
“POV: You’re a Harvard student taking an intro Computer Science course,” reads the caption of a video on CS50’s YouTube channel as “Heat Waves” by Glass Animals plays in the background. The camera pans over a packed Sanders Theatre where professor David J. Malan ’99 lectures from a podium onstage.
Midway through, the video cuts to a student at home watching the same lecture from their desk. CS50 is available free for anyone to take online, the video explains.
With a YouTube channel of 1.38 million subscribers and an Instagram following of over 160,000, CS50 has become far more than an introductory computer science course. So what makes the experience of the students enrolled in the class at Harvard different from the experience of the over four million people who have taken the course online?
The answer, says Fernandes, is that enhanced CAs, whom students and teaching staff in CS50 refer to as TFs, are “essentially running the course.”
“Malan gets to go on stage and he creates these great lectures, but in the end, students are coming to the TFs for pretty much everything else,” Fernandes says.
Professor Malan did not respond to a request for comment.
While some of the expectations set on the undergraduate teaching staff are typical — such as leading office hours and small tutorials, as well as attending weekly staff meetings — other expectations go beyond the typical workload for CAs — including staying long after class to answer questions as well as leading and preparing materials for large sections.
Fernandes lists the time commitments for each of these responsibilities. “That leaves only three hours for grading,” he says. “If you’ve ever graded, you know that it does not take just three hours to grade p-sets, especially for CS.”
In addition to these duties and staffing Hackathon, CAs are expected to attend the CS50 fair, where students present their final projects for the course.
Connor J. Leggett ’23, the head TF for CS50, explains that while the responsibilities of CAs and TFs are laid out before they sign their contracts, undergraduate teaching staff are often unclear on what those responsibilities will actually look like. For example, some of CS50’s large events fall during midterms and finals, when CAs may find themselves overwhelmed with their own work.
“When people agree to these things, they don’t know the dates,” Leggett says. “So when people agreed to the CS50 fair, they didn’t know that it might be the day before their 121 or 120 finals,” referring to the upper-level computer science courses.
The most recent contract for CS50 CAs only allows them to report a maximum of 10 hours. This contract does not fairly compensate undergraduates considering the amount of time they spend staffing CS50’s large events and grading tests at the end of the year, Fernandes says.
“I think 12 hours is totally fine — I was totally happy last year with 12 hours,” Fernandes says. “But this year when we were told we only get 10 hours, it’s very frustrating as a TF because we were doing a lot of work for the class.”
Alyssa Huang ’24, who worked as a CS50 TF for two semesters, says the course provides a wealth of resources for teaching. “There was a pretty robust TF’ing system – they had solutions, they had section notes that were pre-prepared for us, and very clear grading guidelines,” she says.
Support for TFs and CAs includes one to two days of training prior to the semester, weekly staff meetings, and a mentorship program, where more experienced TFs meet with a small group of first-time course assistants. According to Leggett, this provides a space for troubleshooting and reflection.
As he puts it, the course is “a well-oiled machine.”
However, Fernandes says preparing for sections and reviewing students’ questions on a “24/7” basis through the course’s online blog adds on still more work, despite TFs’ limited paid hours.
Moreover, Fernandes believes that CS50’s hierarchical structure has made the course “impersonal.” Malan does not list his own office hours on the CS50 website, so it is difficult for a student to meet with him.
“I’ve taken other classes at Harvard that are really big, and the TFs run them largely, but the instructors always still have office hours, where you can meet with the instructor if you need help,” Fernandes says.
Though undergraduate instructors play a vital role in large courses like CS50, they are objectively inexperienced educators when compared to the renowned professors that Harvard touts to prospective students. While some CAs and TFs are passionate and dedicated teachers, others fall short. The quality of one’s education at Harvard is then determined by whose section they’re placed into.
Halfway through the fall semester, Koby Ljunggren, a Ph.D. candidate in Biophysics and graduate head TF for Life Sciences 1A and 1B, was suddenly called in to take over another section. There, Ljunggren met students with accommodations who felt their needs were not met by their previous instructor.
LS1A and 1B are large lecture courses that count toward the pre-med track, which are taken by hundreds of freshmen each year. Given the class size, section becomes students’ main opportunity to ask questions and clarify concepts from lectures.
“I’m neurodivergent myself, and so I end up working with a lot of neurodivergent students whose learning styles don’t match up with their TF’s expectations,” they say.
“The first or second time I taught them, we had a real cathartic moment,” Ljunggren adds. where they were like, ‘I’m so glad that someone’s in the classroom now that really cares about my learning.’”
That evening, the students stayed with Ljunggren long after their section had ended, sharing their experiences with classroom accommodations.
“It was sort of that big sigh of relief that I’ve never seen a student have — that even though the course is hard, someone is in the room now that wants to support them and is willing to advocate for them at the course staff level,” Ljunggren says. “And also someone that doesn’t just read off a slide.”
According to Ljunggren, low-quality teaching can affect students’ academic path in college, as well as their enthusiasm for specific future careers.
“These students will quite literally not want to continue pursuing this kind of field, which is really disappointing because we get a lot of different kinds of people in LS1A and 1B, including humanities and social sciences folks,” they say. “It makes me really sad because I want to make sure that students come out of my class being really passionate and gravitating toward this field rather than being pushed away from it.”
Maame A. Forson ’25, for one, decided not to pursue the pre-med track after taking large introductory STEM courses, where she says she felt lost and unsupported.
“I am mad at it because it shouldn’t be that way where there’s very little support in big classes,” she says. “It’s literally weeded out me. I’m not pre-med anymore. That’s the whole point of these big intro classes.”
As a neurodivergent student, Forson has found drastic disparities in the quality of support she receives from teaching staff. At the beginning of the semester, she reached out to her TF to let them know that she is autistic and discuss accommodations. Instead of discreetly providing her support, the TF routinely called her out in class, creating an uncomfortable learning environment, she says.
“The first couple of classes, she always singled me out. Like, she would yell my name. It wasn’t a big section — maybe 15 people — but she would yell, ‘Maame, do you understand?’” she says. “Everyone’s now looking at me like, ‘Oh, why is she constantly asking you,’ because now I feel othered.”
Forson believes the negative experiences she’s had often stem from a lack of training for teaching staff on neurodiversity in students.
“If the faculty had more awareness of what neurodiversity is, and how many different ways it can show up in people, it will probably make a lot of students’ experiences on campus better,” she says. “We have to go through staff that just has no clue about us, and it makes our interactions really uncomfortable.”
Ljunggren notes that they have received no training on working with neurodiverse students and haven’t heard of any such training existing in other departments. As a neurodiverse student themself, they are able to use their own experience to help students; however, without training, many staff members inevitably lack the same understanding, they say.
“While I know how to navigate that, because of my own experiences, staff who don’t have that experience are going to think differently. So yeah, I’m sure [training is] out there. It’s definitely not required. It is definitely not advertised well enough,” Ljunggren says.
Karla Aguilar ’25 also felt she lacked the necessary support when she was taking Life and Physical Sciences A: “Foundational Chemistry and Biology,” an introductory life sciences course intended for students with limited experience with biology and chemistry. The class aims to provide significant assistance to its students, but Aguilar found her section leader largely unhelpful and was left to learn on her own.
She says that her TF did not distill complicated concepts into terms students could understand, instead asking them to memorize or simply accept what they were told in section without further context.
“I just remember there were moments where people would ask questions trying to actually understand the concepts,” she says. “We’re doing biology and chemistry, so students were like, ‘Okay, but why does that chemical bonding work in that way? Why does that happen?’ And he would just be like, ‘That’s just what they said in lecture,’ or, ‘It just does, you just have to memorize it.’”
Aguilar adds that while her TF seemed very knowledgeable about the subject material, this didn’t translate into strong instruction.
“Something I think happens often here is that they conflate interest in a subject with ability to teach,” she says, “He understood the material himself and was clearly very advanced. But I think that served as a detriment sometimes because he didn’t really know how to simplify it for us.”
“I don’t know if he was really interested in teaching,” Aguilar says.
On Harvard’s admissions website, the College touts its “world-class educators.”
“Working side by side with students, Harvard professors encourage them to see with new eyes,” it reads. But over the years, students have criticized the student-professor relationship at Harvard for being closer to an expert lecturing to an audience from a podium. Those actually working side by side with students, particularly in lecture courses, tend to be TFs and CAs. While students may have “immediate access to some of the world’s greatest scholars,” taking advantage of that access is far more difficult than it may seem.
While Saint R. Browder ’25 has been able to form strong relationships with their TFs, they can’t say the same for their professors. They don’t interact with professors in their regular academic life, and it’s difficult to find the time in their busy schedule to attend office hours and really get to know a professor.
“I’ve loved my professors, I haven’t had problems with them,” they add. “But it would be nice to be able to get closer to professors.”
Forson echoes Browder’s experience, saying that professors of huge lecture classes, such as her life sciences professor who teaches over 400 students, often feel unapproachable.
“He’s just standing there talking to a mass of students, and he doesn’t know any of us individually. It makes it hard for me to go up and talk to him as though he does,” says Forson.
This experience differs dramatically from the seven-to-one student-to-faculty ratio and a 12-person median class size advertised by the College. These statistics conceal the experience of the majority of Harvard students who find themselves, at several points in their college education, in lecture classes with hundreds of other students who will never meet their professors.
Kyle E. Waldman, a fourth-year graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in Sociology says that faculty “don’t get to have sustaining interactions with students” unless the course is small or students are outgoing enough to reach out to professors themselves. In comparison to smaller schools, Waldman says that Harvard students “get the short end of the stick” when it comes to instruction.
The instructors that students gravitate toward when they can’t go to their professors are often TFs or CAs.
Charles X. Hua ’23, who worked as a TF multiple times for Statistics 110, says his interest in helping teach the course began with his experience taking the class freshman year, where he was taught by a CA himself. “I really loved the class, learned a lot, and it ultimately confirmed my decision to concentrate in Statistics,” Hua says.
Another student, Shuheng A. Zhang ’25, recalls taking Math 1b in his first year with a TF that changed his perspective on the field. “I was really inspired by his teaching because he made things crystal clear,” Zhang remembers. “I was like, ‘Wow, these people really helped me get better at math and appreciate the field more.’” Zhang later became a CA in the Math Department himself.
Still, for some CAs, the awkwardness of teaching peers their own age still remains present, at least at the beginning.
“It’s definitely really weird at first. My first year teaching, when I was a sophomore, at 19 years old, there was a law school student in my section, and juniors and seniors in my section,” Leggett, the head CS50 TF, says. “At first I was definitely worried I’d be asked questions that I didn’t know the answer to.”
Leggett notes that the material he knew remained a fraction of the knowledge a professor, or even graduate student, would hold.
“I think a lot of people are used to a teacher-student relationship where the teacher is expected to be an older person and know more about everything than the student,” Leggett says. “But I think the TF-student relationship is supposed to be different, where the TF just knows a little bit more about this one specific subject and can help students out with that,” Leggett says, referring to undergraduate TFs, or enhanced CAs.
While this is not inherently detrimental to students’ education, without regular access to someone with more expertise, students can receive contradictory or downright incorrect information from their student instructors.
Parita M. Shah ’24, an undergraduate TF herself, concedes that undergraduate instructors don’t always have adequate expertise to answer students’ questions.
“I’ve had experiences where TFs have been very confidently answering questions, or said things to me that I was like, ‘Oh, this must be true.’ And then later, I found out from another TF that that was inaccurate, or false, which is a little bit frustrating,” Shah says.
“When you’re confused or struggling, and you go to office hours and the primary instruction you're getting is from fellow undergrads, sometimes they can also be misled or have inaccurate information that is now your primary source for information,” she adds.
According to Aguilar, this lack of adequate teaching is part of a broader pattern across the University that forces students to learn independently.
“A lot of the learning that happens at Harvard feels like it’s very independent and pretty student-driven,” she says. “We take lectures and, in a lot of ways, have to learn how to teach it to ourselves,” she says.
Though some students laud the relationships they form with their CAs and TFs, the undergraduate instruction they receive is inherently different from learning closely with an expert in the field. Harvard is full of those experts — but some claim that professors prioritize their research more than their teaching.
Waldman, a graduate student TF, says that Harvard is “not really a teaching university.”
“There is a pretty big gulf between the University and the College,” he says. “It’s very focused on graduate education.”
Browder, a student at the College, echoes Waldman’s claims.
“This is more of a research college than it is an actual learning college, which makes it difficult for someone who’s not in research right now to navigate my college experience,” they say. “I feel like I’m not getting the most out of it that I wanted to.”
As far back as 1980, Peter M. Engel ’81 wrote a Crimson op-ed claiming that the University's preference toward faculty who conduct research alongside their teaching deemphasized instruction, giving graduate student TFs who sought appointment in the tenured track “little incentive” to devote effort to their teaching.
“The atmosphere of ‘publish or perish’ is perpetuated through the ranks,” Engel wrote.
Seven years later, Gary D. Rowe ’88 called the college’s teaching structure a “scandal” in another Crimson op-ed.
“Each semester undergraduates who come to Harvard expecting to be taught by some of the finest minds around put their educations in the hands of an assortment of talented and less-than-talented graduate students,” he wrote. “The quality of one’s education here is, as a result, randomly determined.”
Today, opportunities for graduate students passionate about teaching are increasingly scarce, entrenching the problems that Rowe and Engel identified over three decades ago.
Similarly to Engel, Ljunggren believes that TFs have “no incentive” to continue teaching.
“We have these teaching requirements, but there’s no incentive in the academic system to then continue teaching or be passionate about it, because there aren’t even really careers that pay you living wages,” Ljunggren says.
Through his research, Jordan Harper, a Ph.D. candidate in urban education policy at the University of Southern California, has noticed that as faculty workloads increase, professors offload much of their relationship-building responsibilities onto teaching assistants.
“The traditional faculty member is able to skirt responsibility and the care labor that the teaching fellows or teaching assistants or whatever they may be are doing,” Harper says. “[Teaching assistants] are shouldering a lot of the responsibility to build relationships with students — teaching assistants are often that little middleman between students and the faculty member because the faculty member wants to safeguard their time and their energy.”
Though faculty members save time, undergraduate and graduate instructors find themselves burdened by the tasks added to their plate without additional compensation, Harper says.
“They’re arriving at work, and they’re having to do so much more work than ever before,” he says. “Yet, they’re menially paid. They’re undervalued, underappreciated, but highly utilized.”
Harper claims that this lack of investment in quality teaching creates a dissonance between a university’s supposed values and its actions.
“It’s a really interesting juxtaposition and contradiction,” he says. “A lot of institutions are purporting to care about student success. They’re trying to care about equity, for example, but they’re not necessarily creating the conditions for [teaching] assistants to thrive and have everything they need to not only be successful, but to live somewhat fulfilling lives.”
This pattern in undergraduate education may reflect a broader national trend of devaluing teaching careers even at the K-12 level, according to Ljunggren.
“We always talked about ‘all teachers are superheroes’ and ‘teachers are training the next generation.’ But if that’s really true, then you have to actually invest in that,” they say.
As the world’s wealthiest university, Harvard appears better positioned than any other institution to make that investment. Yet the University stands accused of overburdening its undergraduate and graduate teaching staff without adequate compensation or benefits. This pattern, though, is not unique to Harvard.
“Almost every day, at minimum every week, we are seeing graduate students unionize at a lot of different campuses across the country,” Harper says. “And one of the key things that they are organizing for is better working conditions, especially when it comes to teaching because they are doing so much of the work.”
But those facing the negative effects of these labor issues include students themselves.
At Harvard, students say they do not always receive the “world-class” education that the university promises them as applicants. Some find themselves in sections led by dispassionate graduate students. Others are taught by students their own age, whose knowledge varies greatly from that of the faculty whom they anticipated working with. According to students on both sides of the classroom, Harvard’s quality of education is largely determined by working conditions for both graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants.
In Ljunggren’s view, students and teaching staff alike will benefit from unionization efforts. Graduate and undergraduate instructors are continuing to advocate for higher pay, increased benefits and protections, and greater transparency from the University. But in the meantime, the quality of Harvard’s coveted education hangs in the balance.
According to Ljunggren, most TFs want to be good educators. But in order to do their jobs well, they need institutional support.
“We want to do our jobs better, and we want to be comfortable,” Ljunggren says. “And I think students see that when we are treated more fairly we are more relaxed, and we’re not so on edge, and we can spend more of our time and brainpower in helping you all become full-fledged learners.”
— Staff Writer Sophie S. Goodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Staff writer Jeffrey Q. Yang can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeffreyqyang.