Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898 | SUBSCRIBE

Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Casual Contact

11.1.88

My father, Class of 1957, says that in the 1950s, undergraduates used to converse with professors over leisurely lunches at restaurants like the Hayes-Bickford. Crimson alumni from the seventies tell me that during their years here, some profs would invite students to their homes to share a six-pack and watch Monday Night Football. 

Most undergraduates today marvel at such legends. Students and professors nowadays are not close enough to do such things. In fact, most students have minimal contact with the great scholars whose presence was one of the reasons they came to Harvard. 

The lack of contact between students and faculty came under fire in the report on Harvard issued last year by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. The report, prepared for Harvard's ten-year reaccreditation by the association, criticizes Harvard's "insufficient student-faculty involvement" both inside and outside the classroom. 

"An atmosphere in which only the most aggressive and persistent undergraduate is likely to experience the inspiration that is so often a result of faculty-student interaction outside of the classroom seems inconsistent with Harvard's sense of mission and aspirations for its students," the report says. 

Granted, most undergraduates don't expect to have the opportunity to discuss economic theory with John Kenneth Galbraith over broccoli-cheese pasta at the Union every evening. Still, according to a student-life survey of all undergraduates that the College undertook last spring, nearly 90 percent of the students would like more contact with faculty. 

Students apparently feel they really do have to be "aggressive and persistent" in order to meet senior faculty members. In some cases, Harvard as an institution makes it difficult for undergraduates and faculty to interact. Much of the problem, though, is attributable to shyness, mostly on the part of students, but also on the part of professors. 

One of the ways that Harvard as an institution impedes student-faculty contact is through the large classes that many Harvard students have to take, especially because of the Core Curriculum. Some professors are available to undergraduates only through the Core courses. Many offer only one or two such courses, sometimes just once every two or three years. This practice results in courses so large that the prospect of intimate, Socratic dialogue is lost. 

Nonetheless, there are faculty who do attempt to reach out to and solicit comments from every listener in the lecture hall. Notable among these is government professor Michael Sandel, who roams through his Sanders Theatre audience like Phil Donahue. Still, in such large courses, professors rarely lead the smaller discussion sessions or read student essays, leaving those tasks to graduate students. The reaccreditation report says that Core courses distance students from faculty so much that learning becomes "too passive." 

The Freshman Seminar Program is often touted as a way for freshmen to avoid the large-class syndrome that plagues them. It is indeed a good way for small groups of freshmen to spend extensive amounts of time with professors. However, with about forty of these selective seminars a year taking about twelve freshmen each, a good 70 percent of the freshmen receive no benefits from this program. 

The perennial complaint that Harvard's senior faculty is too busy conducting research to teach, much less talk, to undergraduates, is still largely true, students say. In tenure decisions, "Harvard considers a professor's publishing record more than his teaching ability," says former Undergraduate Council academics committee member Andreas Beroutsos '88. Once research-oriented professors are tenured, they continue research and avoid undergraduates, he says. 

Most professors who teach undergraduates do schedule regular office hours, during which students are welcome to discuss scholarly topics or ask for academic help or advice. But most professors allot only two hours, one day per week, for student visits. Certainly, for some professors, those are the loneliest, quietest two hours of the week, with nary a customer stopping by. But for others, two hours is hardly enough to accomodate every student who wishes to talk to the professor. Particularly in the case of large Core courses—e.g., Sandel's course of nine hundred students—two hours per week can't even begin to do those students justice. 

Some students are simply too intimidated to talk to their professors during office hours—or during any other hours, for that matter. Students fear that they are not knowledgeable enough— though this is often because they are behind on their required reading—or even intelligent enough to converse with Harvard's Great Minds. "You just don't know what to say to them," says sophomore Abigail N. Sosland. 

Other students complain that the nature of the academic relationship between students and their professors makes office hours a difficult setting for conversation. "There's a power relationship between defined roles as 'professor' and 'student' that is very intimidating," says Robert H. Green-stein '89. 

But communication can flourish in a more neutral setting than a professor's office. Government professor Harvey C. Mansfield may have a reputation for inaccessibility and outspoken candor, but one senior says that during her sophomore year, she accepted his invitation to discuss feminism at a Harvard Square cafe, where their coffee-break discussion became a two-hour debate. "He treated me very civilly," she says. 

Just arranging a tete-a-tete with a professor can be difficult, though, if the professor is in a big department, largely because of the inherent bureaucracy. "I had to go through a lot of red tape in the biology department [to talk to a professor]," says Lisa A. Binder '89. However, bureaucracy is no hindrance to communication if professors and students are both tenacious, she adds. 

In smaller departments, the diminished bureaucracy can make interaction that much easier. Binder has switched to classics, a department with one-seventh as many students as biology, and says that in her new department, "Everyone knows everyone else, and all the professors are on a first-name basis with all the students." 

The House system was designed to foster student-faculty contact, but students, faculty, and House masters rarely take advantage of its potential. The graduate tutors live among undergraduates in the Houses, few professors do. Tutorials are seldom organized around the Houses. House affiliates and associates seldom participate in Senior Common Room (SCR) activities that bring them into contact with students. 

Mutual shyness and ignorance are probably behind the failures of the House system to increase interaction, especially in the case of SCRs. Most students cannot name the faculty affiliates of their SCRs. Students and professors either are unaware that the SCRs originally were meant to bring faculty to Houses to meet students or are too shy to use the SCRs for that purpose. If the SCR has a dinner, students are rarely invited; if they are, they sit at one side of the room, the faculty at the other. Most Houses (and the Freshman Union, too) do sponsor two tablecloth dinners per year, to which students are encouraged to invite professors, and to which professors are encouraged to accept student invitations. A few SCRs hold regular "table talks," at which a professor will discuss a topic over dinner with a few students. Last year at Currier House, for example, professor Dudley Herschbach attracted even nonscientists to a science table talk on "The Chemistry of Drinking." Greenstein, a member of an Undergraduate Council committee that has issued recommendations for revitalizing student-faculty interaction through the House system, says that the Houses need to provide more low-key social opportunities for professors and students. "Student-faculty softball games are a good idea," he says. But he adds that students need to take the initiative, too. "We can't just wait [for House masters and professors to act]. We're members of the Harvard community, too," he says.

 

If all else fails, a student might try inviting a professor out for coffee or drinks, to discuss Nietzsche's theory of the eternal return while watching the Red Sox snatch defeat from the jaws of victory once again. 

# * * 

On the occasion of Harvard Magazine's ninetieth anniversary, I considered what the two places where I spend most of my time would have been like ninety years ago. I would have felt welcome at the Crimson, but I would hardly have been allowed to set foot inside the Quadrangle. The changes there, however, are recent; until the 1970s, life at the Quadrangle hadn't changed much since the early 1900s. 

Almost ninety years ago, in 1904, the Crimson operated out of the basement of the brand-new Harvard Union, having recently moved from rented space nearby on Massachusetts Avenue. (It would move to its present Plympton Street location in 1915.) Its president was Franklin D. Roosevelt '04. The organization had its own printing press, which it used to print the daily paper and hired out for contract printing jobs, just as it does now. Two years earlier, the Lampoon had issued its first parody of the Crimson. 

Except for the lack of word processors and computerized typesetters and the conspicuous absence of women, the frenzied atmosphere of the old Crimson would have been familiar to contemporary Crimeds. According to Crimson records, putting out the paper—even back then—was a full-time job for the executives and a late-night job for nearly everyone else. But had I been returning from a press run in those days, I could not have come home to Currier House. Private homes stood where Currier was built in 1970. The only dormitories at the RadclifTe Quad were the new Bertram and Eliot Halls, now part of Cabot House. And of course only women occupied those dorms. Parietal rules and distance kept men away. 

It's a long way back to those Victorian days from today's Currier House, with its parietal-free, coed lifestyle, encompassing everything from the mixed intramural football team to the unisex bathroom downstairs, where men and women can buy condoms from a vending machine. 

Or is it? Two of my relatives, who attended Harvard only 25 years ago, still register surprise when I tell them that women live among men in the Yard, and men live among women in the Quad. Currier's brick-and-glass towers, disabled-accessible dorm rooms, weight room, woodworking shop, dance studio, and day care center would also have been unique 25 years ago. 

Ninety years ago, women didn't live among men in the Yard, but certain professors did, such as Charles Townsend Copeland, affectionately known to many as "Copey." Undergraduates, however, would hardly have used this nickname to his face. Things have changed little. Today, the only professor I know of who enjoys first-name familiarity among students is Currier House Master and classics professor Gregory Nagy, known to many of us at Currier as "Greg."