Life Without Mr. Chips

The undergraduate had heard the myths of Harvard education long before he applied: that he'd never get to know a real, live professor; that he'd be taught by graduate students; that he wouldn't get the personal attention he'd receive at a smaller school like Williams. One college guide noted that any dreams he might have of arguing Keynesian economics with John Kenneth Galbraith would be dashed after the first day of classes. Knowing full well what to expect, the undergraduate was not daunted when he decided to enter one of the College's largest academic concentrations, and was not shocked that the few faculty luminaries he had seen had been on the stage of Sanders Theatre, while he sat amidst a sea of hundreds of fellow students. 

Comparing teaching at small, liberal arts colleges to that at large research universities, former Harvard dean Henry Rosovsky, Ph.D. '59, writes in The University: An Owner's Manual: "[Graduate student teachers should not be seen as a disadvantage of university colleges. They may provide some of your most stimulating classroom experiences." And so it sometimes turned out: a few of the graduate teaching fellows who had led the undergraduate's sections had been remarkable for their wit, intelligence, and thoroughness. Moreover, he had been able to take two junior seminars last fall, which had provided intensive, albeit junior, faculty interaction. 

But that same semester had also presented the worst teaching experience he'd endured: an hour of almost complete silence, without fail, in one of his weekly sections. That teaching fellow, frustrated by the lack of student initiative in starting a discussion, yet unwilling to start one on his own, had crossed his arms and pouted in stubborn reticence along with the rest of the class. Come time for evaluations, he had received dismal ratings from the section—so low that they prompted a warning letter from his department: shape up or stop teaching. The TF was so insulted he took a close look at the handwriting of the evaluations, and called members of the section to challenge their comments as unfair. 

Obviously, that graduate student stands out for his lack of social skills. In such a section, one might wonder why one had chosen to attend a university college at all; if the professors were busy researching, and the graduate students in turn failed to teach, who was left to instruct? 

Then there were times when over-enrolled courses ran short of graduate students already qualified to teach the extra sections. "Section leaders are expected to learn all of the material for a given course, often with little preparation time," one TF told him. "When syllabus changes are implemented during the semester, section leaders are forced to prepare along with their students. There is no authoritative voice upon which to rely in section when that happens, and everyone ends up being frustrated." 

The undergraduate approached one of his teaching fellows whom he considered exemplary: her written responses to his work had been expansive and attentive; she was always as engaged with the work assigned for the course as with her own studies; she knew a striking amount about the subject matter, but ensured that everyone in the section had equal opportunity to contribute. What did she think of the teaching-fellow system? 

"I'd think Harvard parents would be aggravated at spending this amount of money to have their children taught by graduate students," she said. She went on to note that, while the teaching provided income and useful training for graduate students, some of whom would go on to become professors themselves, the teaching fellows were still in school, and obviously didn't have as much to offer the students as a professor would. 

At her own university college, comparable in size to Harvard, she had studied in intimate seminars with famous professors who responded to her work. "I had only two teaching assistants while I was in college, and never in any of my humanities classes," she said. "When we sat down for our introductory session as new section leaders at the Bok Center [a resource center for Harvard TFs and faculty], President Rudenstine spoke of how the teaching-fellow system had been his favorite aspect of graduate school at Harvard, and of how his students still remembered him to this day. While that's all well and good, it doesn't seem justification enough for the faculty to be passing most of their teaching responsibilities on to their own students." 

Not all teaching fellows are graduate students, either; every year, mathematics, computer science, and other science departments hire advanced undergraduates to lead some of the sections in their introductory courses. "We're by and large students who worked incredibly hard in that course our freshman year," said one undergraduate section leader. "We may know all that material as a result, but most of us don't know a significant amount beyond that." 

The undergraduate asked other students about their experiences with teaching at Harvard. There were the physics concentrators with the T F who had practically been on call, willing to field difficult questions in the middle of the night, or have a meal with a student in order to work through a point he hadn't been able to get across that morning. That TF had gone on to win a Joseph R. Levenson Teaching Award, the Undergraduate Council's annual prize for excellence in instruction (see "Top Teachers," page 75, July-August 1995). 

But far more often, the undergraduate heard complaints about TFs who didn't speak English adequately, or who just didn't care about teaching. "I had a statistics TF whose English skills were so awful no one in the section could understand him," said one student. "He taught at a level far beyond our comprehension, yet didn't realize it because we just couldn't communicate with him." Another summed it up this way: "So far all my section leaders have been about the same. If one is really committed to the students, it makes for a far better learning environment; otherwise, it's just section." 

This spring, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences modified its appointment process for teaching 

fellows to insure that all section leaders speak and understand English adequately; while the College administration congratulated itself on the effort, the fact that the situation hadn't been addressed long before amazed many undergraduates. To help remedy the problem, the Bok Center has added a program for foreign section leaders who may need to improve their speaking skills and learn about the American classroom environment. 

Even where language isn't a barrier, questions remain about the quality of instruction Harvard provides as part of its $27,000 per annum price tag. The Faculty Council has recently debated whether attendance at a professor's lectures should be made mandatory for the graduate students hired to lead that course's discussion sections. The issue is not yet resolved because the council cannot decide if such a rule should apply only in the humanities, where individual 

approaches to the material vary widely, or in the social and pure sciences as well, where the content of introductory courses doesn't change much. 

Some faculty members are angry that attendance is an issue at all. "If you're being paid to teach the course, you ought to show up," one history professor told the Crimson. "As I understand it, the argument is, if I want to hire a good TF, I have to permit non-attendance at lecture. I don't think that should be part of the equation." Here, it seems, the myth of the Harvard education has turned into its own worst reality: the faculty luminaries are inaccessible, and many of the graduate students to whom they relegate the details of undergraduate instruction show little interest, either. 

The faculty resources are obviously there if one is willing to hunt them down; most professors hold office hours for students. But the undergraduate found few students who had visited a professor in whose lecture course they had enrolled. "There are good reasons for office hours, but it's not out of laziness that most undergraduates don't stop in for a chat," said one senior. "It's because there is the sense that one is taking important time away from the demigod." 

The undergraduate thought through his own experiences in section, with a mix of forgettable and unforgettable teaching fellows, and realized he was looking forward to his thesis more than to any of the other courses he had planned for the fall. The professor who had led one of his junior seminars had agreed to be his adviser; they would be discussing his reading and research weekly. Yet they would not have met if the undergraduate hadn't been lucky enough to get into the 15-person seminar in the first place. Students who weren't writing theses or working in honors lab projects might never have an opportunity to work closely with faculty members. 

Research may be the primary aim of Harvard professors but undergraduates are full constituents of the University as well. If no one is willing to teach them, who will do that research in the future? Rosovsky writes that he was a section leader, along with Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and James Schlesinger, and that he sees "advantages in the use of graduate teaching assistants—beyond the opportunity to understand heavily accented English or to improve one's Chinese conversation." 

Rosovsky's jest no longer seems a laughing matter. If undergraduates can't find accessible instruction from professors or TFs, they are left, apparently, to teach themselves. That Harvard students learn more from each other than they do in class is another aspect of the myth. It may prove to have more basis in reality— but for the wrong reasons—than anyone here admits. 

With this column, Jeremy Faro '96 completes his term as the magazine's Ledecky Undergraduate Fellow.

Read more articles by: Jeremy Faro

You might also like

John Manning Appointed Interim Provost

Harvard Law School dean moves to central administration

Facebook’s Failures

Author and tech journalist Jeff Horwitz speaks at Harvard.

Kevin Young Named 2024 Harvard Arts Medalist

Museum director and poet to be honored April 24

Most popular

Convocation 2017: What Should an Education Be at Such a Moment?

Speakers reflect on the goals of a liberal arts university. 

Nicco Mele

The director of the Shorenstein Center on how the Internet came to mean so much to him. 

Found in Translation

Maureen Freely ’74, longtime translator of Orhan Pamuk, shares the nuances of bringing a text from one language to another.

More to explore

Photograph of Winthrop Bell 1910

Winthrop Bell

Brief life of a philosopher and spy: 1884-1965

Illustration of people talking to each other with colorful thought bubbles above their heads

Talking about Talking

Fostering healthy disagreement

Vacationing with a Purpose

New England “summer camps” for adults