The College's Course of Study

The College's Course of Study Harvard undergraduates' course work has become steadily more demanding, requiring "much more alertness and...

The College's Course of Study

Harvard undergraduates' course work has become steadily more demanding, requiring "much more alertness and interaction on the part of students--more writing, more talking than was once the case." So concludes William M. Todd III, who is completing his three-year term as dean for undergraduate education in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS). Although Todd is pleased by the quality of the College academic experience, he also cautions about its becoming too intense, crowding out other parts of a liberal education.

As the chief supervisor of the College curriculum--albeit, he says, a "dialogic" supervisor--he highlights two traits of contemporary classes. First is "the extraordinary amount of writing that is done at Harvard": from weekly response papers to lab reports to term papers. Todd, who is Reisinger professor of Slavic languages and literatures and professor of comparative literature, attributes the emphasis on writing to courses in the Core curriculum; those "good teaching practices" have been widely emulated in departmental offerings. The result? By asking students for text revisions and problem sets, faculty members are "not just lecturing, but getting the students to respond." No doubt that contributes to student complaints that Harvard imposes a stiff "burden of requirements."

Todd's second observation is that, to the extent there is such a burden, "the greatest villain of the piece is students' voluntary over-concentration in their own fields"--which necessarily limits the option to take elective courses in, say, foreign languages or fine arts.

JHJ-Dean Todd

William M. Todd III

Photograph by Tony Rinaldo

Todd believes that this combination of more interactive learning and student-driven "over-concentration" causes undergraduates and faculty members alike to feel more academic pressure--to feel that today's educational experience is more intense. "That's not necessarily a negative phenomenon," he hastens to add. "It's terrific that they write more, that they love their fields of concentration."

But there can be too much of a good thing. That concern shaped two initiatives during Todd's decanal term, which began just after FAS reviewed the Core curriculum in 1997 and voted to change the College's test-based quantitative reasoning requirement into a Core component (which offered its first courses last fall). The faculty then asked the dean to undertake seemingly contradictory assignments. He was asked to look at foreign-language study "with the aim of fostering it"--and he was charged with examining academic requirements in general (the Core, expository writing, foreign languages, and concentrations) "with the view of reducing them."

The conflict was reconciled, in part, by instituting a foreign-language citation as an incentive rather than a requirement. The first citations--which recognize students who pursue language study beyond the required first year--were granted in 1999, and, Todd says, "Students are coming forward."

As for easing course requirements, those for general education "are pretty minimal as it stands," he says. Fulfilling students' eight required Core courses, for example, becomes easier when the number offered increases. In fact, the Core pipeline has grown (57 courses last fall term, up from 42 in the prior year), a result of persistent decanal exhortation.

That leaves the concentration requirements, which for honors work had risen in some departments to as many as half of the 32 courses required to graduate. Here, the process is consultative, by department, Todd says. "We encourage them to ask themselves, 'What is the minimal number of courses one should take for a good liberal-arts education? What more should one do for an honors concentration? And what should a student who wants to go to graduate school have taken?'" The answer to that last question does not always match departmental requirements for regular or honors work, he notes--something many departments had not realized. As a result, several concentrations have proposed to reduce the number of courses they require: earth and planetary sciences, engineering sciences, history and science, German, psychology, romance languages, and women's studies. Others may do so, and still other departments have concluded that their requirements are appropriate. Looking ahead, Todd says, "It's very easy over time for concentration requirements to pile up" as subdisciplines arise. "But the other part of our mission is to be critical," to engage in a process he calls (after Ezra Pound) "excernment."

Citing a predecessor's description of the job as being "the conscience of undergraduate education at Harvard," Todd identifies multiple challenges on future deans' agendas. He cites an "almost universally favorable reaction" to the idea of offering a seminar for all first-year students, based on required Core courses. "We'll get it done" within several years, he predicts--especially if faculty ranks grow through filling now-vacant positions and adding new ones, the highest FAS priority (see "Expanding the Professoriate," March-April, page 72). The larger number of Core offerings and further efforts to reduce section size will also require an expanded faculty, because a shortage of teaching fellows is likely to emerge: the new funding available to help graduate students complete their dissertations in timely fashion shrinks the pool of those financially reliant on teaching.

Technology promises to further intensify interactions between professor and student. Todd points to e-mail exchanges, increasing use of rich websites, in-class electronic polling to assess students' grasp of complex ideas in some science courses--even pre-lecture electronic "discussions" so teachers can see how well students understand readings or problem sets and can adjust their classroom presentations accordingly. For both sides of the exchange, he says, courses promise--or threaten--to become a 24-hour experience. "It is one of those pressures that really reconfigure academic life," on top of the writing assignments and exchanges in small discussion sections.

In this larger perspective, beyond the scope of any one dean's purview, Todd worries about whether students and faculty members will find themselves with "insufficient space to explore things they might otherwise have explored on their own, in positive ways--time for promiscuous reading and for self-reflection." Beyond the lecture halls and seminar rooms, he hopes there is time to "go to movies and concerts, act in plays, play sports, do community service, and chew the fat." After all, he says, "What's the point of admitting all these terrific, brilliant, fascinating people if they don't have time to talk with each other?"


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