Face-to-Face with Faculty

Faculty members and freshmen

 Harvard College students often lament their lack of contact with senior professors. A discussion paper circulated in November to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) by Susan G. Pedersen and Jeffrey Wolcowitz, dean and associate dean for undergraduate education, lent credence to that complaint.

They reported that last academic year, apart from expository writing and certain introductory courses such as Social Analysis 10 ("Principles of Economics") taught largely by instructors outside the regular faculty, only 30 percent of Harvard College freshmen took any course with an enrollment of 15 or fewer students. Exclude from that total courses not taught by "ladder faculty" (assistant, associate, and full professors) and the proportion of first-year students who took a small-enrollment class declined to 17 percent. "In other words," observed Pedersen, professor of history, and Wolcowitz, senior lecturer on economics, "fully five-sixths of the freshman class had no small-group course with a member of the ladder faculty," the source of "lasting ties to the faculty and the life of the concentrations here at Harvard."

College class size in general has been a matter of concern to FAS for some time. In his annual report to the faculty a year ago, Dean Jeremy R. Knowles established as his highest priority for this decade 10 percent growth of the faculty ranks ("Expanding the Professoriate," March-April 2000, page 72). With those extra resources, he urged enriching undergraduate education by "offering a seminar experience for every freshman" (followed by better advising, more research opportunities, and smaller section sizes).

Students clearly cherish such experiences: Pedersen and Wolcowitz noted that 700 students submitted 1,400 applications for places in freshman seminars in the fall 2000 term--but only 230 could be seated. And research by Richard J. Light, professor of education, has demonstrated the educational value to undergraduates of close contact with faculty members and of small classes from the beginning of their studies (see "The Storyteller" in this issue, page 32).

The talk about what to do has proceeded quickly to action. In an interview early in the fall term, Knowles reiterated his interest in expanding the freshman seminar program--a series of ungraded classes first offered in 1959--but without imposing another constraint on a course of study already shaped by Core curriculum, expository writing, foreign language, and concentration requirements. He envisioned the menu of courses expanding from the current offerings--33 seminars in the 2000-2001 academic year--in line with planned faculty growth throughout the decade.

Pedersen, who began serving as undergraduate education dean last summer, advocates much faster change. At the first faculty meeting of the year, held October 17, she voiced concern that the first semesters of study in the College "can be quite an anonymous year." Although seminars abound in many of the upper-level concentrations, "the freshmen fall out," she said. Their usual lot--large lectures and limited exposure to regular members of the faculty--is "not a good learning culture," nor is it conducive to academic experimentation and acquiring "the skills of close reading and writing."

The remedy, she proposed, might lie in more faculty engagement in freshman advising; better information about small departmental classes appropriate for first-year students; and, especially, a reinvigorated freshman seminar program. Pedersen envisioned many more freshman seminar courses and, importantly, much more ladder-faculty involvement in teaching them. (Of the 32 people offering freshman seminars this year, only a dozen held regular University faculty appointments --10 of them active members of FAS; the others included 18 lecturers and two visiting professors.)

In a subsequent interview, Pedersen--a 1981 Harvard College graduate and 1989 Ph.D.--recalled her own freshman seminar experience as "a meeting place for like-minded students" who pursued similar concentrations and who still keep in touch. Her seminar teacher, she said, "watched out for" the students throughout their undergraduate years. Comparing that to student reaction to History 10b, her Western civilization survey course last year, she said, "I heard a lot about the freshman year. I was not real happy with the programs those students were putting together." With only limited direct exposure to professors, students "become overly respectful of faculty and hesitant about going to see them." Freshman seminars, in contrast, "validate their sense of ownership of the institution," as shown by students' "unambiguous raves" for the courses in subsequent evaluations.

Hence the FAS discussion paper, which suggested doubling the number of seminars by the fall of 2002, goes a long way toward meeting current demand--well ahead of any likely significant growth in the faculty. To get there, Pedersen suggested maintaining the number of courses offered by lecturers; reaching out to emeriti and faculty members from the professional schools, who teach a small number of the seminars now; and, as she put it, encouraging a culture in which teaching freshman seminars would be regarded as highly as developing courses for upper-class concentrators.

On the last point, Pedersen noted the "wonderful development" within some departments of expanded seminar offerings for junior concentrators--29 in government this year, 27 in English--and other small-enrollment upper-level and graduate classes. The discussion paper reported that apart from those junior-level seminars, FAS listed 1,300 nontutorial undergraduate courses last year, 557 of which (43 percent) had enrollments of 10 or fewer students. Without displacing the junior concentration courses, Pedersen pointed out, the paper observed that "If freshman seminars replaced only 10 percent of these low-enrollment (or no-enrollment) courses, we would have...a flourishing and viable freshmen seminar program."

The issue, she said, is one of faculty commitment to making nonconcentration courses a regular part of curriculum planning, freeing resources for general education. Describing Harvard undergraduates as "the best students in the country, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed" as freshmen, Pedersen said, "We are here to teach them." The discussion paper went on to note, "Fortunately, there is some evidence that departments have begun to appreciate the need for more developed curricular planning, if all of our teaching obligations are to be met." That suggests, she said of the freshman-seminar proposal, "We wouldn't decimate any part of the curriculum to ramp this up a bit."

Finally, to fit the seminars into students' curricular requirements, Pedersen and Wolcowitz suggested a clever bit of accounting. The seminars might qualify for an exemption from a related Core course requirement, just as concentrators are exempted from Core courses in related areas; or they might qualify for concentration credit in the departments whose faculty taught the seminars. In that way, freshmen could be freed to explore an interest, confident that it could simultaneously help them navigate between concentration or Core requirements, depending on the curricular paths they choose later in their College studies. FAS would have to decide whether the seminars would then have to be graded.

The faculty--many of whose members are concerned about extending current teaching commitments--considered these issues in a robust debate at its November 14 meeting. Richard Heck, professor of philosophy, noted that upper-level seminars were necessarily small in his field, given the relatively small numbers of concentrators. Richard F. Thomas, professor of Greek and Latin and chairman of classics, said his colleagues were already straining to staff Core and con- centration classes.

Those favoring the proposal worried less about resource constraints, and instead emphasized what Pforzheimer University Professor Sidney Verba termed clear gains in overcoming "the faculty's distance from students." Verba, who chaired the 1997 FAS review of the Core curriculum, thought trading off a Core course for a seminar well worth the exchange. Julie A. Buckler, assistant professor of Slavic languages and literatures, said her seminar had "an intellectual cohesiveness reminiscent of a graduate-school class." Lawrence Buell, Marquand professor of English and department chairman, spoke "passionately" about the opportunity to overcome the "culture of mutual avoidance between students and faculty," a state of affairs he said "conditions many able and inwardly on-fire young people" not to take learning risks.

The debate, which continues, will turn both on data about resources and, necessarily, on anecdotes. William M. Todd III, Reisinger professor of Slavic languages and literatures and Pedersen's predecessor as undergraduate dean, said student criticism of the College experience "points to several legitimate moments of unhappiness, many centered on that freshman year" and on lack of faculty contact. That may not be widely known, he noted, because only 10 FAS members served as freshman advisers last year.

Solving the problem will clearly be easier when more professors are available. But for evidence that bolsters Pedersen's point that offering many more freshman seminars depends less on faculty numbers than professors' enthusiasm, the experience of two senior faculty members who teach such seminars now is instructive.

Porter University Professor Helen Vendler, the renowned poetry critic, has offered three freshman seminars. The first, a survey of "everything that they ought to know about poetry," was too broad. Since then, she has twice offered "The Poetry of John Keats." Given that smaller corpus, she said, the students could compare Keats's earliest lyrics to the last works, and ""could conceive themselves moving from superficial to expert knowledge over the course of the term. It gave them real intellectual authority. That was the best gift I could give them."

Vendler spoke of the pleasure she took in meeting a wide array of freshmen, from mathematics students to musicians--as many as 70 students applied per term, and she interviewed each. "I have had everything from autodidacts to people who know nothing about poetry," she said, but most flourished: "They will do anything you ask them!" Beyond the Keats assignments, each student had to explore the work of another poet and keep a critical notebook on that reading; the analyses of an astrophysics student who read Yeats "absolutely floored me."

After the courses ended, Vendler said, many of the students remained in touch with her and with each other--rooming together, helping friends through difficulties, and taking pleasure in the Marshall Scholarship one of them won last year.

James Cuno, professor of history of art and architecture and Cabot director of the Harvard University Art Museums, first taught a freshman seminar in the fall of 1999. That course, for which students closely examined seven works of art in the museum collections--from a Chinese bronze ritual vessel and a Roman marble copy of a classical Greek statue to a Van Gogh self-portrait and a Jackson Pollock abstract painting--proved so popular he repeated it the next spring, and will do so again this spring.

Cuno said he was inspired to create the seminar by Vendler's example, and by two personal experiences. The enrollment of his older daughter in college "awakened me to the fundamental importance of that first year," he said. And of his schooling and early teaching experiences in small liberal-arts colleges, "I remember the importance of small classes in my own life."

The freshmen, he found, were "alive to that virginal experience" of coming into direct contact with great works of art--all the more so because he selected applicants from Hungary, Singapore, Los Angeles, and Nebraska--"not all students from New York prep schools who have gone to the Metropolitan for every exhibit." For each work of art, Cuno and his students spent an initial two hours in direct observation, followed by critical readings and then reobservation and interpretation. The students were "surprised that they could look at one thing for two hours," he reported, and then stunned to learn from readings that experienced scholars can advocate mutually exclusive interpretations, for example, of the meaning of the decorative scheme on the bronze vessel.

Seeing the works this way opened more than just the students' eyes. "It was such a moving experience for me," said Cuno, "I was sort of born again."

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