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Features | Harvard @375

“Pride Is Such a Useless Handicap.”

Pushing beyond intellectual insecurity at Harvard

September-October 2011

Illustration by Catherine Meurisse

Christina (Erickson) Putney urges Harvard undergraduates to take full advantage of the College’s intellectual offerings (she feels she did not) and find “the extraordinary teachers who engage and inspire their students.” “If Harvard is looking for a way to improve,” she says, “it could put more professors like Michael Sandel, E.O. Wilson, and Marjorie Garber into the mix.” Though she left it to “the pros” to devise ways to foster better pedagogical practices, she has found through experience that “the best teachers are those who have a passion about teaching that is equal to their passion for their subjects. They’re like tour guides through uncharted territory,” she explains. “They intuitively grasp what their students don’t yet know and start the journey there. They help you see and interpret things you would have missed and bring it all to life.” 

Putney—a full-time mother who is married to a diplomat and serves as a part-time community liaison and office coordinator at the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan, Armenia—has thoroughly enjoyed the online version of Bass professor of government Michael J. Sandel’s “Justice” course, distributed by the University. “Watching the podcasts, I notice that he keeps his students involved in his lectures. Active learning beats passive learning every time.”

To that end, she urges contemporary undergraduates not to shy away from asking questions and speaking up in class. “I wish I had checked my intellectual insecurity at the door. If I could go back to give my freshman self a pep talk, I’d remind her that you don’t take a course because you already know its content, but precisely because you don’t,” she notes. “So go ahead and ask questions. Pride is such a useless handicap, and it turns out that trying to hide your ignorance is one of the best ways of holding on to it.”