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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Why Harvard Needs to Get Harder

September-October 2009

There are certain e-mails you never want to get from a professor. The one I received the day before winter break this past year was a good example. Where was my outline for the term paper due Friday? this professor wanted to know. It was Tuesday. Could I meet her in her office the following morning? She was “alarmed,” she said, at my lack of preparation, and looking for a way to “rescue the situation.” But she couldn’t have been as alarmed as I was. So much for staying off the radar! This rescuing business hardly sounded joyous or merry or otherwise in keeping with the spirit of the season. 

Wednesday morning, I reported as scheduled and was roundly scolded. Disengaged, immature, irresponsible: I was all of these things, or so I was told as I sat in her basement office. Needless to say, I was taken aback. In three years at college, I had never been slapped around like this. This was the kind of thing that happened in high school when you didn’t do your reading. Who knew that tenured professors had the time or the temperament for this species of intervention? 

She kept going. Term papers were to be written during the term. I now had two days. What had I been doing, she wanted to know. 

I mumbled something about the Crimson. In a move that had been building all semester, Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) dean Michael D. Smith had announced the previous week that he expected a $100-million deficit for the next fiscal year. Departments were being asked to cut 10 to 15 percent of their budgets. Professors’ salaries were being frozen; faculty searches were being suspended or canceled in bulk. Harvard, it seemed, was on the brink of serious change. All of which meant that the good folks at the campus newspaper—including me—had been spending unhealthy amounts of time getting a sense of what was going on.

This was interesting work: things were happening fast, there were people to talk to, ramifications on the horizon. More important, there were a whole lot of people who wanted to know about this stuff in real time and there was a special satisfaction—a pride—in trying to meet that need. If you wanted to share in this pride, you made sacrifices—most of them academic—in support of the journalistic mission. Courting academic disaster was part of the culture, and after five semesters on the Crimson, I more or less knew the game. Harvard’s grading scheme, for better or worse, would accommodate cram-sessions and last-ditch, all-night efforts. In the classroom, I had been doing what I needed to do to get by, but emperors and ancient ruins hadn’t been my primary focus. 

My professor was less than impressed with my tightrope act. Academics were not to be trifled with, she said. The paper would be due Friday, and it had better be done. 

I was shocked. Truth be told, I took it all somewhat personally. Still smarting from the morning’s lecture, I caught a short flight home with a manila folder full of readings in my hand. I had written quick term papers before, and I knew that two days—one to research, one to write—was just within the realm of possibility. I holed up the next morning in an empty library at one of the University of Maryland’s satellite campuses. 

When you’re on a stiff deadline, you don’t have time to be cute about your topic. I seized on the first thing that looked narrow enough to pursue: the legal strictures governing emergency senatorial decrees in ancient Rome. This is an extremely boring topic even by the somewhat stodgy standards of the classical field. But strangely, I was more focused than I’ve ever been.

What was driving me? I had something to prove—namely, that while I might be irresponsible, I wasn’t incapable. In one day, I did as much auxiliary research as I’ve ever done for a paper. More than that, I did it intensely, with an adrenaline-fueled sense of purpose, as if something—some pride even—was really riding on it. I did this paper as if people would care to read it. I wrote it with much the same attitude, I suppose, as I would a Crimson article. And by that evening, I have to admit, the stuff had become rather interesting. I had known there was some pleasure to be had in academic inquiry: this was at once a confirmation and a reminder. I’m not suggesting I was eating up The Legal Procedure of Cicero’s Time like it was Vanity Fair, but I had managed to summon a desire to know where the Porcian Laws belonged in the Roman legal landscape that would have been nonexistent if I hadn’t taken the assignment so personally. Which never would have happened if I had not been held accountable in such an oddly direct fashion. It crossed my mind afterwards that my professor might have done me something of a favor. 

 

Now, months removed from that episode, I’d like to suggest that this favor be extended. Harvard would be doing its students a favor by holding them more accountable academically—or at least finding a way to ensure that courses, across the board, match the demands and intensity of the extracurricular organizations where so much undergraduate time is currently spent. It’s always struck me as odd that a place notorious for its hard-nosed exam-period threats to hold students “incommunicado” in their hospital beds if they become ill during a test could allow students to take such liberties with its syllabi. 

But that is the present reality. It’s largely a matter of incentives. Collegiality, social currency, influence—all these things are to be found more easily in an extracurricular setting than in satisfying course requirements. And as far as day-to-day disincentives for underperformance are concerned, student organizations take the cake. Skip your reading for a section and risk an awkward moment with a teaching fellow. Skip out on your responsibilities for an extracurricular, and risk derision or excommunication by your peers: You’re lazy. You’re not willing to sacrifice like everybody else. You’re a flake. That’s accountability. That is personal. Those who say that it’s up to students to make sure they are having a challenging academic experience miss the point: engaging meaningfully with course material shouldn’t be an option; it should be demanded across the board. There must be keener reasons to treat assignments seriously; keener deterrents for not doing so. Otherwise extracurricular commitments will rule the day, and students’ academic experience will suffer. 

That’s not to say the system doesn’t have its advantages. A daily newspaper is produced in the 40 to 50 hours a week that my peers and I are able to carve out of our course preparation; whole dramatic productions are written and produced on that kind of time; Ivy championships are won on it. I have cherished my time on the Crimson dearly. 

But the rub to all this, as I glimpsed briefly last winter, is that many students run the risk of never achieving the level of sustained, focused engagement in their studies necessary to spark serious academic interest. It falls to the College to push back a bit, to find a policy tack that will allow the classroom to take back some of the territory currently overrun by student organizations. I’m not advocating stamping out the extracurricular pursuits that give the campus its flavor—just tweaking the equilibrium somewhat. Otherwise, Harvard will have to continue to accept the fact that some of the nation’s finest students are barely tapping deep reservoirs of academic potential, and that the beginnings of scholarly curiosity are routinely sliding away like runoff on a badly designed road.

 

If there were ever a time for Harvard to recommit itself on this issue, it would be now, when things appear to be sliding in the wrong direction. FAS announced an initial round of budget cuts in May that promises (despite administrative protests to the contrary) to make classrooms more impersonal than they already are. Fewer TFs will be hired. In the College’s most crowded concentration, economics, a seminar program that once offered small, focused classes to juniors has been suspended: a reminder that holding students accountable is expensive and large lectures with few sections and few exams are comparatively cheap. If we see more of the latter, as it appears we must, students will have even more leeway to treat their studies as a secondary pursuit. 

Meanwhile, in the venerable classics department, where I am a concentrator, undergraduate requirements were significantly altered this year for the first time in decades (see “Humanities Rebooted,” May-June, page 52). Notification came this spring that the general examinations—the comprehensive test long required for graduation—were on their way out. On a symbolic level, at least, this was no small change. The thought of the “generals” alone had been enough to make your palms sweat: six hours of testing—translation in both Latin and Greek (selections chosen from a reading list of seemingly epic proportions), essay questions on literature and history. When I first heard of them as a freshman, they had reminded me of something out of an Oxbridge memoir, a vestige of a time when learning was a sink-or-swim endeavor. Here, I remember thinking, there would be nowhere to run, no room to cherry-pick esoterica and choose ease at the expense of the foundational—it would be demanded that I develop a coherent breadth of knowledge…or fail the generals trying.  

Of more concern is the fact that classics is not alone in making this kind of curricular modification. Astronomy also fiddled with its requirements this year, and though it had no generals to cut, it echoed the classics department’s desire to ensure that its program of study be less oriented toward preparing students for graduate school.

Here’s hoping that this is not part of a general pattern. The intentions behind such changes are well-meaning and well-conceived: concentrations will be more accessible to students who didn’t have the luxury of focused high-school preparation in a particular field of study, for instance. But for many students, I think the bottom line is this: these concentrations are less demanding than they used to be. I felt an uneasy relief when I heard about the generals’ demise. There was less strain in store for me certainly—more time for other pursuits. But also, probably, less benefit. When it comes to academics, this may not be a trade-off that Harvard—at a particularly vulnerable moment in its long and storied history—can afford.