Campus & Community

Task force proposes ‘compact’ for excellent teaching

6 min read

In recent years, Harvard scholars have worked energetically and with great success to create bridges between departments and between faculties, the better to share ideas and foster interdisciplinary approaches to tough, complex issues.

A new report by a task force of senior professors in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) affirms that a similar blend of dedication and enthusiasm should be directed toward encouraging professors to share ideas about effective teaching and learning.

“A Compact to Enhance Teaching and Learning at Harvard,” released Jan. 24, outlines five major goals and 18 recommendations to improve the support and rewards for excellent teaching and the enhancement of student learning in the College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

Led by Theda Skocpol, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology, the Task Force on Teaching and Career Development was formed in September 2006 at the request of interim Harvard President Derek Bok and FAS Dean Jeremy R. Knowles. The task force consulted widely with FAS faculty, staff, and students, as well as colleagues at peer institutions, and it commissioned studies to assess trends at Harvard.

Proposed as a “compact” to be undertaken by administrators, faculty, and students, the report calls for new efforts by all members of the community to renew Harvard’s excellence in teaching as well as research. It urges leadership from the incoming, as yet unnamed Harvard University president and FAS dean, and empowerment of department chairs and individual faculty members to foster pedagogical enrichment.

The report recommends more consistent attention to teaching qualifications in faculty appointments and proposes visible rewards for first-rate teaching at all ranks, from graduate teaching fellows to junior faculty to tenured professors.

“Our recommendations are not revolutionary,” Skocpol said. “They seek to highlight and improve the excellent teaching already going on at Harvard. One of the problems is that we hide our efforts from each other, as well as from the world. This makes it hard to share ideas and improve our teaching as we routinely do by getting feedback from colleagues on our research.”

The report’s five goals for FAS include:

  • Concrete measures to foster a more collegial teaching culture, in which faculty regularly share course materials and discuss teaching goals and practices.
  • Greater support for pedagogical innovation, including funding, administrative assistance, and a review of current course scheduling practices.
  • Improved systems of accounting, so that faculty achievements in teaching and advising can be more fully recorded and more meaningfully used by individuals, departments, and administrative offices.
  • More consistent and explicit linking of good teaching to salary adjustments, faculty appointments, and career advancement.
  • Increased visibility for exemplary teaching methods and achievements, which will serve as both an educational tool and an incentive to teach well.

Eighteen action recommendations, available in the full report, elaborate these goals.

Although the report has been out only a few days, faculty and administrators have already begun responding enthusiastically to the 82-page document.

“The work of this task force and Dean Skocpol represents an important opportunity for Harvard to address and assess the way we conduct our core academic business – teaching our students,” said Bok. “For decades, universities have been criticized for paying too little attention to the quality of teaching. This report provides the most comprehensive effort I have ever seen to address this problem and thereby enhance the process of learning at Harvard.”

Said Knowles: “This group of very thoughtful colleagues has focused attention on how we teach rather than on what we teach.” “Their report will, I trust, lead to a shift in our culture that has the potential of improving the educational experience of every student in Harvard College. I am most grateful for this wise and timely report.”

Christie McDonald, the Smith Professor of French Language and Literature, said that what she found exciting about the report is that it “proposes to bring junior and senior faculty (and teaching fellows) out of isolation and into a community where exchanges about goals, content, and methods of teaching contribute to a sense of experimentation and development.”

Thomas Kelly, the Morton B. Knafel Professor of Music, said that the report “has a chance to effect a significant change in the quality of teaching at Harvard. Most teaching is already good, but expecting and acknowledging good teaching are things that could be much improved, as this report shows.”

Erin O’Shea, Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology, said, “I think this report is very important for Harvard. To do justice to the immensely talented students who come here expecting the best undergraduate education, we need to remain as focused on teaching excellence as we are on our research efforts.”

But can Harvard faculty, already working long hours on research and writing as well as teaching, afford the time to learn new teaching techniques or improve their rapport with students? Skocpol thinks they can.

“Most faculty already spend a lot of time on teaching and advising. The question is, how can they learn to be more effective?” she said.

The report also states strongly that putting more emphasis on teaching will only work if the entire faculty is willing to accept the challenge and contribute equally to implementing the recommendations.

“If everyone pitches in and contributes their share, it will help to spread the load around,” said Skocpol.

The task force report will be discussed by faculty, administrators, and students this spring. Implementation of some measures can begin this academic year, while others need to be carried through under the guidance of incoming University leaders.

The members of the task force are: Andrew A. Biewener, the Charles P. Lyman Professor of Biology; Benjamin M. Friedman, the William Joseph Maier Professor of Political Economy; Mary Malcolm Gaylord, the Sosland Family Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures; Eric Mazur, the Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Physics and Professor of Physics; Xiao-Li Meng, professor of statistics; Michael J. Puett, professor of Chinese history; Kay Kaufman Shelemay, the G. Gordon Watts Professor of Music and professor of African and African American studies; Theda Skocpol, the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology; Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, the 300th Anniversary University Professor.