Skip to main content

At the Heart of What We Do — Teaching and the University

Cambridge, Mass.

Speech to the Harvard College Fund

Thank you Dean Smith, and thanks to Kate Gellert and Mike Holland who lead this important gathering. It is a privilege to be here with a group of people so intensely committed to Harvard. Through your volunteer work for the Harvard College Fund, Parents Fund, and Graduate School Fund, you allow Harvard to carry forward its traditions of excellence and continue its leadership in higher education and the world. I also want to say at the outset how excited I am to work with Mike Smith, who as FAS Dean brings to us not only the skills of a path-breaking computer scientist, known for his interdisciplinary work that draws together experts in technology and scholars from many different fields, but his experience as a collaborative administrative leader with a deep commitment to undergraduate education and student life. Mike is also a prize-winning teacher who has great rapport with undergraduates, and as I have seen him embrace his work as dean these past few months, with creative vision and a practical sense of how to get things done, I know that the FAS is in very good hands.

A few weeks ago I spoke to the incoming freshmen of Harvard College, the Class of 2011, who now occupy the chairs you once sat in — many, or perhaps not so many, years ago. I spoke to them about how Harvard College is part of a much larger research university, with a vast store of treasures and resources they have only an inkling of. I challenged them to explore the University’s riches — Mayan artifacts in the Peabody Museum, our world-class collection of Buddhist texts, or the mysteries of a stem cell lab — and to follow a path of risk and reward during their four years here. This morning I would like to turn that idea around, and talk to you about how Harvard College is at the vital center of Harvard the research university, and I hope, for many of you, is still at the center of your lives as alumni — not only because of its vast resources and extraordinary students and graduates, but because of a professor who changed your life, who challenged your assumptions, unleashed your imagination, or inspired choices you have made.

I want to speak to you this morning about teaching. Research universities have often been charged with not paying enough attention to teaching. Today, I want to assure you that teaching is at the heart of what we do at Harvard and I want to give you a picture of some of the ways that this commitment is manifested. I spoke in my inaugural address about the unique accountability of universities to the past and to the future — not simply or even primarily to the present. A university is about learning that molds a lifetime, learning that transmits the heritage of the millennia, learning that shapes the future. It is thus, crucially, about teaching.

People often say that you don’t come to Harvard “for the teaching,” but instead, as one recent graduate put it, to “be around some of the greatest minds on earth.” But it is not enough simply to “be around” great minds. Our pledge to our students is that they will be taught by these great minds. And speaking from personal experience, I can attest that the beauty of this model of the research university is that, at our best, we are all teachers and we are all learners. Professors at universities like Harvard operate at the edges of exploration, at the borders of the known world, and in every seminar and laboratory we cultivate shared curiosity and endless and unsettling inquiry. Our teaching is about bringing students to be part of that experience of discovery, of learning that takes place at the frontiers of knowledge. Harvard is filled with cutting-edge scholars who care deeply about teaching. They e-mail undergraduates, invite them into laboratories and field stations, collaborate with them about online teaching tools that can re-invent courses. Undergraduates are not only invited to join this great enterprise, their presence on the journey shapes the exploration itself.

Admittedly, there have always been exceptions. In the legends of Harvard history, some of these “bad professor” stories loom large. There was the composition teacher at the turn of the 20th century famed for having students read aloud to him from their work while he evaluated it by “writhing” and “moaning profanely” at every inept turn of phrase; the professor who refused to teach “Argument” at Radcliffe because it would encourage a bad tendency in women; and the eminent professor of Egyptology who returned to campus from excavating the pyramids of Giza only to fall asleep at his own lectures. Among his boxes of supposed archaeological treasure were hundreds of mystery novels, read aloud to him in his later years of overseas research and fading eyesight. Later bequeathed to Widener, the books sat for years in the pulp fiction section under the call letters PZB, each marked with a neat letter grade from their erstwhile owner in the flyleaf. It is said that students considered them as a great resource for study breaks in the stacks. The two I called up from the depository were both marked “A” — perhaps a sign of early grade inflation.

Happily, examples like these are rare and, I hope, getting rarer. Universities are far more intentional today about supporting teaching than we were in my graduate school days, when departments sent us out onto the job market with little more than a dissertation, hope, and a piece of chalk. Assumptions then had not changed much in the century since Josiah Royce touted “the divine skill of the born teacher’s instincts” and William James described the art of teaching as an innate store of “happy tact and ingenuity.” The notion was that you were born a teacher or you were not, and there was little that could be done about it. But times and assumptions have changed, and so have we.

Two kinds of forces are transforming undergraduate teaching at Harvard. First, we have programs and plans to enhance and develop faculty teaching skills. We believe that teaching matters, and that it can be learned. This effort has grown steadily since 1975, when the Bok Center opened to enhance the quality of undergraduate education. Here, teaching fellows can practice teaching — sometimes in front of faculty members — or videotape a section meeting; junior faculty can take training seminars on everything from syllabus planning to heated political moments in the classroom. In recent years, faculty use has increased substantially.

When Alex Rehding arrived in the Music Department three years ago, fresh from postdocs at Penn and Princeton, he had quite a bit of teaching under his belt. But the summer seminar he took on teaching at the Bok Center — the Menschel Program for junior faculty — was eye opening. “I am a big fan of that program,” he says, now a tenured professor. “I discovered that a lecture tells a story. I talked to faculty from different departments. I learned from an acting coach that teaching is really a physical performance, not unlike music.” Teaching Fellow Brodi Kemp, a graduate student in Government and a departmental teaching fellow at the Bok Center, now trains other teaching fellows in her department to lead section meetings. “First year teachers … panic,” she says. “[D]o I know enough to be teaching these students? Are they going to see through me? The Bok Center has shown me that being a good teacher isn’t solely or even primarily about knowledge. It is … about how you engage your students.” As interactions at Harvard become increasingly inter-cultural and cross-departmental, instruction is beginning to reflect a more worldwide educational universe. Anne Goodsell, a lead Physics Department teaching fellow at the Bok Center, notes that she is in a “peer group of young teachers” from all over the world who are “constructing a global repertoire of effective teaching techniques” for an increasingly diverse Harvard.

Another incentive for good teaching is the annual CUE Guide from the committee on undergraduate education — those potentially soaring or devastating short write-ups of undergraduate course offerings based on student comments and numerical rankings of professors and teaching fellows. As one TF put it, however dismissive you may want to be of your CUE scores, you realize “that at least a few of those smart kids are going to tell it like it is.”

Teaching is also an important factor in the tenure process. Every tenure appointment comes to the president, and I consider each faculty member’s teaching skills for a variety of settings. I want to know if she is an effective seminar leader? A good lecturer? Did students find that the course stuck with them? Has the tenure candidate shown him or herself to be a committed teacher?

Most significant, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences during the past year and a half has produced three undergraduate teaching initiatives:

• an Action Plan for Diversity in the Sciences, designed to welcome more women and minority students into the field by rethinking how we teach science to undergraduates;

• a Compact for Enhanced Teaching and Learning at Harvard, calling for a more engaged, experimental, and rewarded culture of teaching;

• and the Report on General Education, the new blueprint for undergraduate curricular reform.

All underscore change in the undergraduate experience — the need for deep engagement between faculty and students, and the administrative and faculty support that will make teaching a priority.

When innovative teaching does receive support the results can be extraordinary. Some of you heard in session B this morning about a remarkable seminar on Leonard Bernstein, led by Professors Carol Oja and Kay Shelemay. In this course students uncovered the composer’s little-known early life in Boston, unearthing early manuscripts and filming interviews with people who knew him. The semester culminated in three days of symposia, reminiscences with the Bernstein family, exhibits, and sold-out concerts at Paine Hall and Sanders Theatre. The students left a permanent archive of new sources for future scholars.

Other faculty innovations center on simple concepts. Senior Physics Professor Eric Mazur, who has developed peer instruction techniques for an interactive classroom, has found that students learn more when he breaks up lectures with student problem-solving groups or short conceptual tests. Teaching is about understanding, not just transformation of information. “I’ve moved from being ‘the sage on the stage’ to ‘the guide on the side,’” says Mazur. In her course “The American Quilt,” Pulitzer Prize-winning Professor Laurel Ulrich’s freshman seminar, students build historical investigation around a single object — a tattered quilt from 1920s Missouri. They navigate museums and libraries, revealing through common objects the often unseen threads of history, from the immigrants who stitched the quilt to the global history of cotton production from the 18th to the 20th centuries. “[W]e need to find ways to break out of our somewhat boring formats,” says Professor Ulrich, who served on the FAS task force for teaching and learning. That Laurel Ulrich — a University Professor — is teaching a freshman seminar is also worth noting. My perusal of the list of all seminars for incoming students showed Laurel not the only Pulitzer Prize-winning instructor — and I discovered two Nobel Prize winners on the list as well.

Let me mention another and perhaps even larger force transforming teaching — new technology. The Internet has changed the logistics of learning, and enhanced classroom teaching in unexpected and marvelous ways — not replacing the essential exchange between teacher and student, but giving it new forms and rich variety. Just how different is the College classroom from the place you knew 25 or even five years ago? Different beyond imagining. Consider Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt’s course “Travel and Transformation on the High Seas: An Imaginary Journey in the Early 17th Century.” The syllabus is organized around the fictional narrative of three ships that set sail from London and try to reach Africa and the New World. Students log on to Google Earth, zoom in to trace each journey across the globe, click onto the maps and visual arts of 17th-century cities, click again onto primary texts that might be two different translations of the Magna Carta, and watch an online performance of “Othello” by a South African theater company. The course is not only multimedia, it is multi-disciplinary. Professor Greenblatt employs in-class guest lecturers and experts from many disciplines, including a meteorologist, an anthropologist, and a professor of Turkish studies, giving students a heretofore inconceivably vivid and thorough picture of the Atlantic world and beyond in 1636 — ending, no less, on virtual location at the founding of Harvard College. John Harvard, whose 400th birthday we celebrate in November, would have been pleased.

This course is not all that unusual. Ninety percent of Harvard courses, 5,000 a year, have web sites. Discussion boards and blogs extend in-class discussion. Recorded online lectures free up class periods for greater learning time with professors. And in a stroke of genius, a Technology Fellows Program employs students, who grew up online, to help professors realize their web-related ideas. We are all teachers and we are all learners, indeed! Alumni can now participate, as well. Some of you have probably enrolled in the new pilot program that takes you inside a packed Sanders Theatre, where undergraduates wrestle with civic and ethical quandaries in Michael Sandel’s course on “Justice,” discussions you can continue through blogs and monthly discussion groups in Harvard Clubs from Santa Barbara to Shanghai, or perhaps this afternoon.

It would seem that we, like the Class of 2011, have new things to explore. But in our explorations of the unexpected, and in the teaching I have talked about today, I am struck by how we also find the familiar. In 1884 The New York Times offered a tribute by the Harvard historian George Bancroft to his math teacher at Harvard College, the students’ favorite professor. “His peculiar charm,” Bancroft wrote, “consisted in his impersonality as a lecturer. He made no attempts at rhetoric; never indulged himself in fine sentences; never thought of astonishing his hearers or winning their applause …. [T]he greatest effect was produced by a simple, natural, unpretending manner, in which he allowed his own admiration for the truth … to shine through the most simple diction … keep[ing] every one of us riveted to his words …. [W]e knew from … a sort of inspiration that he was himself impressed with the grandeur of the law which he was unfolding.”

Would such a description of a lecturer in the CUE Guide send the Class of 2011 running for the exits? I don’t think so. In developing what is good and new at Harvard, we also affirm what is enduring — our admiration for the truth, as Bancroft put it. That is why you are here. As we have seen in the examples I have given you today, teaching is not an act of ego or charisma, but a turning together toward truth, itself never final or complete. We spend a lot of time and energy at Harvard thinking about how to do it well and planning how to do it better. In this spirit, we sustain and renew our commitment to each other and our accountability to our students and to Harvard.

Thank you.

– Drew Gilpin Faust