Getting to know your professors

First off, congratulations to all of the newly admitted students! Students on campus are really eager to meet all of you for Visitas, Harvard’s prefrosh weekend.

There’s been a good amount of discussion around a recent article from US News & World Report (and a rebuttal published as a staff editorial in The Crimson representing the opinion of many students on campus). The debate surrounds the issue of student and faculty interaction at Harvard. I remember having questions on this myself before coming to Harvard, having heard both sides of the debate then. Thus, I thought I’d provide my perspective on the question, “Do Harvard students and faculty interact?”

The Good:

There are plenty of opportunities for student-faculty interaction, hands down. Just last night, six students and I invited the three professors of my Computer Science course on Privacy and Technology to my house’s faculty dinner: FAS Dean Michael Smith, Prof. James Waldo, and Prof. Latanya Sweeney. The course is just 30 students, and with three professors, we’ve been able to really get to know the professors and vice versa; in such a small setting, they get to know us by name. Over dinner, we talked about the work they’ve done in research and their career; for example, Prof. Waldo was involved in the creation of the Java programming language while Prof. Sweeney has been involved in a number breakthroughs in demonstrating holes and privacy issues surround common security practices in technology and biometrics. They also got to know us and our interests.

Beyond faculty dinners, there are also plenty of opportunities to get to know faculty members. We can take any faculty member to the dining hall at no charge for any meal. Almost all hold office hours just for students to get to know them. There are plenty of small classes after the introductory courses, which give you more opportunities to meet faculty; my research tutorial this semester has just ten students. Of course not all course are small, but there are plenty to choose from for those who are interests including plenty taught by senior faculty and about 130 Freshman Seminars just for first-years (mine was On the Origin of Morality, Rights, and Law with renowned Prof. Alan Dershowitz). Research and departmental jobs on campus also provide opportunities to interact with faculty in an alternate setting. And finally, every senior is offered the opportunity to write a thesis of original research (or creative work in some departments) under the close supervision of a faculty members; my concentration, Social Studies, actually requires this and is one reason why I’m excited for next year.

The Challenge:

I came from a small, nurturing high school. My largest class was about 20 students. It was hard not to get to know the faculty members just because of the close environment. Harvard, like any university of its size, is certainly different.

Instead of having teachers come to me, at Harvard I had to take the initiative to go seek out professors during their office hours or make a consorted effort to get to know them. As a freshman, this was certainly intimidating; it’s natural to question why someone who won a Nobel Prize or who worked as the President’s top economic adviser would want to take time to speak to an undergraduate who certainly knows very little on their subject of expertise. But once I realized that they’re at here in part because they want to work with students and it’s part of their job, it became easier. Last semester, I took a course on econometrics with about 200 students. I met the professor for lunch a few times, went to his office hours, asked for his advice on my post-graduation plans and on research, and by the end of the course felt we got to know each other. I would feel comfortable going to his office hours in the future to just chat, and I could say this for all the professors I’ve had for larger lecture courses where I made an effort to meet them outside of class and for all the professors I’ve had for smaller courses and seminars.

Certainly, it’s hard to meet every single one of of your professors between course work, extracurricular activities, and other time constraints; not all students necessarily see this as a priority amongst the other on-campus opportunities. However, if you make an effort to get to know at least one or two faculty members a semester as I was advised freshman year and have tried to do, you have the opportunity to see inside some of the brightest minds and gain access to ideas, opportunities, and friendship from a set of people who really care about students.

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