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Harvard studies ways to promote teaching

CAMBRIDGE -- Harvard University today begins a new effort to figure out how to improve teaching and make it a bigger factor in whether professors get tenure or raises.

If successful, the initiative could counter Harvard's image as a school that allows professors to neglect undergraduates in favor of the research that wins them grants, book prizes, and fame.

Harvard officials also hope to spur changes at universities around the country. Nationally, American higher education is drawing accusations of smugness and complacency. A report from a panel established by US Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said colleges and universities should be more accountable for students' learning.

``I think the quality of education is going to get more and more important," said interim Harvard president Derek Bok, noting that globalization has boosted the competition that American graduates face in the workforce. ``We see this as a real opportunity to try to improve what we do for undergraduates."

Harvard's new task force on teaching and career development, which meets for the first time today , will cover the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, home to Harvard's undergraduate and doctoral programs.

The task force's chairwoman, Theda Skocpol, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, said she was inspired to propose the idea by the book that Bok published just months before taking over after Lawrence H. Summers's resignation. The book is called ``Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should be Learning More." Bok led Harvard from 1971 to 1991.

After studying best practices at Harvard and elsewhere, Skocpol expects the group to have recommendations ready to present to the faculty by Feb. 1. Some ideas, she hopes, could be acted upon immediately, while others will be left for Harvard's next president. But any major changes would need the backing of the majority of arts and science faculty members, some of whom may balk at any significant change in Harvard's traditions.

The high standards for earning tenure at Harvard are heavily weighted toward excellence in research, not teaching. The same is true at other elite research universities, while small liberal arts colleges generally focus more on undergraduate teaching.

``Comparisons with other institutions show that we are not as good as we should be," said Jeremy R. Knowles, interim dean of arts and sciences. ``When we're not the best, I want to be the best."

Harvard already has a system for students to evaluate their professors, but Skocpol said she would like to see professors evaluating one another's classes as well, just as they critique one another's academic articles and books. The point, she said, would be not just to judge but to expose professors to new ideas and encourage every faculty member, young or old, to think about ways he or she can improve.

Ultimately, she said, she hopes that Harvard will offer tenure to more people who are outstanding teachers, even if their research achievements are not necessarily the best.

A professor's improvements in the classroom, she said, could play a more prominent role in other promotions as well.

``Once everybody knows it counts, believe me, they will put more effort in," said Skocpol, who stressed that she was offering her personal opinions, while the task force's direction has yet to be determined.

Officials rejected the stereotype of Harvard professors as indifferent to teaching, saying that many are passionate about their students.

However, many of them consider teaching a private, even lonely endeavor, Skocpol said. ``They don't talk about it with colleagues," she said. ``They don't think the institution cares. They don't think it affects their salary."

Lee S. Shulman , president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, said if Harvard's new effort succeeds, it would be ``revolutionary," but he was also skeptical that the university can really change.

Universities like Harvard, he said, evaluate scholarship as the Michelin restaurant guide would: ``Is this the best person in the world?" But they use a much different standard to assess teaching: ``Is this person so awful as a teacher that it would actually be harmful to students?"

Shulman led a similar effort at Stanford University over a decade ago, calling for teaching to be weighted more heavily in tenure and salary decisions. He said it came to naught.

Others see that perspective as overly cynical. Kay K. Shelemay, an ethnomusicologist who will serve on the task force, said she and many colleagues cherish their time in the classroom. Her teaching has helped her research, leading to book projects she wouldn't have come up with on her own, she said.

Last year, she co-taught a class exploring composer Leonard Bernstein's Boston roots. Every student did original ethnographic research, for example, interviewing childhood friends and members of Bernstein's synagogue.

Scott Kominers, who took the course as a freshman, is presenting a paper at a Bernstein conference next month, on what the doodles in Bernstein's school papers suggest about his mathematical acumen. Kominers said Shelemay seems more devoted to her teaching than to anything else.

``The idea that one has to care either about teaching or research and not both is hogwash," Shelemay said.

Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at bombardieri@globe.com.

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