Gender and Race in the Classroom

Highly verbal male students may still dominate class discussions at Harvard, and women and minority students are occasionally more reluctant to speak out in class. While these statements may not hold for every class, TFs should be aware that gender and ethnicity may be related to a student's degree of participation in discussion sections. To better ensure that your teaching provides equal opportunities for all students to participate in the discussion, we suggest some simple strategies:

  • Get to know your students as individuals. When you know their personalities, interests, and backgrounds, you are less likely to stereotype them unconsciously. At the same time, students are more likely to participate in a class in which the teacher has shown genuine interest in them. When students know something about you and your interests, too, you become less of a stereotype to them, and they are more likely to be open to you.
  • Become a careful observer of your class. During or after each section, note who participates and the length, depth, and frequency of contributions. Notice the responses students receive, especially when they are interrupted. Observe any differences in tone or approach that occur in your responses to students and their responses to each other. One way to observe these classroom dynamics begins with having your class videotaped at the Bok Center. Once you actually see your class in action, you will have a better sense of the participation of individual students and can avoid inequalities that might otherwise go unacknowledged.
  • Hold all students responsible for the conduct and content of discussions. Encourage each student to elicit information from other students, to collaborate with others, to ask good questions, and to make comments or argue a point. Let students know that being rude or overly competitive, or interrupting and ignoring other students in discussion will not be rewarded.
  • Listen to all students with equal seriousness.
  • Ask all students the same kinds of questions—don't reserve the abstract questions for one kind of student and the factual or experiential questions for another.
  • Keep students from interrupting each other and intervene when comments occur too rapidly to permit a student to initiate or complete their contribution.
  • Ask shy or non-participatory students outside of class how they can be helped to participate; you may suggest that they contribute in the next class on a topic in which they have insight or interest.
  • Avoid making any student in your class belonging to a racial or ethnic minority a "token." Make room for individuals to comment on their personal experiences, but do not put students in the position of speaking for an entire demographic group.
  • Model for your students the use of inclusive language in their writing and speaking, e.g., use "humanity" rather than "man."
  • Don't be intimidated by students who display contemptuous attitudes toward you because of your gender or ethnicity. Don't refrain from adding gender analysis to your discussion just because someone is skeptical about its usefulness.
  • Find ways to articulate that there is a place for women and minority students in your discipline, which may appear to be overwhelmingly white and male.
  • Sexist or racist behaviors and remarks have no place in the classroom and should not be tolerated. Subtle discrimination goes unnoticed more easily and for that reason may be more dangerous. Remember, your students for the most part are young and may have little awareness of their own biases. They may have had little experience with people of different ethnic backgrounds, races, or classes. Sometimes, it may be your job to help them see and privately question their own assumptions. It is always your job to help every student become a full participant in class, both as a speaker and as a listener. This requires sensitivity to students as individuals and constant evaluations of your own assumptions.

What Can You Do If a Student Is Having Difficulty?

Your students are all very bright and competent, but many experience anxiety during their academic careers. Most students participate in time-consuming extracurricular activities, and some have several jobs. Many think they can procrastinate since every term ends with a two-week reading period. Students taking several large lecture courses can also become lost in the shuffle.

Harvard has many resources for advising on academic and personal problems. Yet, many students find it difficult to take advantage of them for a variety of reasons. Students may fear the appearance of failure and believe they should be self-sufficient. They may worry about confidentiality, particularly having their parents or peers find out that they have sought help. They may feel inadequate, noticing that they are surrounded by extraordinarily competent people. Cultural pressures can also make it difficult for some students to seek help. If a student approaches you with a personal or emotional problem that does not directly concern your course or section, you may want to be a supportive listener, but you can help most effectively by referring the student to the appropriate trained advisor or counselor.

If a student has serious academic problems or problems that you cannot resolve on your own, ask the course head or the head tutor in the department for support and advice. If they agree, you may then bring the problem to the attention of those responsible for academic advising at Harvard: the resident dean of the student's House or, in the case of a freshman, the resident dean of freshmen. He or she may already be aware of the problem, since students having difficulty in one course often have other problems. These advisors are key people for referring students to professional counselors or other sources of help.

You may also refer students directly to the Bureau of Study Counsel for academic support, study skills workshops, peer tutoring, and individual study counseling. If you would like consultation and support in your advising role as a teaching fellow, you may consult with the Bureau of Study Counsel or the Bok Center.

If a student has serious personal or emotional problems, the resident dean or assistant dean of freshmen should be alerted. In addition, you should be familiar with the resources available to your student and to you:

  • Harvard University Health Services (HUHS) Mental Health Services and the Bureau of Study Counsel . Both the Mental Health Services and the Bureau of Study Counsel offer support for students and advise teaching fellows whenever there is concern over a student's behavior, the quality of their work, or apparent distress. Since both services provide counseling and support, it is important to distinguish them. If a student has a primarily academic concern (procrastination, poor time management, declining performance), the Bureau would be the most appropriate referral. If the concern involves physical or psychological symptoms (e.g., sleep problems, eating concerns, anxiety, headaches, depression), the Mental Health Service would likely be the best starting point. Both offices cross-refer, so you can help a student by connecting with care in either service. In addition, if you yourself are unsure about how to approach or understand a psychological issue or how to respond to a student of concern, you are invited to have a confidential phone consultation or appointment with a Mental Health Services clinician or a Bureau of Study Counsel counselor. These services are here to provide support for you as well as for your students.
  • The Accessible Education Office (AEO) serves as the central campus resource for Harvard College, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS), and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) students with documented medical, learning, psychiatric, and ADHD disabilities.  AEO often consults with students who may simply want to discuss difficult situations confidentially and not request any services at all.  Although students with temporary illness or injury are not considered disabled by the law, they are nonetheless often in need of services or accommodations similar to those provided to students with permanent disabilities in order to maintain their academic program with minimal interruption. These students are encouraged to consult with the AEO as soon as possible.
  • Memorial Church and the Harvard Chaplains . Sometimes students encounter academic or personal difficulties arising from a sense of disorientation that may be caused by a conflict between the beliefs and values they have brought to Harvard and those they encounter here. On occasion, these reflect a tension between what students are learning and their beliefs. In such cases, the spiritual resources available at Harvard, particularly the clergy of the Memorial Church and the chaplains associated with the Harvard Chaplains (formerly United Ministry) can often help students to work through these conflicts in ways that are respectful of their own backgrounds and beliefs.

What If a Student Creates a Problem?

No matter how well prepared or skilled you may be, at some point in your teaching career you will encounter a student whose behavior threatens your authority and the functioning of your class. There is no simple way to deal with these difficult situations, but we offer the following suggestions from seasoned teaching fellows for addressing certain "types" of difficult students they have identified.

  • The student who tries to "know" it all. This student challenges everything you say and quotes Hegel in every discussion, regardless of Hegel's relevance to the course. Of course, you should give the student the benefit of the doubt at first and try to see the validity of the point, but do not allow the situation to continue for long. First, try to deal with the matter privately and talk to the student outside of class. Tell the student you value his or her fine contributions, but explain the importance of hearing from others. Try to enlist the student in creating a better class. If a private, non-confrontational conversation fails, you may need to intervene in class, saying, for example, "What you said is interesting but really isn't what we're discussing." If the student has concerns that range beyond the assigned material, you might suggest that these be presented to you during office hours. However, engaging the student only on course content and assigned material is probably the greatest service you can offer him or her, and to the class. Often these students are insecure about their abilities and have trouble focusing on one subject at a time. By offering the student the attention she or he needs while limiting it to course content, you can help improve the student's class performance and boost confidence, thus reducing his or her need to show off.
  • The student who tries to intimidate you. This student attempts to get you to make a grade change by threat, intimidation, or badgering. Don't be intimidated. Be fair but set strict, clear standards. Sometimes just a simple but firm reminder that you are in charge does the trick. Invoking the authority of the course head (as seeking his or her input) may help if necessary. In the extreme case of a physical threat, tell the student that you take it seriously and inform the proper authorities.
  • The student who tries to take advantage of your goodwill. This student may try to get his or her way by flattering, lying to, or exploiting their TF. Usually, this behavior is recognizable as an attempt at manipulation. The same suggestions for intimidation apply to this behavior. Although these students probably won't cause disturbances in the classroom, they can affect the climate and sense of fairness for all.

It is surprising and dismaying how many TFs have these kinds of experiences. You should attempt to talk with the student and their advisors early, before problems become unsolvable. Some TFs handle these sorts of situations by using strategies that strengthen other students' participation (see the section on preparing students for discussion sections). Ironically, a problem student may sometimes draw the class together and ally it with the teaching fellow. The problem student may thus become alienated and try even harder to get attention. Don't feel too badly if this occurs. If you have notified the student's advisor and tried to reason with him or her, you may have done all that you can. If you suspect that the problem behavior indicates emotional or psychological disturbance, be sure to let the advisor know. Again, as early as possible, your course head should also be made aware of the problem.

Critical Times: The First Term at Harvard and When the Senior Thesis is Due

Think back to your first term in college. Most of us experienced a mixture of excitement and fear. Home and high school no longer provide structure for daily activities. Many students at Harvard must adjust not only to college life, but also to living in a city. The expectations they place on themselves and on Harvard are often unrealistic and causes of stress. Because most first-term students enroll in large courses in which they have little contact with professors, TFs and other students in sections can be very important contacts for them.

Poor study habits carried over from high school and misunderstandings about course heads' expectations may also lead to a rough start for freshmen. Be particularly open to your freshmen students' questions. Clearly spell out assignments and expectations, and be aware that the midterm exam will be a source of great anxiety. Offer encouragement and give basic tips on how to study, what to look for in a text, or how to organize an answer to an essay question. Have high expectations of students, but try not to pressure them. Reassure them that earning less than an A on their first midterm doesn't mean failure. Most of these students are used to getting As; be sure to tell them what they did well and what they can do to improve their work.

Science teachers should know that their disciplines can be especially difficult for first-term students. Levels of math and science preparation vary widely among entering students. Young women (we still find) may not have received encouragement in these disciplines during high school. Keep in mind that many students take only a few required courses in the sciences. They may feel inadequately prepared and incapable of succeeding in these disciplines. Overly critical or unsympathetic responses from a teaching fellow can turn them away from science forever.

Teachers in moral reasoning, philosophy, and religion courses should also be especially sensitive to freshmen. As one professor puts it, freshmen are "looking for people to become." Don't expect them to be as sophisticated as your other students. This may be the first time that they explore certain concepts and values for themselves.

Seniors are usually assets to sections because the discussions benefit from their experience and sophistication. Your class and assignments, however, may be lower priority for seniors as the prospects of graduation and life after college loom large. Seniors who are writing theses can be particularly distracted from other academic activities. These final projects are very important and do demand much of the seniors' time and energy; however, the thesis can also become an excuse to avoid other assignments and deadlines. It's a good idea to find out at the beginning of the term who is writing a thesis and when it is due. Invite seniors to work out deadline conflicts with you and/or the course head early in the term. Course heads have different policies in this regard and should always be consulted.

Do I Have to Teach Students How to Write?

Or, to put the question differently: Shouldn't students already know how to write? In fact, all freshmen are required to take a term of Expository Writing. This means that most of your students will have been taught certain fundamentals of argumentative writing: how to arrive at and arrange persuasive ideas by a process of drafting and revision, how to analyze textual evidence, and how to properly use sources of different kinds to reinforce their analysis. But to master these skills, and to do so in a broad range of disciplines while reading dense and copious course material, students need reinforcement, assistance, and guidance.

Teaching fellows can do much to improve the quality of students' written work in a given term. You can help generate appropriate topics and approaches for them, clarify assignments, respond to outlines, and give students an opportunity to turn in drafts to be rewritten. By treating a written assignment as a process and not just a final product that is handed in on a certain date, you can help students to break down the work into manageable stages with a sequence of deadlines, and to master writing skills.

Perhaps the most important way you can assist students is by offering targeted comments on papers. Your comments help student writers to see their writing through a reader's eyes. A thoughtful final comment that discusses a paper's strengths and weaknesses in specific terms, cites examples of each, and makes concrete suggestions for improvement can transform a student's writing and give him or her the means to be academically successful at a writing intensive institution such as Harvard.

Students may receive additional help on paper writing through the Harvard College Libraries and the Writing Center. Reference librarians in the undergraduate libraries can design programs of bibliographic instruction for your classes tailored to their specific writing topics. You may refer students to the Writing Center for confidential individual consultations about their writing. There, students may try out a draft, talk about ideas for an essay, or discuss their writing in general.

As a teaching fellow, you might want to meet with Harvard Writing Project consultants and Bok Center consultants who offer workshops and provide specific advice about structuring writing assignments, reading papers, and commenting on written work.

The Graduate Writing Fellows Program at the Bok Center offers more extensive training for TFs on responding effectively to student writing and using writing as a learning tool.