The NYTimes account of this troubled Harvard class suggests how one of the richest and most selective schools in the world could buy itself some really terrible publicity. The Times reports:
Students said they were tripped up by a course whose tests were confusing, whose grading was inconsistent, and for which the professor and teaching assistants gave contradictory signals about what was expected. They face the possibility of a one-year suspension from Harvard or revocation of their diplomas if they have already graduated, and some said that they will sue the university if any serious punishment is meted out.
Though it seems unclear how much “Government” was being learned by the students of this class, this incident certainly teaches us something about the importance of communication and consistency in the classroom. If we are to believe the Times article (which relies largely on student accounts), course policies regarding collaboration and grading were unclear and inconsistent with one another. These problems were compounded by the instructor’s failure to coordinate policies among his TAs. The exam questions seemed to have little relation to the lectures, and were unintelligible enough to stump the TAs tasked with explaining them. From the outset, the professor undermined himself and the course by announcing the high numbers of As he routinely handed out, and by not requiring attendance for the TA-led portions of the class. All this meant that the only way to grade students’ semester’s work was to rely on a final set of high-stakes exams. At the same time, it is evident that the pedagogical problems found in this course could be found in many other courses at Harvard, as this Harvard Crimson article suggests (read the comments, too, for more local context). And many of the issues on view in this case, including the question of how much training and support this faculty member had with his teaching, could be found at lots of other universities around the country.
All this only reinforces the view that James Lang proposed last year at our conference, which is that the best preventative against academic dishonesty remains good pedagogy thoughtfully practiced, along with course policies clearly communicated and consistently applied. If more thought had been given to how this course was actually being taught, and how much learning was actually taking place, everyone involved might have been spared the fate of appearing in the NY Times for all the wrong reasons.