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29 March 2005

Harvard undergrads unsatisfied? Never!

Apparently, Harvard undergrads are unhappy about several features of the educational experience.

One thing I hate to tell them, but Harvard is a research
university.  Research universities are not really oriented toward
the undergraduate experience.  They exist to create, support, and
disseminate new knowledge, and all other goals are pretty secondary to
that.  I’m not sayng it should be this way, but it is, and the model is much larger than simply Harvard.

But right now, students can go through four years on campus with
limited contact with professors. They often take large lecture classes,
divided into sections headed by graduate student ”teaching fellows.”
Small classes are frequently taught by temporary instructors instead of
regular, tenure-track professors. And in many cases, advisers are not
professors, either, but graduate students, administrators, or full-time

”I’ve definitely had great professors, but most of the time you have
to chase them down and show initiative if you want to get to know
them,” said Kathy Lee, a junior majoring in psychology. ”I’ve had a
lot of trouble getting to know enough faculty to get the
recommendations I need for medical school.”

This is pretty much the same as at Berkeley and every large university
of my acquaintance.  You have to work hard to get what you
want.  Faculty do not chase after students.  They do not
generally take an interest in that way.  Faculty expect that
students who want to work with them will come to them, taking
initiative.  From what I can tell, most faculty would prefer to
work with the motivated students who come to office hours, who
demonstrate that they are reliable, and who can do independent
work.  Faculty work is fairly independent, lonely stuff, and
undergrads who work with faculty should expect that they will do lots
of independent work by themselves.  And, to be honest, with so
many demands on the faculty’s time, I think that faculty often want to
make sure that their interactions with undergrads (and grads, too) will
be high quality and high intensity.

Look, faculty may have 500 students a semester, if they teach a large
lecture course.  Even if they teach a moderate one of 150
students, there’s no time to interact with those students.  Say
you gave 5 minutes of interaction to half of that 150 person class each
week.  That’s 375 minutes, or more than 6 hours a week in student
contact time.  That’s six fewer hours to prep lectures (and
faculty can spend hours writing each one), six fewer hours to do
research, six fewer hours to interact with colleagues, via e-mail,
meetings, or conferences, and if you think that faculty should simply
do this on top of normal duties, six fewer hours with
family/friends.  And none of this enhances faculty professionally,
in terms of tenure or advancement.

Also, I know faculty who have indicated their willingness to spend time
with students, eating lunch with them in the houses and such, and it’s
a fairly small percentage of any class that takes advantage of this
chance.  Maybe ten percent, from what I have seen so far.

“Chasing faculty down” serves as the self-selection mechanism, so you
can see who’s serious about knowing or working wiht you.  When I
was in college, I got to know two of my professors quite well. 
Both Gary and Scott gave
me increasing contact and mentoring as I progressed in showing them
that I was up to the work put before me.  And neither of them
sought me out–I had to go to office hours, ask if there was anything
that I could do to do research for them, and keep showing
initiative.  Faculty contact is, in my experience, something
earned.  And in addition, some faculty, just by dint of
personality, are more generous with their time, just as some undergrads
will or won’t come to office hours, based on their own personalities.

Students’ experiences also vary widely from department to department.
Some of the most popular — and thus overburdened — majors, such as
economics or government, have fairly low ratings on internal student
surveys, while small majors like classics and philosophy get better

On the social front, students complain that Harvard lacks places where
students can socialize and has so many rules that it is difficult to
hold a party on-campus, where almost all undergraduates live.

The Harvard administration has also been working hard in the last few
years to improve social life. The school has been experimenting with
popular ”pub nights” on some Fridays, and has allowed campus parties
to stay open an hour later, until 2 a.m. They have tried other novelty
programs from dodge ball tournaments to speed dating, and doubled the
amount of athletic equipment in the main gym used by undergraduates.

Hey, in the large majors, we do our best.  But here in
government, we have about 600 students (excluding frosh).  There’s
only so much that can be done.  I’d venture that it’s easier to
dislike the government experience, since it’s bound to be less
personal.  In a small department, you know the people, and so you
can probably think of specific experiences to base your opinion upon;
in a large program, it’s more likely to be impressionistic and

Socially, I can think of one improvement we could use here–a student
union.  I can see how students find it hard to socialize across
houses.  And perhaps the party regulations could be loosened
(although in my examination of them, they seem no more strenuous than
those at my undergraduate school; again, the rules seem to create a
minimum of motivation and organization necessary on the part of the
students, so parties will be well-planned and organized).  And I’d
be interested to see how much student-initiated social activity is
going on.  If the administration is getting in the way of good
stuff that the students want to do, then we need to loosen up to foster
students’ creativity.  But students still need to initiate most of
the content of their social lives.

Posted in IvoryTower on 29 March 2005 at 11:39 am by Nate

We found some evangelicals!

Apparently, the big media outlets discovered evangelical Christians this week.  The New York Times Magazine ran a long piece on the phenomenon of the exurban megachurchJeff Sharlet over at The Revealer has excellent analysis, and many of his commenters have pretty intelligent stuff to say, too.

This morning, the Boston Globe ran its “Meet the evangelicals” story
Although I enjoyed the NYT article and its semi-practice of Weberian
ideal type analysis, today’s Globe story was more interesting. 
It, also, substituted this particular family, the Wilkersons, for a
larger phenomenon, but unlike the Times, Brian MacQuarrie did not shy
away from presenting the contradictions and harshness of the
evangelical worldview.

We learn that the Wilkersons feel bad and even attacked that they are
thought of as narrow-minded and exclusionary people, but we also learn
what they believe.

”Christianity is lived out every hour of every day. I have no hidden
agenda,” Michael says. Thumbing through a Bible, he adds, ”I don’t
know why people hate this story so much.”

To him, the media and entertainment industry have for decades
caricatured devout Christians as narrow-minded, judgmental bumpkins. In
the Wilkersons’ view, Hollywood is out of touch with the mainstream,
instead of the reverse.

”Those people don’t have a clue,” Michael says, shaking his head in disgust….

On the subject of gays, the Wilkersons say they oppose discrimination,
but their view of marriage is a divinely-sanctioned biblical one,
limited to a man and a woman for the purpose of creating a family.
Michael turns to St. Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians, 6:9-11,
which reads in part in the New International version: ”Neither the
sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor
homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor
slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” He
interprets the Scripture to mean gays cannot be admitted to heaven.

”I don’t hate anyone who’s a homosexual,” Michael says. ”But do I hate what they do? Yes.”

[What do we do?  One
wonders if he knows.  And from what he thinks he knows, he might
consider how his subculture, evangelical Christianity, plays out in the
popular imagination before assuming he knows much about gays. -Ed.

On abortion, the Wilkersons are adamant: ”A life is a life,” MarCee
says, and to her, life begins at conception. The only possible
exception for abortion, MarCee says, is when the life of the mother is
in jeopardy — not for rape, and not for incest.

[If a life is a life, then
wouldn’t taking the life of the embryo or fetus to save another life
still constitute some form of killing?  If it’s an absolute, then
how do we justify that exception? -Ed.

Like many evangelical congregations, Hope Church is nondenominational.
Its members include former mainstream Protestants as well as one-time
Catholics ”who now are Christians,” Michael says. ”The Catholic
religion? I’m not too sure that Jesus is a big, integral part of that.”

[Have they ever been in a Roman Catholic Church?  Jesus is usually pretty front and center, literally even.  -Ed.]

…”Basically, it comes down to there’s only one God,” Michael says.
”You have to come to that conclusion: There’s one way to that God, and
that’s through Jesus.”

Unfortunately, Wilkerson said sadly, the ”harsh reality” of the Bible precludes salvation for non-Christians.

When asked if that means Gandhi, a Hindu who reached across religious
lines, was denied entry to heaven, Wilkerson dropped his head and

It sounds to me like this family (who may or may not actually
represent evangelicals [although my experience leads me to say that
they’re pretty representative], but who are being made to function as
such) has some hatred of gays (the separation of action from identity
in any identity/affinity group is highly problematic), believes Roman
Catholics are probably not Christians (one wonders if they know where
their own religion came from), hasn’t thought through the full
implications of their position on abortion, and may even be ashamed of
the absoluteness of their belief that only their particular form of
Christianity goes to heaven.

One thing that comes up in the Globe article more than that in the
Times is the not just the harsh absoluteness of evangelical life, but
the rule-oriented basis of it.  Don’t listen to the wrong sorts of
music, don’t be gay, don’t have an abortion, don’t, don’t, don’t. 
Rules can be useful, but in this sense, the rules seem to be the ticket
into heaven, which is the real goal of this life. 

Everything that the Wilkersons do orients them to the reward of
heaven. “In the end, two cars, a pickup, a nice home, good jobs, and a
comfortable life in the American heartland are all temporary amenities
to the Wilkersons and the other churchgoers who fill Hope’s sanctuary
with song and prayer each Sunday. They have their eyes on the

This attention to heaven seems the largest tragedy for a people who have such a focus on
not being like the world.  (In the circles I grew up in, a
favorite Scripture to quote was, “Be in the world but not of the
world.”  There was even a Christian pop song that used this as a
chorus.)  It’s a capitalist, materially oriented way of
approaching their faith.  Faith is a transactional
interaction–it’s like employment in a firm.  God sets out a contract for that which He expects me
to do.  I fulfill those obligations.  I am compensated with
eternal life in heaven.

But the faith of these people, at least in the Globe article,
doesn’t seem to have much to actually do with God.  Rules,
yes.  Regulating other people, yes.  God?

(In the church that my parents go to, which is a member of the same
denomination as the Wilkersons’ [contrary to the Globe reporter’s
assertion, “Evangelical Free” is a denominational marker, even if the
congregation wants to downplay it], they have a group for Adventists
“recovering from legalism.”  I always found this a remarkable
short-sightedness, since Protestant evagelicals are a pretty rule-bound
lot of people.)

For depth on that matter, we have to go to the Times article.

The spiritual sell is also a soft one. There are no crosses, no images
of Jesus or any other form of religious iconography. Bibles are
optional (all biblical quotations are flashed on huge video screens
above the stage). Almost half of each service is given over to live
Christian rock with simple, repetitive lyrics in which Jesus is treated
like a high-school crush: ”Jesus, you are my best friend, and you will
always be. Nothing will ever change that.” Committing your life to
Christ is as easy as checking a box on the communication cards that can
be found on the back of every chair. (Last year, 1,055 people did so.)

This is what bothered me about the Christians portrayed in the Times
article.  There is no challenge, no difficulty, no struggle
involved in their faith.  Faith is the means by which one
overcomes struggle, but it is not a struggle in itself.  But what
both hagiographers and historians seem to tell us is that “saints”,
“religious innovators”, and the like all struggle with their faith and
their faith leads them not out of struggle but into the fray of
it.  Gandhi certainly did not see faith as a way out of trouble
and trial–it led him straight to it.  In light of the Passion
last week and Easter for this week, neither did Jesus.  Neither
did Martin Luther, or Martin Luther King, or Oscar Romero.

Not all evangelicals think this way, as there is some trenchant
criticism out there from within the evangelical movement.  (See,
for example, Ronald Sider’s “The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience
in Christianity Today.)  And in fact, the Wilkersons seem to be
enacting many of the problematic elements that Sider points out. 
Where’s the talk about materialism and the poor?  All we have is
evidence of material accumlation.  What about racism?  They
seem to be tolerant of other races, as long as those people are also
their sort of Christians.  But are there many non-white people in
their church?  Why or why not?

Until then, the Wilkersons say, their journey is one worth emulating.

”If you want the country to be better, you would want to take a model
of a husband and wife and a family who wants to do the right thing,”
Michael says. ”You would think that would be the model the country
would want to go after.

Absolutely not.  That model neatly ravaged body and soul in my case, and I have seen it do the same to many others.

Posted in Rayleejun on 29 March 2005 at 10:09 am by Nate