Students in Service and Leadership at Harvard

Olivia Graham - Story of Self

In my four years at Harvard, I have grown as a student, as an individual and as a teacher. While that last clause might be surprising to some, my Harvard experience has actually been defined by teaching. Working as an undergraduate Teaching Fellow (TF) for the part 3 years has been an incredibly powerful experience. However, before my freshman year, the extent of my experience in Computer Science consisted of using Excel in some high school science courses. I thought that I might potentially study some form of engineering – but I found myself captivated by CS50’s first lecture during Shopping Week.

My memories of that first semester at Harvard are marked by Computer Science. I remember struggling through my first problem set while sitting in the September sun, attending late night Office Hours in Widener, and, perhaps most importantly, my amazing TF taking the time to ensure that I knew how to continue learning and improving. Unlike many departments at Harvard, the CS department relies heavily on undergraduates to staff courses: grading problem sets, running sections, and helping students at office hours. After my first year, I wanted to find a way to help students like myself navigate these courses – so I interviewed to teach for CS51, the second introductory course for CS concentrators.

I was by no means an outstanding teacher when I interviewed for the role. While I had done some tutoring in high school, I was terrified by the prospect of having to teach my peers. Had I learned enough in the past year to be a good resource to them? Ultimately, I found a way to learn on the job; I went into every interaction ready to reflect on what was working and iterate based on feedback. I learned from my peers, continually asking past TFs for pointers and best practices. At the end of the semester, I was thrilled to receive kind reviews from my students – and I was hooked. I couldn’t wait to do it all over again next year, this time as Head Teaching Fellow for the course.

My responsibilities quickly changed as Head TF! Notably, I was tasked with hiring and training our 20+ Teaching Fellows for the course. And over the past two years, as I have trained our new TFs, I have found myself wondering whether there is anything more that can be done to help teach others to teach. How can we train outstanding undergraduate teachers? Are there ways to empower them to improve the courses that they staff? How can pedagogical best practices inform the work of undergraduate teaching fellows? And how can we help these undergraduates to improve as teachers?

In SOCIOL1130, I hoped to develop a blueprint of action for institutional change. As I see it, there are several issues facing the Computer Science department today. Firstly, while we rely heavily on the undergraduate TF role, the department, as well as the College as a whole, provides very little formal training and support for undergraduate teachers. Secondly, there exist no opportunities for undergraduate TFs to engage more broadly with the pedagogy of Computer Science and improve as teachers. To address these dual concerns, my initial goal was to work with the department to create better infrastructure to train and onboard Teaching Fellows as well as design a syllabus for a CS91R course (Supervised Reading and Research) to help students further explore their interest in teaching CS. However, along the way, I found several other ways to try and help improve the undergraduate TF experience overall. 

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