Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

Whose Voice? Whose Guide?

nb:The Q Guide is a Harvard-run course rating service. It has its roots in the student-run "Confi Guide", published by the Crimson as far back as 1925. The Confi Guide, however, was eclipsed by the Harvard-run CUE (Committee on Undergraduate Education) reports published from 1975 onwards. In 2005, the "CUE Guide" was renamed the "Q Guide", and moved to an online-only format. Today, the Q website bills itself as "Your Voice, Your Guide".

Much has already been said about the choice to hide important course evaluation data from students (Crimson article), and I won't try to rehash in full what others have said so eloquently. Instead, I'll try to bring to the surface some of the most salient points, and add a few of my own.

First, it's been said (and satirized by Satire V) that Dean Harris did a fine job of (trying to) bury the lede on the whole matter. After all, the change to the Q was announced in sentence 16 of 21 in an email titled "Pre-Term Planning for Fall 2014":

Now, unless the the Dean was attempting to imply that we should be planning for Fall 2014 by scoping out courses now, before difficulty ratings go away forever, one has to question the reason behind revealing a crucial change in student resources (which, as the Crimson reports, has been decided since last September) in the middle of an email about a weeks-away optional survey to a group of students who have already left campus for the summer.

Or perhaps, one need not. I'm not sure that anyone except University spokespeople would be willing to argue that Dean Harris just happened to send us this information immediately after we'd finished submitting our Spring evaluations, after sitting on it for eight months.

But perhaps I'll refrain from ascribing malice to what could be explained elsewise, and assume that Dean Harris posed the information to the student body in the good-faith execution of his ex officio duties as Dean of Undergraduate Education. If it's an impossible stretch to imagine that he framed the matter in a way that quashed any debate strictly by accident, then we might ask: why might a DUE honestly feel that it would be best to give students information only after they are incapable of responding meaningfully?

hint: The Principle of Charity prohibits answers here like "Because he's evil." or "Because he's a careerist bureaucrat."; things along the lines of "Because he's mistaken in thinking..." are fair game.

Okay, here's my best guess: Dean Harris knew that there was going to be student outrage. He intentionally waited until students were off-campus, with their Q's already submitted, to break the news because he knew that organized dissent (and sneaky countermeasures, like the immediately-suggested "put your difficulty rating in your text review") would be definitely bad for students.

After all, if we assume that the announced "refinements" to the Q were the CUE's best effort "to make the Q a more accurate, sophisticated, and helpful mechanism for learning about and choosing courses", then it follows that announcing the changes in mid-May is a great way to push through this helpful change, even over the inevitable protests of (midguided) students (who don't know what's really in their own interests). The naive utilitarian in me gives hypothetical-good-faith!Harris two thumbs up.

But wait. What sort of academic institution doesn't trust its students enough to give them the chance to voice their opinions? As Ore Babarinsa commented:

"If they think so little of us, they should have never admitted us in the beginning."

And it's definitely worth noting that by holding onto the information until after students were required to leave campus, Harris's (un)timely announcement prevented several hundred dinner-table conversations, a handful of student editorials in the Crimson (both for and against), and -- perhaps most importantly -- several dozen conversations that crossed the lines of student/faculty/administrator.

After all, while I can talk to my fellow students on Facebook, I've got a much harder time casually picking the brains of (former Dean of Students) Harry Lewis, (former Dean of Students) Benedict Gross, (Co-Master of Eliot House) Doug Melton, or (professor of one of the hardest CS courses at Harvard) Margo Seltzer.

In any case, the downside of waiting this long is huge -- even if Harvard's students are literally incapable of producing a single idea worthy of discussion -- Dean Harris missed a great chance to let students be gently shown the error of their ways in reasoned discussion with the adults around them, rather than stewing in discontent for a summer, and returning to campus even more disillusioned that there are reasonable educational institutions in the twenty-first century.

And for what? Out of a genuine fear that student protest would somehow pose a threat to venerable (yet apparently frail) Harvard?

This, I think, is the second half of the administration's fatally misguided view of its students. First, it fails to realize that students often have useful insight to lend, especially on issues tied so closely to their educational experiences at this University. And second, it treats their discontent, not as beneficial shocks to a living, antifragile community of scholarship, but rather as cracks in the perfect (and therefore very fragile) aegis of VERITAS.

This is not a scholastic Harvard -- it is a corporation capitalizing on its name to lure students into paying its exorbitant bills.

This is not a living Harvard, but an institution already morally dead.

This line of reasoning assumes that Dean Harris (and the CUE as a body) is truly trying his best to do what's best for students, and merely failing. Given its repugnant conclusion, I'd honestly prefer to think that he and the CUE believe themselves to be removed administrators, not thinking so little of us -- not thinking of us at all. Mere bureaucrats can be ignored by those who actually care.

It's kinder to believe that my school has an academic soul -- in the likes of the faculty I've mentioned -- Lewis, Gross, Seltzer, Melton, and others I've known along the way -- Malan, Georgi, Vendler, Morin, McMullen -- that is yet unsullied by this administrative rigor mortis.

I prefer a Harvard of academics ignored by an unacademic administration to a Harvard that speaks with one true voice, and speaks against what seekers of knowledge would hold dear.