All too often, section doesn’t make the grade

It’s no great secret that news of this week’s strike by the Graduate Employees and Students Organization left many undergraduates hopeful — not because they felt any great stake in the debate over whether teaching assistants should unionize, but simply out of a hope that their sections might be canceled. Unfortunately for these students, Yale administrators say professors or other TAs will substitute for nearly every grad student on strike. But given the loathing with which some Yalies view the “1 HTBA” in their Blue Books, the University should nonetheless take a long look at why that extra session of class so often fails to reach its potential.

In principle, section seems a sensible enough part of a Yale College education. In large lecture courses, sections can offer a level of interaction otherwise impossible in a class with dozens or even hundreds of students. The best teaching assistants can explain confusing material and offer insight on how to write a quality paper or complete a challenging problem set. With the right instructor — and the right students — discussion sections can add a new dimension to classes that is truly worthwhile.

Sections can serve all these purposes, but all too often, they wind up offering undergraduates little besides a lingering sense of frustration. Students find themselves stuck with teaching assistants who are, along with their students, reading the course books for the first time; discussions amount to little more than regurgitation of facts from lectures and readings; one person monopolizes the hour with elaborate comments while others barely say anything for an entire semester. The bottom line is that too many classes — particularly introductory survey courses — offer mandatory sections that fail to justify the time students or teaching assistants put into them.

Before making section mandatory for a class, professors should be required to answer three questions: First, is there additional material that should be discussed in section but cannot be taught through lectures? Will there be teaching assistants available who have substantial familiarity with the subject and material? And finally, does the curriculum and the subject matter lend itself to a section that will add to students’ understanding of the course? For some classes, the answers to all three questions are clearly yes, but we have no doubt that many courses that currently require sections could not live up to these standards. As a result, we think many classes should follow the lead of courses in the sciences and social sciences, where section is frequently optional and attendance depends on a particular week’s workload.

In addition to considering these questions, professors who believe that smaller sessions are necessary should be encouraged to offer a better menu of options for them — for example, sections focused on specific skills and interests. And as we have noted before, students’ evaluations of teaching assistants should be made available during shopping period to allow students more choice in selecting their sections.

Students come to Yale with a genuine desire to learn, so it is telling that section can elicit such animosity. This week’s picket lines aside, that is a fact the University would be wise to address.