Meet Me Halfway

Stuart Shieber '81
Welch Professor of Computer Science
Harvard College Professor

January 26, 2004

There is a popular conception that at Harvard College students are taught by graduate students and never interact with faculty. Perhaps you were offered this view when you were choosing colleges (or perhaps, given that you decided to attend, you weren't). Students often express their interest in more, and more interesting, interaction with faculty members. When I served on the Committee on Undergraduate Education a few years ago, the student members of the committee even went so far as to draft an excellent letter that was sent to all faculty, under the auspices of the CUE, providing ideas about how we might interact more with students.

When this topic comes up, many of the faculty here, including myself, are reminded of the following old joke:

A deeply religious man, whom I will call Dave, finds himself in dire financial trouble. He prays earnestly to his God to help him out of his predicament. "God, I'm about to lose my car. Please help me. Let me win the lottery." Lottery night comes, but sadly, Dave is not the winner.

Things go from bad to worse. Without a car to get to work, Dave loses his job. Without a job, his mortgage is foreclosed on, and he loses his home. Without a home, his wife leaves him, taking the kids. After each horrible step in the mounting crisis, he pleads with God to let him win the lottery, but he never does.

Finally, broke, hungry, living on the street, he tries again. "God, please, my life is a wreck. I have no car, no home, no family. Please let me win the lottery just this once so that I can turn my life around. I beseech you."

Suddenly, a flash of light rends the sky, and the voice of God echoes down from the heavens. "Dave, meet me halfway. Buy a ticket."

Many faculty, like God, wish that the students would meet us halfway. If you want interaction with faculty, take the opportunities when they are offered. Most faculty offer regular office hours. Visit them. You could, for instance, come to your adviser's office hours other than on study card day. You could visit a professor of one of your courses even when you don't need an extension. You can visit office hours even though you have no pressing bureaucratic issues, but just want to discuss something you think the faculty member might be interested in. I don't necessarily mean current results in his or her field. What about politics, music, why advising at Harvard is so bad and what can be done about it? (I hold two hours of office hours a week. I used to teach a course of some 300 students. In a typical week, the number of students in that class of 300 availing themselves of my office hours would be zero.) You could invite a faculty member to lunch at your house if you'd prefer to meet on neutral territory. (It won't even cost you or your adviser anything.) When a Harvard faculty member makes an attempt at interaction, like coming to your house for lunch and sitting with you, you can act like you appreciate the gesture. (I eat occasionally at Lowell House and at Annenberg, where I plop myself down at random tables. About half the time, I get into very stimulating discussions with whomever I join. The other half of the time, I get a mystified look and the cold shoulder. Others with thinner skins might give up on the efforts after such treatment.)

Most Harvard faculty members actually like talking with students -- that's why we became professors -- and will happily do so when the opportunity comes up. But it helps to provide the opportunity.