Magazine November 12, 2012, Issue

Harvard University Memorandum

TO:         Prof. Barack Obama

FROM:  Dean, Faculty of Arts & Sciences

IN RE:    Fall Semester 2013 Student Evaluations Summary

Dear Professor Obama:

Of course, everyone on the Government Department faculty is thrilled to have you with us. Your contributions to our faculty-lounge discussions have been truly edifying and awfully thorough. 

(On a side note, some of the members in the department wanted me to convey to you that perhaps you’re unaware that department coffee mugs are ideally washed and returned to the mug rack each day, by the member who has used them. In the hurly-burly of the academic year, it’s easy to overlook the fact that the department has no kitchen staff, and so each member is expected to wash his or her own mug. Also: The jar next to the coffee machine holds the cash contributions that each member is supposed to make for the coffee service — the university doesn’t provide coffee — and isn’t, as one of your colleagues overheard you say, “there for the taking.” In any event, it’s an easy mistake to make and we’re all thrilled to have you in the department!)

Your student evaluations this term were mostly positive — students seem to enjoy having you lecture on the high points and challenges of your recent administration, and none seemed too concerned that the actual subject of the class, United States constitutional history, was rarely touched on.

Many, in fact, remarked that it was one of the “very best” classes ever taught at Harvard by a “recognizable celebrity.” High praise indeed. “Better than Lawrence O’Donnell’s senior seminar,” said one. “Not quite as amazing as Brad Pitt’s lecture series on New Orleans architecture,” said another, but that’s to be expected, as Brad Pitt is a recognized authority on his subject.

According to the tabulations, you scored very high on “Has a personal connection to the material” (perhaps because you assigned your own books as required reading) and “Shows up for every class” (which was a problem during President Clinton’s stint here on the faculty).

In other areas, unfortunately, the student evaluations revealed teaching methods that perhaps need attention. Your lecture style, specifically, was cited as problematic for some students. They found your use of a lectern and microphone disconcerting, especially because you seem to have used them during “one-on-one conferences during office hours.” Here at Harvard, Mr. President — and admittedly this is probably something we should have made clear — it’s unusual for professors to use a teleprompter during meetings with students.

#page#And then there’s your focus on the four years of your administration, which we all admired, of course, but is hard to fit into a survey course on the U.S. Constitution. Perhaps next term we should think about renaming the course.

There was an almost unanimous sense that your grading policies were either hard to understand or unfair. It’s perhaps just one of those student rumors — though several students recounted the story on their confidential evaluation forms — that the student whose final paper was a pen-and-ink drawing of you, resplendent upon a throne of gold, emitting a powerful glow, received the grade of “A” — and just to reiterate department policy, we traditionally do not give out any grade higher than an “A” nor lower than an “A−” — it’s enough that dozens of your students thought it plausible. Again, some of this might be solved by renaming the course, but it’s still important for you to enforce strict academic guidelines when you grade undergraduates. Sketches, drawings, etchings, or any kind of visual expression are not currently accepted as a final essay for a department course.

While some students thought it was “cool” to have a former president teach them, others found you “removed” and “aloof” and “condescending.” Many were put off by your consistent ducking of a reasonable amount of question time, and others found it frustrating that whenever you were heard to say “Let me be clear” what followed was “anything but clear.”

And once again, to reiterate University policy: It is absolutely forbidden for any faculty member to threaten a “drone strike” upon a student, even one who arrives late to a seminar. I’m sure in context it was all in good fun, but we live in litigious times, Mr. President, and the University cannot afford to be exposed to legal action from parents, or from a traumatized undergraduate.

Finally, smoking is prohibited in all University buildings, offices, workspaces, libraries, and open areas. Please abide by that regulation, and know that counselors at Harvard University Health Services are available to guide you through an appropriate smoking-cessation program.

Of course, it goes without saying that we’re thrilled and honored to have you as part of our teaching faculty, and that even the students whose evaluations were less than enthusiastic noted that having you as a professor would be something to “dine out on” for years to come. And at Harvard, that makes it all worthwhile.

I’m available to talk about any of this at any time.

Have a terrific winter break, and I look forward to seeing you in January.

All the best,

The Dean

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