Administration, professors faced with overcrowded classes, limited resources

To some students the 11:1 student to faculty ratio here at Williams probably seems like an unrealistic figure. Many have already received email messages or letters telling them they have been cut from a class for which they preregistered. Others who have heard nothing may get all their classes but wind up in a section of 50 people or more.

In light of Williams’ reputation as an intimate, personal learning environment these sort of problems seem out of place. Faculty members of heavily enrolled departments are unhappy when they have to choose between turning students away or teaching a course larger than they would prefer.

Popular departments like psychology and economics, in an attempt to alleviate the situation, put forth proposals to the administration this fall asking for more faculty to accommodate increased student interest.

Though heavy enrollment is not a new problem for either department, both were turned down because the College is not hiring this year for a variety of reasons. Faculty members of these departments and others elaborated on the problem of overenrollment.

Dean of the Faculty David Smith, said part of the problem is that, “We have very heavy clustering in some departments. This clustering means that there is an uneven distribution of students across the various available classes where some less popular classes have very few students and more popular classes end up with overwhelming numbers. Both the psychology and economics departments are very popular and as a result very overcrowded.

Psychology Professor Saul Kassin said overenrollment is a chronic problem which the psychology department has lived with for many years. He said the Psychology Department has tried without success to get more faculty hired.

Dean Smith said he does not think that increasing the size of the department’s faculty would necessarily solve the problem. “When we hire, we hire enthusiastic people. It is very possible that an increase in psychology faculty could increase interest even further,” he said. Despite this possibility the professors who are forced to teach large courses or turn students away feel it is “tough on the professors and tough on the students.”

The economics department similarly is teaching more students than they have in the past, Chairperson Catherine Hill said. Records kept by the Registrar show that enrollment in economics classes has nearly doubled in the past ten years. In an effort to free up resources so that upper level classes are kept small, the introductory courses in economics this year have 45-50 people in them. Hill said the introductory courses are larger than they have been since she has been at Williams. Although the reallocation of resources within her own department is workable, Hill said, “It seems a little unfair that students have some tiny classes while others are huge.”

Though Dean Smith acknowledges that the professors in these and other overenrolled departments have legitimate complaints, he said there is little he can do at this point. He said the College increased faculty by a few Full Time Equivalencies (FTEs)-faculty members who teach five classes-a few years ago. “We added on some new areas like archeology, health psychology and Jewish studies,” he said.

Since that time, however, the College has not been in a growth mode. The Williams faculty presently consists of 175 FTE. In the allocation of resources decided each fall, this number is the bottom line. When every department wants more resources it is very difficult to decide who should get what, Smith said. In essence, explained Smith, an increase in one area has to be offset by a decrease somewhere else.

Hill said she is very sympathetic to the Dean of the Faculty because she is aware of the constraints on financial resources.

Another constraint with which Dean Smith must contend is caution. Before the College will hire someone to a tenure position they want to make sure that the need for more faculty is sustained. “We have to look at patterns over long periods of time not just two or three years,” Smith said. If an increase in interest in a department turned out to be just a blip on the screen, “we could end up with departments that would be greatly overstaffed.”

Smith said the most obvious solution to the problem of maldistribution would be “to have vigorous capping of courses, to set maximum standards, like most colleges do.”

While this solution would even out the 11:1 ratio, it is not likely to occur across departments anytime soon. Professor Kassin said he would feel too bad doing that to students. “I think others in the department would too,” he said.

Hill agreed, saying, “I don’t like the idea of capping. It makes me uncomfortable to think a student wants to take a class and won’t be able to get in. The economics department is just not very comfortable excluding students,”

Many departments, especially in Division Three, accept large classes as a matter of course. The Chairman of the Chemistry Department John Thoman, said although the introductory classes are quite large, class size is not a problem. “Our professors still make an effort to know every student’s name.” he said.

The biology department also said it is in pretty good shape in terms of class size. Its biggest class is Genetics, which has over 100 people in it. A senior taking the class said the size is not a problem since it is strictly a lecture course. “We get the one on one attention we need in lab from the professor and the teaching assistants,” he said.

The math department has one very large class too. The Statistics course, Math 143, has more than 80 people in it. The professor, Stew Johnson, said, “The math department does not like to have large classes, but I particularly loathe the idea of turning students away.”

Students asked if they would prefer a guarantee of small classes over a guarantee of entry into the courses of their choice, tended to agree that it depends upon the type of course.

“I think its important to let students in rather than to put a cap on introductory courses like Biology 101, but in upper level classes, I think capping is a necessary evil,” Andrea Pyatt ’00 said. “I took an upper level sociology class which was supposed to be a seminar and there were not enough seats in the room. I thought that was ridiculous.”

Senior Dan Bullock expressed similar sentiments. He said, “Although I did get dropped from a history course, I think they have to cap [seminars] so discussion, which is an integral part of these classes, is kept intact.”

The burden of deciding whether a class should be small or large is left entirely up to each individual professor.

In effect, when courses are overenrolled, a professor must decide if he or she wants to risk lowering the quality of the course to avoid disappointing and delaying interested students. Kassin said, “I don’t think its fair that we are put in this position.”

Dean Smith pointed out that, “Everyone should recognize from the outset that this situation involves tradeoffs.”

Though the staffing allocations for next year are done and the size of the faculty will remain the same for all department, Smith said, “We’ll reconsider next fall.” He said, “Its not that we’re withholding resources we could be giving to somebody. We have done our best to give resources where they are needed. We are at the point where we have to wait and see.”

As students face a semester in which the psychology department will teach three classes of over 100 people, it remains to be seen if students will be hurt by the tradeoffs of overcrowded departments.

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