No easy answers to class size problem

Last September, the Record ran an editorial entitled “Too Many Students on the Log.” The editorial spoke to the fact that class size ought to be reduced. Last week, in an article about College Council, the co-presidents and secretary said they thought that the matter was important and wanted to tell the administration that the CC stood on the side of smaller classes.

We at the Record encourage the College to consider all the long-term implications of shifts in class size. Certainly, not every class needs to be limited to 10 students and a professor. Some classes are well-suited to a lecture format. But the College needs to look at how many professors are not able to teach effectively and how many students are not able to learn effectively because of large classes, while also considering the broader departmental implications of reducing some class sizes. As members of the administration rightly point out, there is a cost associated with all such moves.

Dean of the Faculty D.L. Smith noted that while there is the possibility of “trade offs” of professors between departments, the College has fundamental objections to such practices because of the need to maintain a diversity of departments at a continuous level of excellence.

Dean Smith said, “We don’t feel that departments should be controlled by market factors. Student preferences change over time, and we think it’s important to guarantee continuity.”

Chair of the Committee on Educational Policy Michael Brown added that changing class size is “not like selling shoes at Wal-Mart. You don’t respond to demand alone.”

We at the Record agree. It would be wrong to take professorial positions away from departments that are not as heavily populated as others — especially if that were to mean the elimination of a major. On the other hand there is a problem when some professors and students feel that large class sizes limit a teacher’s effectivenss. Professor of Economics Catharine Hill said, “I think we’re teaching some courses at a size that’s not optimal. I think the faculty find larger classes harder to reach effectively.”

It is clear that some classes could significantly benefit from a reduced class size. But it is not enough simply to insist on such a reduction. Few students probably consider that smaller classes could potentialy lead to a situation where specific majors need to be cut. We encourage the College to begin to develop a long-term strategy which would preserve the academic diversity of Williams while also working to prevent further growth in class sizes.

Members of the Committee on Educational Policy, the Committee on Undergraduate Life and the Committee on Appointments and Promotions are beginning to look for answers. We hope that these committees and the administration will include the campus at large in a dialogue on all the benefits and all of the implications of the class size issue. It is not enough simply to identify the problem and to focus on only one side of the issue.

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