Psychological Disorders, a 200-level psychology class taught this semester by Gregory Buchanan, Visiting Professor of Psychology, is the largest class in Williams history, with an enrollment of 284 students.
The number of students in the class has increased by over 100 since the spring of 1998, the last time it was taught. Before that, enrollment was typically only around 90.
Buchanan’s reputation and a general increase in student interest in the topic have contributed to the class’s popularity.
“Professor Buchanan has a reputation as being an excellent lecturer, and it’s a great subject,” Al Goethals, Psychology Department Chair, said.
Students cite Buchanan’s teaching style as the class’s magic ingredient. “His friendliness, coupled with his captivating lectures, is the reason so many people take his class,” Alexi Evriviades ’01 said.
Buchanan himself attributes his class’s popularity to “three teaching ingredients I call E.S.P: energy, smile, personality … I try to connect with as many students as possible in as many ways as possible.”
He added, “Sometimes the professor and the students and the topic really hit it off. I think that’s the case with Psych Disorders.”
Another factor contributing to the class’ popularity is that Buchanan will not be returning to Williams next year, when his visiting professorship expires. “He has built up such a reputation among the students as one of the coolest, funniest and best profs around,” Stephen Gray ’00 said. “I think people didn’t want to miss out.”
As Buchanan pointed out, the high enrollment in Psych Disorders may also be part of a larger phenomenon. “It reflects increasing enrollments across psychology, reflecting national trends, driven by economics: there are jobs out there for people with psych degrees.”
“Psychology seems to be doing very well these days,” Goethals added. “Students are very interested in it.”
Faced with such a high demand, the psychology department let Buchanan himself decide whether to cap the class’s enrollment. Although initially Buchanan thought to cap it at 200, he changed his mind when he saw how high the demand was.
“It’s a philosophy of mine not to deny a student something that he or she wants,” Buchanan said. “You all pay the same money to go here.”
While admitting that the large size is “far from ideal,” Goethals supported Buchanan’s decision. “We realize that, at least in some classes, you lose something when a class gets too big, but you lose something else when you don’t let students take the courses they want to take … we think [the latter] is a worse problem.”
Goethals predicts that the psychology department will probably face other such dilemmas in the future. “It’s going to continue to be a problem unless there are more faculty added, student interest decreases, or we change our philosophy about capping classes.”
There is also a question of how much difference a cap actually makes when the class is as large as Psych Disorders.
“I can’t imagine that the difference between lecturing to 200 and to 270 could be that extreme,” Kelly Ishizuka ’01, a student in the class this semester, said.
Eric Hasenauer ’00, a TA for the class, also feels that the size is not a major problem. “Professor Buchanan’s lectures are clear, loud and concise. There shouldn’t be a problem with comprehension,” he said.
Hasenauer also added that, “I don’t know of another professor who is in the snack bar with more students. Perhaps they just need more chairs in Bronfman.”
The specific problem of what to do about Psych Disorders in the future has not yet been settled. First, no one can predict whether the class will remain so popular after Buchanan has left.
“It will be interesting to see how [my departure] affects the enrollment of that course,” Buchanan noted. “Will it go down? Or will the demand remain high?”
Goethals agreed. “We’ll have to wait and see. [Buchanan] is a very gifted lecturer and has that reputation among the students, but it has always been a big class and it’s a popular area, so I expect it will be very big in future years as well.”
If the enrollment continues to soar, the psychology department may attempt to correct the situation somehow. “Doing two sections would be an overload for a professor, or we would have to drop another course,” Goethals said. “Neither of those is a good option.”
The department could, however, offer the course both semesters, instead limiting it to the spring, as is currently the case.
“We would love to [offer the course both semesters], but we just don’t have enough teachers in the department right now,” Goethals said. “Maybe in a year or two we will be able to.”
Although most faculty and students at Williams are concerned about the proliferation of classes as large as Psych Disorders, most feel that the growing number of classes in the 35-50 range pose a more significant problem.
“Each year there are six, seven, eight courses that are close to or over 100,” Charles Toomajian, Registrar of the College, said. “That has been happening for a long time … but we are noticing and the students are noticing that there appear to be quite a few classes these days that are up in the 40 to 45 range … It’s a topic people are talking about.”
Buchanan expressed a similar concern. “The classes that are most difficult to teach are those between 30 and 40: they’re not large enough to be lectures, but are too large to have real discussion … I would like to see Williams be able to have more small 300-level courses.” Buchanan’s PSYC 356 last semester had an enrollment of 60.
In the meantime, Psych Disorders seems to be going extremely well despite the unprecedented size. “[Professor Buchanan] is awesome,” Ishizuka said. “And the size makes it kind of fun, in a weird sort of way. It’s incredibly social.”
Buchanan admits that the size “was a little overwhelming at first, although I have taught courses with over 200 students at large universities before.”
“It’s very cramped up front, and there are people whose vision is aimed at my waist area, which is very unpleasant. My incessant pacing needs to come under control, too… and it takes them so damn long to get in.”
To deal with the large size, Buchanan tries to tailor his lectures to his audience. “I pay a lot of attention to expressions on the faces of students. Those faces tell me what I need to be doing: am I going to slow? Too fast? Too boring?”
“After a while, you can get a sense … You can work the room.”He added, “Having an Australian accent and telling jokes about chickens also helps.”
For the most part, students have no complaints about the class. “If one-eighth of the school is taking your course,” Evriviades pointed out, “you must be doing something right.”