CC responds to CEP on class size

College Council (CC) posted their response to the Committee on Educational Policy’s (CEP) “Report on Class Size at Williams” on their website last Wednesday. The report, which was written by Erin Troy ’01 after a year’s discussion in College Council’s Class Size committee, aims to keep the issue in the foreground, and to make faculty aware of student opinion.

The report cautions against placing more regulations on class selection.

“We value the freedom we have in choosing our classes and planning the education we will ultimately take away from Williams. As a result, we would like any infringement upon this freedom to be minimized in efforts to control course enrollments,” it states.

The report states its response to the issue clearly. “Our goal then is to find a balance between shaping demand and supply that will provide the best education to students. In other words, keeping classes close to their optimal enrollments (whether it be a large lecture or a small seminar), while not allowing students to feel restricted or frustrated in their academic experience.”

The response goes on to enumerate CC’s recommendations and opinions on dealing with issues of class size.

First, recognizing the need to cap classes although it is not an idea generally popular with the student body, the response requests that, as stated in the CEP report, all capping preferences be stated in the course catalogue for student consideration. The response also suggests that capping might give rise to homogeneity in classes, if only preferenced students are admitted. The response requests that a few spots be held open in each class for members of the non-preferred group.

According to Troy, Council and its sub-committee on class size wanted to insure that classes are capped in the most effective way possible. While seminar classes should be capped to allow for effective discussion, Council saw no reason to cap classes at 40, since the size of a lecture class doesn’t really matter. The response states: “We see no need to cap classes at forty. Once a class gets that big, it makes little difference whether there are forty people or 100 people. Not every class needs to be small and/or discussion oriented. It is possible for large lecture courses to provide a rigorous, fulfilling academic experience.”

“We’re trying to eliminate the middle ground that is neither a discussion class nor a lecture class,” said Troy.

According to Troy, students have been resistant to the idea of capping because although everyone wants small classes, no one wants to get cut from them.

Another issue raised by the response is that of grading standards. The CEP’s report suggests that low grading standards might make some departments more popular than others, and that raising those standards would help to more evenly distribute enrollment among departments. The College Council response warns against assuming that there is a correlation between high enrollment and low grading standards:

“We are very wary of asking overcrowded departments to increase their grading standards. There is a multiplicity of factors that make a department popular, only one of which is grading practices. In addition, such a suggestion should not be made without compiling data on the grading practices of all departments and concretely establishing the correlation between enrollment and grading practices.”

Troy explained that College Council hopes to create a committee much like the Committee on Educational CEP problem,” she said. “There are different problems in every department.

The response also acknowledges the difficulty of acquiring new faculty, and realizes that this is not plausible as an effective solution to the problem of class size.

One solution suggested in the response is that smaller departments offer courses, which would appeal to a wider range of students. The response uses language departments as an example:

Another proposal the report made was for the College to offer more “Post-Doctoral Fellowships” so that overenrolled departments could hire more professors on a short-term basis.

College Council also recommended that Williams alums be given preference for such fellowships “in hopes they would better understand the expectations and abilities of students.”

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