Large, small departments grapple with class size

Class size is a constant issue at Williams and the distribution of class size this semester highlights it once again. Class size fluctuation is tracked by the registrar and can be attributed to multiple factors: changes in the cap from year to year, professors going on leave, word of mouth about a certain class, changes in the interests of the student body and any number of other variables.

Class size is a matter that the Committee on Educational Policy (CEP) of which Charles Toomajian Jr., Registrar and associate dean for Student Services is a member addresses. “A number of incidents concerning class size have been called to our attention this semester but it is an issue that we see often,” Toomajian said. “The issue stems from the conflict between trying to accommodate students’ wishes to be in their first choice class and their wish to be in small classes.

“We could easily solve the problem a number of ways but all the solutions would create worse problems,” he continued. “For example, we could divide the number of classes offered by the student body times 4.1 (the four point one factors in the approximately 10 percent of students who take a fifth class) and cap all classes at that number. But while this approach would eliminate all large classes, it would result in a lot of students being placed in classes they are not particularly interested in.

“Alternatively, the college could hire five new profs to teach solely unpopular classes and end up with 20 sections that have five people each, which would bring the average class size right down and look great for U.S. News and World Report’s class size criteria but would be a poor allocation of college resource because very few people would actually benefit,” Toomajian said.A better solution, Toomajian proposed, is for departments to make careful decisions about class size.

“The solution will not come from manipulating numbers. It’s a curriculum issue. Departments need to decide which of their classes they want to keep small and which classes they want to run as a lecture. I think that any class that has 50 or more students may as well have 150 students. That way discussions can function as discussion classes and lectures will take as many students as want to take them. It’s not clear to me that all classes are served by being small.”

Max Weinstein ’00, a member of the CEP, concurred. “The solution lies in departments deciding how they want to allocate their resources.”

The economics department determines the class size by the class type. Chair of the department Ralph Bradburd said, “Most of our upper level classes are seminars. A seminar is not a seminar when there are more then 25 students. 15-20 would be ideal. We are more flexible with our lower level electives—the enrollment can reach 50.”

“There has been a large growth in the number of students wanting to take Economics classes over the past 15-20 years at Williams,” Bradburd noted. “Our average number of majors over the past few years has been 80 and this number has reached 100 on occasion. This puts a lot of stress on the department. Currently we cap our 101 classes at 40 but I’d like to see that number at 30.”

The geosciences department is one of the smaller departments on campus and half of its offerings this semester have fewer than 10 students. Professor Markes Johnson, Chair of the Geosciences department said, “I see the small classes as entirely positive. Students have small classes and small labs without professors having to teach many sections.”

“There is fluctuation in the class size from year to year–for example Structural Geology has eight students this year but had 23 last year– but this can be attributed to the leave patterns of professors. Because the department is so small, we don’t hire replacements for our faculty on leave so some years certain classes aren’t taught…the year the professor returns, the enrollment tends to rise,” Johnson noted.

Bradburd said, “When I first came to Williams, I taught a class with five students and it was wonderful but I think that if the students hadn’t been as involved in the subject as they were, the class could have been a failure. Small classes can be excellent but they are not necessarily so.”

This semester English 216, “Introduction to the Novel,” has an enrollment of 108. In the past five years, the enrollment has been 102, 60, 50, 35, 34 and 100. The class is currently team taught by professor of English Robert Bell and Robert G. Scott ’68 Professor of English Stephen Fix.

“The class has been taught in different formats over the years,” Fix said. “In the ’80s it was taught as a lecture with around 180 students and in the ’90s it was sometimes team-taught in smaller sections. The last two years it has been offered as a regular 200 level classes with 30-40 students. Currently the department is trying to keep its ‘gateway’ 200 level classes with fewer than 20 students and having a large lecture helps to achieve that goal.”

Fix’s co-teacher for 216, Bell said, “While I want to be at Williams so I can have small classes and get to know my students, I don’t think that sound teaching and learning can’t take place in a large lecture. I was an undergraduate at Dartmouth and some of my best classes there were large lectures which were enabling and inspiring.”

“While in a large lecture much is lost, there is the opportunity to define issues and to give examples of interpretation and analysis that are precisely worked out,” Bell continued. “In a discussion class I may not get through all the material I want. Additionally, a large lecture class ensures that a sizable amount of students will have a core experience having read Fielding, Austen and Dickens, an experience that they share with their teachers.”

Joshua Goldstein ’00 is enrolled in Introduction to the Novel. “The class was advertised as a lecture,” he noted. “So I knew it would be large. I had heard fantastic things about these professors and the lecture format was appealing because I wanted to hear what they had to say about these books. I know a lot of the students in the class and feel like I can discuss the material with them outside of class. I don’t feel as if size is a problem at all.”

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