College needs to confront class size problems

I did a bad, bad thing last Tuesday. I slept through class.

I set my alarm for 9 a.m. I woke up. I moaned. I turned my alarm off and went back to sleep. I set my second alarm for 9:30. I woke up. I groaned. I turned my alarm off. Then I considered whether or not to wake up.

An inner struggle erupted, a struggle every student faces: can I gather up enough energy to get off this comfortable mattress, out of these nice warm sheets and into the bitter cold of morning, or not? Normally, the answer is a quick “yes” and a dash to the shower and breakfast. However, every Tuesday and Thursday, the mattress/sheets side of the argument seems very, very tempting.

My first class meets at a reasonable 10 a.m. for an equally reasonable hour and 15 minutes. My professor is amazing: he wrote the book, he shows Seinfeld, heck, he’s even my academic advisor. Great guy. Great teacher. Made Psychology 101 bearable for me. Convinced me I wanted to take Psych 242 this semester.

However, last Tuesday I just couldn’t get up. I went back to sleep! Why?

Class size.

Too many students in the class: 230-ish. I was not going to be missed, and I wouldn’t miss the possibility of asking a question. My mind would not be forced into a self-contained debate about different experimental results or what one result means. It couldn’t. 230 of these debates cannot happen all at once in one room. They can happen in rooms of ten, rooms of 20 or, with special professors, even rooms of 50. But with over 100 students it’s impossible to pose questions and create dilemmas without creating so much debate (or so little as explained by social psychology) that the underlying facts and fundamental arguments are lost in the cacophony (or lack thereof).

A larger class is lose-lose, except for efficiency’s sake. Efficiency: a term from my Economics 101 class with 30 students and five sections. Much more reasonable, with an opportunity to hash out problems and pose questions, even though I do not take advantage of that opportunity very often.

Isn’t that part of the reason we come to Williams? We all see those wonderful statistics claiming that only five to eight percent of the classes here have over 50 students (a devious statistical manipulation I learned about in statistics class with 50 other students and a weekly lab of roughly 15) and assume that we will miss most of those horrible lecture classes everyone moans about in the big state schools and universities.

Only at schools such as Williams, the innocent pre-frosh naively assumes, can I escape a professor I never speak to, a class I can easily skip and wasteful multiple-choice tests that don’t examine anything beyond memorization. That is the essence of a liberal arts education.

Most of the time, we get that liberal arts education. Recently, front-page articles in the Record have shown that sometimes Williams students do not. Last week’s election for the student position on the committee on priorities and resources indicates that class size is not yet a large issue in student’s minds. The winner won on a platform of weight room, other funding and, most importantly, a better weight room. Class size was given lip service by only one of the three candidates in their nominations.

The weight room is not why students choose Williams (and, in the shape it is in right now, we should be glad it isn’t); academics are. Williams has a huge endowment, and equally huge classes. That contradiction needs to be remedied.

At best, Williams could hire more professors to lower class size and create the debate and discussion that foments the best in its students. If not that, more classes could implement discussion sessions/laboratories with the professor to create an artificially smaller class. At least, if nothing happens, I’ll be able to sleep my recommended daily nine hours more often.

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