Political Science profs discuss class size with CC

Professors Cathy Johnson and James McAllister of the political science department came to the College Council (CC) meeting last Wednesday to discuss issues raised by Max Weinstein ’00, a member of the Committee on Educational Policy (CEP). Two weeks earlier at a CC meeting, Weinstein stated that the political science department was not cooperating with the CEP in trying to provide more information about class size.

Johnson, who is also the chair of the political science department, began her comments by stating that her department plans on cooperating fully with a recently implemented CEP proposal to provide information about class format, expected class size and maximum class size with each course description. In the course catalog, however, Johnson explained that she still did not think the measure was particularly productive.

Johnson explained that two issues were at hand in the discussion. The first was the CEP request for information about which Weinstein had spoken.

Weinstein had argued a commonly advocated CC position that seminar classes should be capped to facilitate discussion and lecture classes should not be capped so that other class-size ratios would be lowered. Weinstein described the CEP initiative as a way to provide more information to students in order to help them distinguish between seminar and lecture classes. Weinstein argued that the political science department did not cap very many classes and referred to many of its classes as “lecture/discussion,” which did not help mark the distinction.

Johnson responded to two of Weinstein’s allegations, claiming that “it is not true that we don’t cap classes, and it’s not true that we label all of our classes lecture/discussion.” Johnson said that this semester there are five senior seminar classes and two first-year seminars with limited enrollments and explained that most 200-level political science courses are “lecture/discussion” classes. “Sometimes a professor wants to have a discussion, but no student will talk, and sometimes the professor wants to lecture, and it turns into a discussion, so the classes really are lecture/discussion,” she said.

According to Johnson, the real dilemma is that the information requested by the CEP is not useful. “Predicting enrollment is something like predicting the weather,” Johnson said becuase of the especially large size of the department. She added that events in the world outside of Williams often influence the department’s enrollment.

It will be easy to come up with numbers, Johnson said, “but information is not necessarily good because it is a number.”

The second issue that Johnson wanted to address concerned the size of her department. She said that each political science professor is expected by the college to teach 100-125 students in an average of five classes per year, which means that large classes will exist in some parts of the curriculum.

Johnson said that the political science department seeks to keep its large classes early in its program so that upper-level classes can be kept smaller. She told CC that there is only one 300-level political science class with over 20 students currently enrolled.

McAllister, a professor who is particularly popular with students, offered his take on the subject. “A lot of departments shirk their responsibility,” he said arguing that some departments seek to keep their enrollments artificially low.

According to McAllister, political science professors are not the “bad guys” for allowing students to take their classes. Instead, they end up picking up students that get dropped from other departments.

Before answering questions from CC members, Johnson offered her solution to the problem by telling students that they should contact individual professors when registering for classes if they are worried about class size. With this system faculty members would better be able to predict class size.

Once the floor was open, Shenil Saya ’02 asked why the department did not combine two large lecture class sections into one huge lecture to free up resources. Johnson responded that in terms of professors’ workloads, preparing two classes is often more time-consuming than preparing two sections for one class.

Also during open time, Mayo Shattuck ’03 questioned the assumption that smaller classes are better.

Elizabeth Moulton ’02 asked how many capped 300-level courses are offered by the department. Johnson responded that there were five in the fall and nine in the spring, each with a target size of 25.

Johnson concluded her visit by saying that while her department will follow the new guidelines for the 2001-2002 course catalog, the class size estimates will probably be merely guesses.

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