Williams’ historical mission must figure into teaching load discussion

There has been a trend in academe in recent years for professors to spend fewer and fewer hours in the classroom teaching. President Schapiro’s comments at Wednesday’s faculty meeting on considering a teaching load reduction show that in all likelihood Williams will continue to follow this movement.

Before considering a teaching load reduction, it is important to recognize that class size is not an issue at Williams, it is the defining issue at Williams. The quality time that students spend in small classes with professors is the reason why students come to this college.

In his Induction Address as president of Williams in 1836 Mark Hopkins said of Williams, “We are to regard the mind, not as a piece of iron to be laid upon the anvil and hammered into shape, not as a block of marble in which we are to find the statue by removing the rubbish, or as a receptacle into which knowledge may be poured; but as a flame that is to be fed, as an active being that must be strengthened to think and to feel- and to dare, and to do, and to suffer.”

Each year these words are reiterated as the primary “Mission and Objective” of the College in the Williams College Bulletin. Sadly, this is increasingly not the case.

All too often Williams students show up to class only to discover that they are one of a 100 students in a lecture hall, not one of 20 at a seminar table. Too many students will tell you that they have rarely interacted with their professors outside of the classroom and would not be able to locate the offices of their professors in order to ask questions. Following a nationwide trend in academe, the gulf between professor and student continues to grow.

With the advances of technology and the democratization of information, this divide between faculty and student is even more pressing to Williams then it was in Mark Hopkins’ time. The fundamental purpose of the institution is threatened if students receive the same information in Williams classrooms as one can receive from the Global Education Network, if such a speculative venture does indeed suceed sometime in the future. It is important to recognize that we are not competing with technology, nor are we competing with information. The residential liberal arts education is an entirely different concept that must be considered on its own terms.

There is no question that more faculty members need to be hired. In order to fulfill its educational mission, Williams must offer a broader range of classes and ensure that there are enough sections to keep class sizes small. Therefore given that more classes need to be offered, the issue of a teaching load reduction is not so simple.

Williams must embrace the fact that a fair amount of the learning that occurs here takes place outside the classroom. However, because the classroom experience is integral to the product the College is selling ,Williams certainly should not ask the faculty to spend less time “teaching.”

Attaining an ideal educational environment is a goal that Williams can never fully realize, but that doesn’t mean that the questions of what it means to be a faculty member here and what it means to be a student here should not be raised. We applaud the work of the Committee on Educational Policy (CEP) for pursuing these issues and look forward to an engaging debate on the nature of a Williams education.

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