First year’s courses too crowded

Williams boasts one of the lowest student-to-faculty ratios in the country at 9:1. The College prides itself on providing a more personal approach to teaching and more contact with professors than one would find at a larger school. This is part of the mantra of the liberal arts education. As an incoming freshman, I expected a sharp contrast with my previous classes in a large public high school, including more involvement in the class and with the professor.

However, my experience here has dimmed in comparison with my expectations and I’m not alone. Most of my peers are taking a majority, if not all, classes that are lecture-based. It seems to me that a lecture class with 30 students is essentially the same as a lecture class with 80 or 100 students. In each instance, the professor simply lectures and the students dutifully take their notes. The size of these classes does not heavily affect their educational value. Now, some would state that a small school is better because if the student has the motivation to schedule time with the teacher, that they will receive more personalized attention. However, at the risk of sounding stereotypical, I would contend that a Williams professor teaching a lecture of 30 students would receive more calls and appointments from students than a professor teaching a lecture of 80 students at a state school. Although this reflects the positive attributes of Williams students as motivated and outgoing, it makes freshman question why they are shelling out huge sums of cash to participate in lectures. That may not be a fair analysis, but it is some freshman’s perception none the less.

This disenchantment of freshmen at the size of their classes is a result of two factors. First, the ratio given by the College and every college book — and I’m sure we all own a few — is misleading. The number takes into consideration the many one-on-one and one-on-two tutorials which students may pursue later in their career here at Williams. These “classes” of one or two students heavily pull the student-to-teacher ratio in classes down to an unrepresentative level. Secondly, most freshmen are forced into introductory classes, which serve as gateways to the later classes in the major. For example, in order to take any interesting economics class at the 200 level, a student must first endure at least one semester of an overcrowded introductory lecture.

Students unsure about their future major are even more prone to this dilemma. For a student interested in a number of majors, it is necessary for them to take a plethora of introductory classes as to not fall behind in whichever major they decide to pursue. I am currently enrolled in introductory courses in political science, sociology and economics. Each of these classes contains a fairly large number of students. The professors in each course do their best to foster discussion in class and break the mundane lecture process, but the size of the class keeps many students from expressing their views in class or participating in class discussion. I thought that learning how to express ideas and conceptions in an educational setting was one of the main points of a liberal arts education.

There is not a simple solution to this freshman dilemma. There will always be a need for introductory courses and lecture-based classes. In fact, a mixture of lecture and seminar classes seems to be most efficient for many students. However, this heightened anticipation of having nine or fewer students in half of a student’s classes simply creates confusion. Perhaps the student-to-teacher ratio should not reflect the mean number of students in a class but of the median, which is not as affected by the skew of the tutorials. Perhaps the student-to-teacher ratio should be scratched all together; even though it is a point of pride for our institution because it raises false hopes for potential students.

As one explores the curriculum further as an upperclassman, there is no doubt that Williams provides an abundance of small discussion-based classes that are characteristic of a small liberal arts school. President Shapiro states that enhancing “the special relationship between a student and faculty member” as one of the college’s missions. This undoubtedly does take place to a high degree at our lovely school. However, perhaps Williams should place honesty over image and present prospective students with a clear impression of first-year classes. The students applying to Williams would appreciate the candor with which Williams described the courses, instead of attempting to put forth the best number possible, representative or not. This is clearly not an issue worthy of a march, but the changes suggested may prepare incoming freshman more aptly for their upcoming academic experience. Williams ought to follow the old infallible proverb: honesty is always the best policy.

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