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A New Deal For Higher Education: Start With More Small Classes For Everyone

February 5, 2010, 2:48 pm

Because I have the advantage of a faculty fellowship at Zenith’s Center for the Humanities this semester, I teach only on Thursday. All Thursday morning I prepare for class; all Thursday afternoon I teach it. It’s very tidy, and also very satisfying. Because of my blogging ethic I can’t tell you what happens during class, but I can tell you I like our meetings immensely. I can also tell you that I have fewer than ten students enrolled. To be honest, there are six.

But wait — you will say: fewer than ten students? Have you become unpopular? Does your dean know? How is that a good use of the university’s money?

Well, the truth is, normally my classes are overenrolled, so I consider this to be some kind of cosmic payback for years of overwork in the classroom and elsewhere. For a variety of reasons, plenty of my colleagues teach fewer than ten students per class all the time; this is an uncomfortable fact in an economic climate where teaching more, more, more is being subtly but persistently urged on all of us. At Zenith, open up what we call the “curriculum tools” to work on your course descriptions for next year and you will find that seminars and colloquia that were always capped at 15 have been bumped up to 17 or even 19 by some anonymous person (happily, you can just lower these numbers again and hit “save.”) Nineteen, as everyone knows, is the magic number, since in its annual rankings the U.S. News and World Report uses classes under 20 students as part of the algorithm that moves a school up – or down. Lecture classes that are in high demand (translate: their parents call the provost when they are shut out of a class) are also expanding. Surveys and introductions to the field that have, in the past, been capped at 40 have been bumped up to 45 or 50 by the same invisible hand. And two or three times a semester, our faculty is offered the opportunity to teach a fifth, perhaps a sixth course, at the same wages we pay adjuncts: there is a small M.A. program in liberal studies, there is the new summer school for undergraduates that is intended to offer an intimate learning experience and stop the budgetary bleeding, and there is a special pot of money that would increase offerings of small classes in the curriculum.

Put aside the question of whether an optional 3-2, or 3-3, or 2-1-2, counts as speed-up during a time when there are thousands of jobless Ph.D.’s dying for work. Try, if you can, to ignore the pensions that have tanked, and the flat-lined faculty salaries that have made colleagues everywhere desperate for additional income to keep up with the financial responsibilities they have. There is something positive to pay attention to here. In its own, oblique way, Zenith is recognizing something that real educators — as opposed to people who make policy about education and have never taught, or legislators who see education budgets as low-hanging fruit — have always known: small classes are better, and there should be more of them. Discussions, in which the teacher can both model and encourage critical thought, are better venues for learning than lectures.

Why do we teach large classes if we know students learn better in small classes? Because, given the economic and pedagogical philosophies that govern education now, we must teach large classes. They allow us to standardize part of our curriculum. Large classes make it possible to require gateways and foundation courses that, in turn, permit us to control the size of a given major through a minimum grade or aggregate grade (not to mention congratulate ourselves for “having standards.”) Large classes are economical: we process more students with fewer faculty, and often those faculty can be extraordinarily ill-paid and inexperienced but still do the job. For example, any graduate student who has passed her comps can teach the United States history survey. Perhaps it won’t be a transcendent experience, as it would have been with the late Howard Zinn, but if the point is content delivery and a level of energy that will keep a room full of teenagers engaged, graduate students can do it as well or better than your average mid-career history prof.

But why, you might ask, is a small class better intellectually? And what counts as a small class?

The second question is an important predicate to the first. A seminar of 19, or even 15, is a small-er class, but it doesn’t count as a small class nor does it count as an intimate learning experience except by comparison to fifty or eighty minutes spent in a lecture room with 99 other people. But what possibilities does a class of 10 or fewer students open up? Let’s take student writing, something most faculty claim they care about, and which is the object of large annual budget appropriations to help students do it well. Whether writing centers actually accomplish this task is hard to know, but they have not changed one thing we do know: that the average 4-5 page essay, of which somewhere between two and four will be assigned for each class, is currently a drag to assign, a drag to write, and a drag to read. Students either learn to churn them out or they don’t, and if they don’t, it becomes a terrible emotional burden for them as well as an imagined learning disability that affects the pleasure they might otherwise take in learning.

How about those of us who read these essays that are often the academic equivalent of forced labor? Everyone who views teaching students to write as a professional commitment (which isn’t everyone, as we know) is aware that it takes a minimum of 30 minutes — and often more like 45 minutes — to read, think about and make intelligent comments on each paper. For a class of 15, this means somewhere between 8 and 12 hours, minimum, will be spent on a set of papers to give students even the minimal feedback they deserve for their thoughts. Hence, grading those papers becomes a full-time occupation for between one and two working days.

And for what? So that students can receive a grade at the end of the course. Ask your students how many of them enjoy their writing; imagine writing as something they might do for a living; or if they can recall a college paper they have written that was a real learning experience. And ask your students how many of their teachers, perhaps as a way to get off what they view as a hamster wheel of evaluating papers that no one wanted to write in the first place, return their papers with a letter grade and a one-line comment that is nice, rude or indifferent.

Talk about alienated labor. And yet, there is a solution to this problem: an increase in small classes that is not part of a general plan of university speed-up. Fewer students per faculty member could lead to more, and better, attention to each student by intellectuals who are freed up to be truly interested in what students bring to the table as people, as opposed to how students can be more efficiently processed.

The professor who had ten or fewer students might be encouraged to take student writing seriously if s/he actually had time be interested in it, and time to know the students well enough to care what they think. When you see ten students in office hours, rather than twenty, you can teach each student where s/he is, rather than where the curricular matrix dictates s/he should be. When you receive ten papers rather than twenty, you could actually read, think about and respond to each one — rather than grade them, hand them back and move on. You could assign enough writing to
help a student develop a set of thoughts consistently over the course of the semester that were uniquely tuned to that student’s interests. Students might be encouraged to enjoy, and invest in, their writing more if they truly believed that it was part of a more intimate learning experience rather than merely a vehicle for assigning a grade.

Of course, the truth is that students really want to talk to us and talk to each other. The smaller the class, the more fully engaged and spontaneous class discussions can be and the less likely it is that the room will be taken over by a minority of learners who have the confidence to dominate, and silence, a room full of people. In a seminar of ten or fewer students everyone gets to speak, and better yet, will develop the interest in others that will facilitate respectful, engaged exchanges among people who disagree. The professor, in turn, will have a better opportunity to notice, accommodate and use to advantage the differences in learning styles and intellectual interests that make each student unique.

A commitment to smaller classes could transform higher education, not just by creating a better classroom experience for learners and teachers, but because it would require an enhanced commitment to the hiring of more faculty rather than more technicians, tutors and administrators to cope with the problems and dissatisfactions that large, alienating classes produce. There are many reasons why the job market is glutted with well-educated Ph.D.’s who are dying to teach, but one of them is that over time our tolerance for large classes has grown dramatically over time, even at elite liberal arts colleges that have the resources to do better. Currently, colleges want to have it all: they want the option of growing class sizes even further and lay claim to a spirit of innovation that promises individual attention to each of 19 — no, 25 — no, 50 — no 150 — students. That individual attention is often actually delivered, not by faculty, but by tutors, math centers, writing centers, teaching assistants, learning centers, computing centers, academic deans — many of which come at a significant cost, in personnel, in new buildings, and in an ongoing commitment to maintaining infrastructure and technology.

Why not just make a commitment to funding small classes?

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