Friday, February 05, 2010

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

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?

31 comments:

Anonymous said...

I totally agree, but have one small caveat. I once took an English class in undergrad which started with six students, but only four attended regularly. Two were very earnest and smiled eagerly and were English majors, but never talked. The third didn't even bother to smile eagerly. That left me and the professor. It was intense and I still remember a lot of the Shakespeare and the Aphra Behn we read that semester, but it was also a big burden to be the only person in the class who cared. Of course, I'm one of those crazy students who remembers quite a bit from her undergrad days (which is why I'm in grad school and also why it's been hard for me to learn to teach the majority of students who don't bring my natural enthusiasm).

Anonymous said...

At Oxford and Cambridge Universities in the U.K., the normal teaching ratio is one to one in weekly tutorials. Most Fellows of Colleges teach tent to twelve undergraduates weekly each term. (There are lectures provided by the faculties and, on some courses, seminars as well). But this is a much more intense teaching and learning experience than those used in the U.S.A.

Adam Arenson said...

Thanks for making the connection between care for student writing and small classes. I recall my undergraduate tutorials, with a five-page paper due every week -- that was quite an education, and keeping the writing gear on constantly improved my output.

With my own students, I often try the one-page-reaction-before class approach -- enough to prime the pump for discussion and short enough to digest quickly. (I also have pre-class paragraphs for my lecture classes.) A page is still long enough for errors in argument or punctuation to appear, and hence a chance to start the discussion about improving writing.

Jonathan Dresner said...

I shouldn't play the "but I was different" card too many times: argument by anecdote drives me a little buggy, honestly. But I had hardly any classes smaller than 20 as an undergraduate, and the only time I got remotely detailed feedback on papers was in English.

More to the point, the emphasis on writing skills is almost as Fordist as the drive for automated education "products". The best research I've seen suggests that it's quantity, not feedback, which improves writing. It's the student's attention, not the teacher's, which is the independent variable.

What small, intimate settings could do, perhaps, more effectively is teach thinking and some social responsibility.

On the other hand.... level of preparation matters. One of the reasons I have relatively little discussion in my World History surveys is that my students just don't know very much. While some discussion exercises can be effective at teaching certain skills, it's just not going to add very much to their knowledge base or disciplinary acumen if they spend class time interacting with people who are equally unprepared, nor is it likely that more individual attention from me would actually improve their retention and mastery of this material.

Historiann said...

But, Tenured Radical: we already know that smaller classes work. How can we possibly create a new Assistant Vice Provost of Learning Outcomes and pay hir $160,000 a year and give her 4 staff members and a budget of $800,000 a year to implement hir fabulous, innovative ideas on the basis of time-tested wisdom like that? What you need to do at Zenith is demonstrate conclusively that clickers, or iPhone apps, or some other gadget-of-the-moment will make it possible to give 100 students the same educational benefit that a seminar for 6, or 8, or 10, would give them. That's how you make your career as an administrator, TR--pushing half-baked ideas and collecting dough for creating a new "Center for Teaching Excellence," not by doing what actually works.

Duh!

And I kind of agree with the first Anonymous. 6 can sometimes feel too small, but it sounds like your seminar is going fabulously. I hope your students can keep up that level of engagement! Good luck, and enjoy.

JoVE said...

I really want to agree. But I have had one student who patently did not learn in small classes. In fact, she found they so anxiety producing that she didn't attend, which isn't going to lead to any learning.

For her, the thought of being in a room with a small group of strangers was terrifying. And the concern that she might be required to contribute even moreso.

In a larger group she could remain anonymous and participate at her own rate. And her anxiety was reduced so she could actually take in what was said.

While small classes are valuable and should be valued, we need to be careful not to assume that there is ONE right way to teach well.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Giving students weekly 1000 word expositive essay assignments should be happening in high school. High school english teachers have no research duties and can devote the time and effort to do this better than university professors.

And I have no evidence for this, but I have a suspicion that human brain development is such that students can really learn to write in early-mid adolescence, but by the time they are 18 years-old or so, if they haven't already learned to write, it becomes *much* more difficult to do so.

Anonymous said...

FYI: I'm their high school teacher and in my class, there are 35 of them at at time. How can I prepare them properly for you? Can we have some solidarity here?

Dr. Crazy said...

Physioprof - you're wrong on this one. While it's true that HS teachers don't have research expectations, they do (as the commenter after you noted) have at least 35 students per class, and they typically teach 5 or 6 sections, which puts their student count per year at 150-200. Further, HS English teachers (the sort with which I'm most familiar) are expected to teach not only their content area (literature) but also writing, grammar, and vocabulary. It is entirely unrealistic to expect that students are going to get all of the writing instruction they will ever need for the rest of their lives in that setting.

As for whether students can improve as writers after early-to-mid adolescence, I don't have research handy to back me up, but I have taught writing courses for the past 10+ years, and I teach writing in my literature courses as well. Students can "learn to write" in college, even if they come into their college experience (as most of my students do) as underprepared writers. Obviously some students remain poor writers. But learning to write well (or at least competently) in one's first language, if one can communicate in speech in that language, is not an entirely new skill (such as the acquisition of a second language) and it's entirely possible to acquire the skills that one needs after the age of 18.

TR - I did a riff off of your post over at my place. While I'm with you on the larger philosophical point of your post, I did go off in a different direction. But thanks for writing this! It gave me a way into writing about something I've wanted to write about for a while.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I'd bet good money that almost all of the *really* good writers--bloggers, novelists, humanists, scientists, business, etc--were at the tail end of the distribution of high-school writing experience. Yeah, you can learn to write competently even if you didn't write much in high school. But real quality writing, no.

Beth said...

Thanks to Dr. Crazy for noting the student load of most high school teachers--and no TAs. Add to that that many of us teach 3 "preps" and thus have 15 hours of lessons to plan each week, not to mention 25 hours of teaching time, and you start to understand why it's so hard for high school teachers to effectively teach writing. Many of us are fighting the good fight, but the notion that since we don't have research demands we have more time springs from the uninformed mind!

Doctor Pion said...

The idea that a 3:3 load is a "speedup" is amusing to some of us in academia. I have no idea how our composition faculty read and respond to the papers written by their many students, but at least we do keep composition classes below the normal cap for class sizes at our college.

Doctor Pion said...

What Historiann wrote would be funny if it weren't true. The only results I have seen from a similar program at our college has been to encourage "student centered" grading that produces failure in the next class.

Historiann said...

Doctor Pion: I reserve the right to be funny AND true.

After all: if we can't laugh at administrators and educrats, who can we laugh at? Since they get all the money, we get all the fun, I say.

Tenured Radical said...

Doctor Pion:

Welcome to Tenured Radical. And 3-3 *is* a speedup if you have been paid the same salary for teaching 2-2 and, in lieu of an annual COL increase, you are instead being offered the opportunity to teach extra classes to cover cost of living.

Chris said...

As a former-faculty-turned-teaching center-person, I'm obviously biased but I can't help but bridle at Historiann's comment, both with regard to remuneration and the ideas associated with such positions. It's certainly not the case (on either score) in our shop, and each of us is in the classroom each year, teaching in a fashion that might even pass muster with FT faculty. (I'm also reminded of TR's excellent, fair-minded post last year on resisting the temptation to instantly brand administrators as evil philistines.) More to the point of the original post, I've seen faculty lecturing to classes of six or even two -- the magic of a small class isn't a sure thing. This may reflect the fact that the large lecture remains the norm -- or that most graduate programs do little to prepare people for teaching. Institutional investment in small classes obviously signals a commitment to the quality of undergraduate education (and perhaps faculty satisfaction) -- so too might some reconfiguration of graduate programs.

Anonymous said...

As a T-T faculty member in the humanities at a fellow NESCAC school I was nodding along to this. My smaller seminar classes are invariably a better experience for my students, and for me. But our dean is putting more and more pressure on our dept. to increase the size of our lecture-classes in order to "earn" the smaller seminars. This pressure is only going to increase, given the economic situation.

One rather serious problem is that the incentive structure for schools like mine/Zenith means that I simply cannot spend my time helping students write. In order to get tenure I need to spend all of my time on research. I can't teach my way to tenure. This is too bad, and a sad commentary on how warped academia has become. So, I've decided the only way I have any chance at achieving tenure is to do the least possible teaching-wise in order to concentrate on writing the book and articles I need to keep my job. I am cheating my students now, but I hope to make it up to future students when I will finally be able to devote the time I think they deserve.

If we made all of our classes smaller then *maybe* I could provide the level of support schools like mine/Zenith claim they give to their students. As it is now, those claims are impolite fictions. But we junior faculty are working 80-90 hours/week because we all know there are *literally hundreds* of PhDs willing to do almost anything to grasp the brass ring of a T-T job. We research and write like crazy, close our office doors, avoid campus, and as a result our students aren't getting the education our institutions advertise. The system has become irreparably corrupt.

Ellie said...

I am totally on board with small classes in general--I loved them as a student myself--but my experience has been that student expectations/motivations are the real make or break ingredient, as others have suggested. At my large public university, students are accustomed to being listening passively to lectures in most fields. This is unfortunate as a structural element of the academic culture, but it's a fact. And it means that when they do get into small classes where they're expected to participate, it is a real struggle. No matter how much energy I put into creating comfortable, supportive classrooms, enthusiasm for the material, etc., many of them just don't know how to prepare or how to keep a discussion going by talking to each other. So unless you get lucky with enrollment and/or chemistry between students, small classes can be really really painful for all concerned.

Anonymous said...

At our teaching-focused state university campus, our music school is the largest and most prestigious unit of the college. Since so much of our instruction is one-on-one or very small groups (studio lessons or chamber music, for example), we hear from administrators all the time how "expensive" it is to run the music program.

In fact, based on credits generated, it would take FOUR T-T studio faculty to equal one faculty member teaching the kinds of ideal small classes you describe in this blog.

In a tight budget climate, imagine how tempting it must be for our administrators to fire all the expensive T-T studio teachers and replace with adjunct-scale instruction! This certainly would bring the costs of instruction on a per-credit basis down to par with other units on campus. The fact that they don't is a testament to our school's commitment to quality above quantity (and our faculty union probably would have something to say about it, too).

Anonymous said...

This doesn't work for everything. Teaching 6 students public speaking--which I have done--created a nice cozy atmosphere but never got the students over the main fear: speaking in front of a group of people. Sure there should be cap sizes--15-20 is ideal for public speaking and small group communication (so you have enough different groups to make projects interesting). And I enjoyed my classes of 20 more than my classes of 12, 10, 6. More of a balance of ideas and personalities.

For the record: The speed up at my former school is moving from 4:4 to 5:5, cutting out all junior faculty along the way, leaving only adjuncts and tenured faculty.

Anonymous said...

@ Anon 7:48AM: Are you at SUNY Purchase?

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