Not long after becoming president I noticed that Wesleyan did not have as many small classes as I had expected given the close relationships between faculty and students that have always existed here. I had fond memories of a class I had taken in 1977-1978 on Hegel taught by Victor Gourevitch to just myself and two other hard-working undergraduates. And at the Center for Humanities I took a number of other small classes on topics that likewise wouldn’t have won any popularity contests. I always assumed that my own experience was not untypical and that many of my classmates also took courses with few enrollees. Of course, I also had fond memories of my larger classes, such as Nat Greene’s introduction to modern European History. These survey courses were engaging and informative in different ways, and the mix of small classes with the occasional large lecture class has always seemed to me to be the way to produce an especially stimulating educational experience.
At Wesleyan today there are still many classes with somewhere between ten and 20 students. Nevertheless, given the size of the student body and the number of classes we offer each term, I would have expected the percentage of seminars to be higher. Admittedly, small classes also create frustration for students when a certain topic or professor is very popular but the teaching style is built around a restricted enrollment. If too many of these sought-after classes are small, too many students don’t get the classes they most want. Thus, if we were simply to restrict the class size of existing courses, we would create significant course access issues for students. Better to add small classes to our existing offerings. Noting that several of our professors proposed each year to offer extra classes for the program in Graduate Liberal Studies for a modest stipend, I thought I might find interest among the faculty in teaching additional, small classes. However, in my second year as president we’ve been grappling with the economic crisis, and for a time it has seemed that my ideas about adding a group of seminars and other small classes would have to wait.
Happily, we have recently received a commitment for 1 million dollars over four years to proceed what we’re calling the “Small Class Initiative”. Beginning this coming fall, we will be able to divide some of our mid-size classes into two sections (each with fewer than 20 students) and to add small seminars (around 15 students) in a variety of fields. The instructional budget for these additional courses will be on a scale similar that of our current GLSP classes. We can now offer our faculty the opportunity to teach these extra classes, which in many cases can be tied to their current research. The idea is that many of those who volunteer for this kind of teaching will do so because the small research seminar will contribute to their own ongoing projects. Depending on the level of interest and the fields of participating faculty, we may also hire visitors to complement these offerings. The result will be an increased number of small classes available to Wesleyan students.
Some have wondered whether this is an attempt to increase the required teaching load among faculty. Not at all. It is very important for faculty teaching here to have significant time and support for their research. This research time is also a great benefit to students, who get to work with teachers who are actively advancing their fields. Students learn to shape the culture of the future themselves by working with teachers doing just that in their publications and performances. Adding a few dozen small classes (many tied to the research of faculty) should complement – not detract from – the research environment on campus.
A good thing all around, I think!