Good Concentrations Come in Small Packages

When the chairman of the Statistics Department planned last year's Christmas party, he not only invited the faculty and graduate students in the department. He also invited every undergraduate concentrator--all five of them.

Parties like that could only happen in a department with a faculty-to-concentrator ratio of more than one-to-one. Some Harvard students in larger departments might shrink at the prospect of faculty members knowing them so well and keeping track of them.

But for some, concentrating in a department with fewer than 20 undergraduates can be a sanctuary from huge lectures and impersonal professors, those traditional pitfalls of a Harvard education. Small concentrations offer students, in the words of Linguistics concentrator Theresa L. Case '86, an education "outside the mainstream of the Harvard experience." Case had never heard of linguistics before coming to Harvard, but thought "it was more enticing to choose something obscure."

Departments with fewer than two dozen students appeal to prospective concentrators for a variety of reasons--a desire for personal attention, the attraction of the exotic and the desire to learn something outside the regular. Jean L. Gee '86 chose to major in Statistics, which shares the distinction of having the fewest concentrators with the department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies, because she didn't want to be "just another Ec major." Joseph F. Rogers '86 decided to concentrate in a field new to him, Afro-American Studies, because he wanted to learn about a subject he had not been exposed to in high school.

Your Money's Worth

Beyond a doubt, the overwhelming advantage of concentrating in a small department, students say, is personal attention. Gee has found faculty members in the Statistics Department "really attentive to undergraduate needs and concerns. You definitely get more attention." Kimberly J. Brown '86, another of the five Statistics concentrators, agrees that she has "easier access to professors" than students in larger departments. "I've gotten to know all the professors in my classes on a personal level," says Case. "You're not intimidated by them. You get to ask questions."

Faculty members agree with student assessments. "The benefits are that the department knows who its concentrators are and concentrators do have direct contact with the faculty. It's a much more personal experience than people would have in other departments," says Peter J. Kempthorne, head tutor in Statistics. Students "get close to individual attention," agrees Marshall Hyatt, head tutor in Afro-American Studies. "It gives the members of the faculty the chance to get to know the individual," says Gary A. Tubb, chairman of the department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies.

Working more closely and informally with faculty members can also have its disadvantages for students. "Some people don't like to have that much of a personal relationship with their professors," says Patricio M. Nelson '87-'88, an Indian Studies concentrator. "I know people who sometimes feel that the relationship is too close."

As a result, most students know and feel at ease with all members of their department, graduate students and faculty members alike. "You feel comfortable in your department," says Statistics concentrator Gee, "You feel like it's a second home." Agrees Case: "There's interaction between all members of the department. Most people take courses in a department but don't have a sense of it as a whole. I really feel like a part of the department."

Professors agree that their greater personal contact with students makes for a more relaxed environment. "It's cozier," says Tubb. "We're small and we're friendly," agrees Karin E. Michelson, head tutor in Linguistics.

Michelson says that concentrators in Linguistics have opportunities normally reserved in other departments for graduate students. Since there's "not a sharp line between undergraduates and graduates" in her department, students "get to work with senior faculty and get to produce original work as undergraduates."

Survival of the Fittest

The concentrations tend to be self-selective, since students who choose these fields seem willing to make a strong commitments to their field. Case's opinion of her fellow concentrators is that "all the undergraduates are really into what they're doing, really fascinated by the subject."

Michelson agrees that the "stimulation" among students makes the Linguistics Department "exciting. It's hard to be lukewarm about it when others are enthusiastic."

Faculty in the small departments think that the few undergraduates they have is appropriate to their concentrations. In some cases it is the nature of the subject matter. "Statistics requires a high degree of specialization. The people who are concentrators are people who love statistics and are willing to specialize," says Kempthorne. As a result, he says, "I don't actively seek out Statistics concentrators."

Gregory Nagy, chairman of the committee on Folklore and Mythology, is intertested in "quality, not quantity" in concentrators. He is satisfied to have relatively few concentrators in Folklore and Mythology who are dedicated to the field. "We don't want to expand for expansion's sake," he says. "The kind of undergraduate concentrators we are looking for are very special people. We're ready to discourage people."

Other departments have been trying to raise their profile among undergraduates. Recently, the Afro-American Studies department has "made more of an effort to tell people what we do," says Hyatt, adding that it's "not a recruitment drive."

Expansion Mode

For many years the Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies discouraged undergraduates, according to Tubb, since the concentration was based on "rather intensive courses in Sanskrit" which are "very time-consuming. The department was afraid undergraduates wouldn't have time to do the things all undergraduates should be doing." With the establishment of a "less intensive" option in Indian Studies two years ago as part of "a deliberate effort on the part of the department to attract more concentrators" and "to be more active in undergraduate teaching," the department now has more concentrators than in the 20 previous years together.

Members of the Linguistics Department feel they must look for ways to inform students about their concentration, Michelson says, since "linguistics isn't something that people hear about in high school." To "make freshmen aware that there is a Linguistics department," faculty have worked to increase the number of their courses reviewed in the CUE Guide and to get a Linguistics course included in the Core Curriculum.

Although most say larger enrollments might justify increased funding, faculty do not feel that their departments are given less consideration than larger ones when the university appropriates resources. While "the fact that [Sanskrit is] a small program does make it more difficult to get funding," Tubb says, "the administration has been attentive to the description of our needs that we've given them." Afro-Am's Hyatt agrees that funding is plentiful for his department.

The administration has been "very supportive" of the Folklore and Mythology program, says Nagy. He attributes the university's attention to smaller concentrations to the fact that Harvard "has always had a commitment to honors programs" which "tend to be smaller in scale."

While faculty worry about funding, concentrators' greatest worries tend to be how the outside world will react when learning about their esoteric fields of study. Indian Studies concentrator Nelson finds that "usually people are surprised, pleasantly surprised most of the time. They want to know what it's all about." Rogers, however, says he doesn't like having to "explain what [Afro-American Studies] is and justify why you're majoring in it."

"A typical reaction is the person doesn't know what to say," says Linguistics concentrator Case. "Or they say. `I know what that's and they're wrong."

Limited Course Selection

Despite these advantages, students cite a few drawbacks associated with small concentrations. Most notably, small departments can only offer a limited number of courses a year. Although this does not result in serious deficiencies in their programs, students say that it does restrict the scope of their studies.

"There are times you feel that there isn't that much choice in course selection. That's annoying," says Afro-Am concentrator Rogers. "There are some topics I'm interested in that there are no courses in," says Linguistics concentrator Case, but she adds that this is not a serious problem since "there are more courses in the department than I have time to take."

Professors say they cannot offer a range of courses comparable to larger departments' offerings. "[A small department] does give students a smaller pool to choose from," Sanskrit's Tubb admits. Afro-Am offers most courses on a rotating basis every three years in order to allow concentrators to fulfill their requirements, Hyatt says. "We can't offer the breadth of courses required by the needs of the college," he says. "Unless I offer new stuff every term, the concentrators are going to run out of courses to take."

Students in small departments sometimes miss the camaraderie of fellow concentrators. While most are grateful not to be "lost in the crowd," as Case put it, a lack of peer support can be challenging. "Students are more visible. You can't hide," says Michelson. "You have to be independent. Sometimes there's comfort in numbers."

"Sometimes it's kind of lonely," says Gee.

The Smallest Departments Department  Number of Students in 1984-85 East Asian Languages and Civilization  21 Folklore and Mythology  20 Physical Sciences  19 Near Eastern Languages and Civilization  18 Germanic Languages and Literature  18 Linguistics  15 Astronomy and Astrophysics  12 Statistics  4 Afro-American Studies  3 Sanskrit  0

Source: "Fields of Concentration" published for the 1985-86 academic year by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University.

The Largest Departments Department  Number of Students in 1984-85 Economics  574 Government  446 Biology  422 History  415 English and American  370 Literature and Language  270 Biochemical Sciences  247 Social Studies  243 History and Literature  221 Psychology and Social Relations  134

Source: "Fields of Concentration" published for the 1985-86 academic year by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University.