Pick Your Poison
Sure there are small classes. But you can't get in. And then there are the big classes. Bring your binoculars.
The headline-grabbing, scholarly-moving-and-shaking tenured professors were back in action this week, lecturing to the masses in Sanders Theater.
And while the registrar's computer counted the numbers of undergrads enrolled in Social Analysis 10, "The Principles of Economics," and General Education 105, "The Literature of Social Reflection," other profs and teaching fellows were opening the doors to the seminar rooms of Sever and Emerson Halls.
Harvard, which employs as teachers both green young grad students and tenured professors with a lifetime's experience, continues to offer a wide array of courses.
And courses with a wide array of sizes--Feldstein's Ec 10 topped the crowd of popular courses by drawing 743 students this term, while seminars and tutorials range from one to 12 students.
And although the University's selection of courses wins its fair share of praise (from, among others, the list-happy folks at U.S. News and World Report) not every student is pleased with the size of its classes.
Nor is every professor.
"We are running out of resources," Bigelow Professor of Ichthyology Karel F. Liem said this week. Liem teaches Biological Sciences 2, which grew dramatically this year--one of a number of science courses with rapidly increasing enrollment.
Biology 2 drew 396 students this term, up 106 from last year. Chemistry 10 has 342 students enrolled, and Chemistry 5 has 396.
But science courses, which are restricted to the Science Center, have never attained the legendary status of the lectures in the 1200-person capacity Sanders Theater, where Ec 10, Gen. Ed. 105, and Literature and Arts C-14, "The Concept of the Hero in Greek Civilization" are taught.
These are the offerings that consistently top the list of popular courses. But they are also the first to be cited by students complaining of nosebleed seating and "Sanders sickness."
They are the "binocular" classes.
They are also the courses most passionately defended by the faculty that organize them.
By offering students lectures by world-class faculty and individual attention by highly-trained grad students, Ec 10--an introductory economics course--has achieved the best of both worlds, says Douglas W. Elmendorf, an assistant professor and head teaching fellow for the course.
"It would be very hard to teach the principles of economics in large lectures," Elmendorf says. "But we don't. That's what sections are for and the combination works very well."
Elmendorf stresses the intensive training that teaching assistants for Ec 10 undergo. The coursehead of Gen. Ed. 105 also sung the praises of his cast of teachers, which include "novelists and photojournalists...residents at the Medical School and a labor organizer."
Although the large lectures draw a great deal of attention, most teaching at Harvard actually does go on in smaller groups, according to Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons '67.
Fitzsimmons says that, compared to the four courses last spring with enrollment over 500 (and seven more above 300), there were about 540 courses with fewer than 20 people.
Still, for all their plusses, small courses at Harvard--whether taught by grad students or Robert Coles himself--are not without their drawbacks.
Students trying to section last week for Expository Writing, a staple of the "first-year experience" taught in classes of about 12 people, found out that some sacrifice would be required to register in the section of their choice.
Pawel Dobrowolski '95, who skipped classes and breakfast to stand in line in front of the Harvard Union, found out that a little wasn't enough.
"I got there at 7 a.m., and there were already 15 people ahead of me," Dobrowolski said.
Indeed, Dobrowolski had to take his place in line behind the likes of Jonathan B. Shanker '95, who secured a spot at the beginning of the line by camping out in front of the Union the night before sectioning.
Shanker said "he had to do it."
The Freshman Seminar Program, for example, which is the crown jewel of Harvard's effort at making the College a real liberal arts school, went through the unpleasant rituals of rejecting eager first-year applicants this week.
And although the administrators of the program wouldn't release exact numbers, Gerald F. DeNault, the assistant director, said that about 400 students are turned away each year.
Coles's seminar, for example, drew 70 applicants for its 10 spots.
The seminars, important enough to the University higher-ups for Neil L. Rudenstine to declare teaching one to be among his top priorities, drew some harsh criticism from first-year students who were rejected.
Many frosh say that they had applied for more than one seminar and received spots in none.
But those turned away from frosh seminars were not the only ones facing academic rejection this semester.
Although there were surprisingly few lotteries this term, three classes did resort to booting students from their lecture halls to trim down to a maximum enrollment.
One of them, Fairbank Professor of Chinese Society James L. Watson's Foreign Cultures 62, "Chinese Family, Marriage and Kinship: A Century of Change," turned away more than 200 students.
Baird Professor of Science E. O. Wilson's Science B-15 and Professor of Visual and Environmental Studies Louis J. Bakanowsky's Literature and Arts B-15 were also lotteried.
The lottery is an unfortunate reminder of just how many students pack into the same courses each term, its necessity a result of Harvard's policy of open enrollment.
At other colleges, like Brown and Princeton, classes are pre-registered to maintain a certain size-range.
But, according to registrar's offices at each, Brown and Princeton also keep class sizes considerably smaller than Harvard does.
Indeed, neither campus contains an auditorium that can seat more than 400. And at Brown, the registrar's assistant said, professors repeat their lectures for any course with more than 400 students.