Several years ago, Krupp Professor of European Studies Charles S. Maier '60 decided to create a historical studies core course designed for students looking for small courses.
"I enjoy small courses, and like being able to pose questions to students," Maier says. "It's fun to have a group of around 40 to 50."
But a few years later, Maier decided to stop offering the course, which covered the history of economic thought and policy making, due to its consistently small enrollment.
This semester, Maier is teaching a core course on post-war European history with only 38 students enrolled, but last semester, his course on World War II drew 201 students, according to records at the registrar's office.
Large courses such as "World War II" tend to predominate in the core program, with the average core course enrollment over the past five years hovering around 150 students.
This semester, core courses average 140 students, slightly lower than the average figure of 168 for core courses last semester.
Susan W. Lewis, director of the core program, says that although core courses may have a high average enrollment, not all core courses are large. Lewis adds that the real issue is students tending to gravitate toward larger courses, such as Literature and Arts C-37: "The Bible and Its Interpreters."
"Both last fall and last spring, 50 percent of the core courses were under 100 [people]," Lewis says. "Because there are small courses, the question is why so many students choose the large ones."
But enrollment records available at the registrar's office show it is difficult to find courses with fewer than 100 students in the moral reasoning and Literature and Arts C subdivisions of the program.
Disregarding Social Analysis 10: "Principles of Economics," which this semester drew 943 students but meets primarily in small sections, literature and arts C courses have the highest average enrollment, at 179.
The smallest course offering in this area, Literature and Arts C-63: "Jerusalem: The Holy City," taught by Dorot Professor of the Archaeology of Israel Lawrence E. Stager '65, has 114 students.
Similarly, Moral Reasoning courses this semester have an average enrollment of 175 students. The smallest course, Moral Reasoning 50: "The Public and the Private in Politics, Morality, and Law" has 103 students.
Why So Big?
Lewis attributes these high enrollments to the original design of the core program.
"When the core was created, the presumption was there would only be a limited number of offerings in each area," she says. "It wasn't created with the presumption that there would be small courses."
According to the University's general catalog, the program was designed "to assure that [students'] total program at Harvard includes not only depth in one field but also knowledge of the modes of thought in others."
Professor of Government Michael J. Sandel, who heads a subcommittee on Moral Reasoning, attributes the high average moral reasoning course size to a lack of faculty interested in that area.
"Ideally, there should be more courses in moral reasoning, and we, as a subcommittee, have worked hard to find more such courses," Sandel says. "Our problem is that there aren't enough faculty in the University teaching in the areas of moral and political philosophy."
But Kenan Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield Jr. '53 attributes the high enrollment in moral reasoning courses to a lack of similar departmental courses, saying many of the students in moral reasoning courses are not fulfilling concentration requirements.
"The core gets more customers than are required to come there," he says. "Moral reasoning is especially attractive because I think there's a yearning for big questions studied by reading great books."
Mansfield, who teaches Moral Reasoning 13: "Realism and Moralism," says large courses also allow students to "be lost in a mass."
"It's much easier to relax and let someone else carry the ball," Mansfield says. "It would be nice for every student to ask a question at least once during a course."
But Sandel, who teaches Moral Reasoning 22: "Justice," which drew 859 students last fall, says large lecture courses have both advantages and disadvantage.
Sandel says that having a large number of students reading the same books and debating the same question encourages discussion of course issues outside the classroom.
Still, Maier says it is difficult to "track the work of individuals" in his large lecture courses.
"It's clear I won't be reading the material," Maier says.
While hundreds of students fill humanities core classes, science core courses tend to be smaller.
This semester, Science A and Science B classes have average enrollments of 64 and 75, respectively--the smallest averages of any core area.
According to records of core enrollments over the past nine semesters, science core areas are unique in having average enrollments frequently under 100.
Lewis attributes this phenomenon to the fact that students can take certain departmental courses to meet the science core requirement and to the fact that science core courses tend to be offered each year.
And Clowes Professor of Science Henry Ehrenreich, who teaches a science A course and serves on the Faculty Committee on the Core Program, says core science courses are often smaller than comparable departmental courses.
In particular, Ehrenreich notes that his course, Science A-16: "Relativity and Quantum Physics," typically has 50 students, while the Physics 11 series, "Mechanics" and "Electricity, Magnetism and Waves," typically draws 200 to 250 students.
Making Big Courses Little
Because humanities cores are frequently large, professors must make special efforts to make themselves and their teaching staffs accessible to students.
Professor of Chinese History and Philosophy Tu Wei-Ming, who teaches Moral Reasoning 40: "Confucian Humanism," a course which drew 470 students in the spring of 1994, says he reaches out to students in this course by teaching an additional section taught in Chinese.
"I got to know quite a few students in depth," he says. "These are not just students of Chinese origin but are also students studying Chinese in our departments."
But Tu says in a large course, contact between students and faculty becomes "voluntary."
"In a large course, quite a few students do not feel that they need to have contact with the instructor even though they interact with the [teaching fellows] quite frequently," he says.
The Room Game
Professors say one way of trying to make classes more intimate is to select the room carefully.
"When I was lecturing in Sanders [Theater], there was a pool of black," says Porter University Professor Helen H. Vendler, citing her distaste for the large lecture hall.
"I think it's important to see faces," she says.
Similarly, Adams University Professor John Shearman, who teaches a core course on Michelangelo, says he prefers not to lecture from a stage.
"What I like is a science bowl, where whatever the number is, I'm not up above speaking down to them," he says. "I don't like the almost metaphorical position of speaking down to an audience."
And Maier says the room in which he teaches affects the atmosphere of his large lecture courses.
"Nothing works in Emerson 105," he says. "A lot can work in a large hall in Sever."
In an appropriate room, the number of students may not even matter, says Professor of Romance and Comparative Literatures Susan R. Suleiman, who teaches Literature and Arts C-55: "Surrealism," which has 176 students.
"Once you have to put on a microphone, it doesn't matter whether you have 120 people or 200," she says.
And Vendler says she enjoys lecturing to a large number of students.
"I myself like lecturing to a large group. I put a lot of work into thinking about the lectures," she says. "I don't consider a lecture an interactive medium, anyhow."
Change in the Air
Course size is one of the issues which will be considered by the faculty committee reviewing the core program this year, according to Pforzheimer University Professor Sidney Verba '53, the committee's chair.
"If it can be done, having more small courses in the core might be a valuable goal," Verba says.
Based on his own experience, Verba says courses with fewer than 50 people tend to have effective discussions.
"I have given lecture courses with really good discussion up to about fifty people," he says.
"There are very few people in this world who can give a sense of participation in a really large room," he adds.
But Vendler, who also sits on the core review committee, says large lecture courses may be the only way for undergraduates to encounter some of Harvard's most famous faculty members.
"That's just the way it is," she says, adding that some professors also teach smaller junior or senior seminars.
Justin C. Label '97, who chairs the Undergraduate Council's committee on the Core Curriculum, says he hopes average core course size will decrease--provided that this does not occur by limiting enrollment in popular courses.
"The good way of going about that is to offer more and more specialized courses that are likely to get smaller enrollments for the type of people who prefer that type of class," he says. "The bad way of going about that is to limit courses like 'Justice' to 75 people."
Justin D. Lerer contributed to the reporting of this story.