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."