Section Sizes Worry Faculty

Although College guidelines limit average section size to 20 students, some professors and teaching fellows are concerned that sections in their classes are too large.

Yesterday, after telling his class that sections were too large for effective discussions, the chair of the English department took half of the 22 students in a section of his course, English 150: "English Romantic Poetry," into another classroom and taught them himself, while the teaching fellow taught the remaining 11 students.

"I was told that if I had [enough] undergraduates I could request an additional teaching fellow. I don't know if I'll get it though," the department chair, Professor of English and Comparative Literature James T. Engell '73, said in an interview. His course currently has two sections of 22 and 24 students, according to Scott J. Karambis, the teaching fellow.

Engell's problem is one facing many Faculty members: hiring more teaching fellows takes resources that could improve classes in other ways.

"We constantly try to keep section sizes down," said Kenneth A. Shepsle, chair of the government department. "I have tended to allow my colleagues to make special appeals to take on extra teaching fellows to keep section sizes to what they believe are reasonable numbers."

According to Jeffrey Wolcowitz, assistant dean for undergraduate education, section size has been a perennial concern of the Faculty, which for the first time has enough control over its budget this year to realistically discuss reducing section size.

In his annual budget letter released at the end of January, Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles reported that the Faculty is in better financial health than it has been in the past because of steadily rising income.

Even so, Wolcowitz said that using more money to reduce section sizes may not be the only way to improve sections.

"Are there alternative ways for spending incremental funds that might have a greater impact on undergraduates?" he asked.

Other ways to improve sections include more training for teaching fellows, integrating technology into teaching and hiring more faculty.

According to David Pilbeam, dean for undergraduate education, Faculty members made no decision about sections at Monday's meeting of the Resources Committee, chaired by Knowles.

Pilbeam said he is unsure whether more money should be used directly to reduce section sizes.

"I think [small sections are] important, but so is making sure that section leaders are properly trained and prepared and that sections are carefully thought through as part of the entire course," he said.

James E. Davis, head tutor of the chemistry department, said he also believes that training and supervision of teaching fellows is "very important."

He meets with all his courses' teaching fellows weekly to discuss issues related to teaching.