Professors and teaching fellows in the humanities have once again given voice to a concern that students and faculty have shared for years: section sizes are too large. Professor of English and Comparative Literature James Engell '73 wrote in an e-mail message, "for sound educational reasons, [section sizes] should be held below 20 and preferably around 15." We agree with his stance.
Small sections create an intimate learning environment in which students can discuss ideas that they have learned from lectures and books. The discussions help students to understand difficult concepts and expose them to viewpoints that they otherwise may never have considered. For a university that takes pride in its ability to provide a setting in which students with diverse backgrounds can share their experiences, intra-section debate is an invaluable asset. But such debate cannot occur when section sizes exceed 20 students. Voices struggle to be heard over one another, and the constant commotion eventually forces teaching fellows to transform their sections into lectures or question/answer sessions.
Jeffrey Wolcowitz, the assistant dean for undergraduate education, argues that there may be "alternative ways" of using available funds to improve sections, such as providing better training for teaching fellows. Because training teaching fellows to become better discussion leaders will benefit students only if section sizes are small enough for students to be able to converse with each other, we recommend that, if financial considerations lead FAS to believe a choice needs to be made, section sizes should be reduced before the problem of poorly-trained teaching fellows is addressed. In the mean time, we suggest that teaching fellows utilize the services of the Bok Center on Teaching more fully.
Dean of FAS Jeremy R. Knowles has consistently and publicly endorsed the idea of smaller sections. We encourage him to put his money where his mouth is and lower section size in the next fiscal year.