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Steering on Track

Small classes must avoid the temptation of aimless discussion


I am eight weeks into college and four weeks behind in “Philosophy of Law”—and it’s not my fault. No, it’s not that midnight pillow fights with my roommate have taken precedence over my readings. It’s just that the class hasn’t quite finished talking about the last assigned passage…the one due Oct. 14. Surprisingly, our limited productivity is due to a nasty habit of that adored pet of pedagogy, Discussion, which especially in small classes likes to take advantage of its long leash to run wildly out of control.

Coming wide-eyed into my first semester here, everyone—students, proctors and professors alike—told me to try to take as many small, personal, discussion-friendly classes as possible. It’s easy to see the logic behind their point. Lecture classes are often large, anonymous and intimidating, with next to zero chance for personal engagement. In his book Making the Most of College, Gale Professor of Education Richard J. Light correlates taking too many lecture-style courses with a general academic dissatisfaction. He writes, “Most of the time smaller is better, with stronger student engagement.” And if we check with the almighty course bible of the undergraduate body, the CUE Guide, we see that the many of highest ratings do come from the small, interactive classes—the English department’s ten-person “Playwriting Workshop,” for example, scored a 5.0 last year.

But realistically speaking—and as evidenced by the 34-student “Philosophy of Law”—the oftentimes unstructured nature of discussions can be less than satisfying. This is not to deny that discussion is a fundamentally good thing. Ideally, we get to share ideas, challenge beliefs and get drunkenly swept away into the whirlwind vortex of passionate opinions and academic interchange. But when one tangential question leads to another, students can get caught up in all the minor nuances of ideas, until by the end Little Red Riding Hood has stepped off the forest path with very little hope of ever returning. As Sahil K. Mahtani ’08 so aptly observed, “the limitations of small classes is that sometimes professors are reluctant to limit the speaking times of students,” resulting not only in lengthy digressions but also in the domination of discussion by one or two particularly forceful students. Read: teacher-student monologues. We’ve all been there.

The inherent structure of bigger lectures sidesteps these main problems of discussion-oriented classes. Structure means direction, and direction results in concrete productivity. Besides, many large lectures are not at all dull or intimidating. Conversations with students elicit glowing descriptions of energetic Psychology 1 lectures, which are routinely given to audiences of over 200. Other students endorse Historical Studies A-13, a hundred-person lecture course on China, praising the professor for his ability to put readings and subject material into the bigger context and for the interactive questions he fits into class. Similarly, the immense Moral Reasoning course of years past, “Justice,” has been roundly applauded for its engaging lectures—Bass Professor of Government Michael J. Sandel somehow manages to carry on questioning and answering from one end of Sanders Theatre to the other. These lectures are able to achieve the desirable end of learning with interaction, which pure discussion classes sometimes fail to do.

We need not reject our traditionally positive view of the small, discussion-based course. Instead, we should qualify that view. For discussions to be productive, they need to take a page out of the lecture book; they should be, like lectures necessarily are, formatted with particular care to structure. Professors must simply take care to steer on track, keep it moving and avoid quick detours to Mars. There is absolutely no reason why we can’t have fun, fruitful academic discussion without falling four weeks behind.

N. Kathy Lin ’08, a Crimson editorial comper, lives in Matthews Hall.

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