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English Dept. Looks To Limit Writing Course Section Sizes

Supporters of the Harvard Teaching Campaign proceed through the Yard before submitting a petition to cap section sizes at 12 students to Massachusetts Hall.
Supporters of the Harvard Teaching Campaign proceed through the Yard before submitting a petition to cap section sizes at 12 students to Massachusetts Hall. By Karl M. Aspelund
By Meg P. Bernhard, Crimson Staff Writer

The English department is now aiming to limit section sizes for writing intensive courses to 12 to 15 students—smaller than the target cap of 18 or so students in most lecture courses.

The smaller target is intended to improve the experience of students in courses that require them to write and revise their assigned papers substantially, according to Gwen Urdang-Brown, the department’s graduate program administrator, and professors. The Office of Undergraduate Education has informally aimed for smaller section sizes for writing-heavy courses for about a year now, according to Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris.

Harris did not respond to requests for comment on whether the College is targeting writing intensive courses outside the English department for lower section sizes as well.

In the past, students, professors, and teaching fellows have bemoaned large section sizes in courses across the College, arguing that large sections are not conducive to fruitful discussion and can be unwieldy. Over the past two years, a campaign to decrease College section sizes has gained momentum, garnering support from individual departments across the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and thousands of signatures on a petition that campaign members delivered to administrators in Massachusetts Hall last spring.

Supporters of the Harvard Teaching Campaign proceed through the Yard before submitting a petition to cap section sizes at 12 students to Massachusetts Hall in April.
Supporters of the Harvard Teaching Campaign proceed through the Yard before submitting a petition to cap section sizes at 12 students to Massachusetts Hall in April. By Karl M. Aspelund

Guidelines for what defines a writing-intensive course are largely modeled on requirements set in 2008 by the College’s Standing Committee on Writing and Speaking. The guidelines maintain writing intensive courses’ teaching staff should give “timely” feedback on student writing; students should write multiple papers and assignments; students should write and revise drafts of their assignments; and their writing should determine a “significant portion of the student’s final grade.”

English professor Stephen Burt, who is teaching two writing-intensive courses considered this semester, said his section sizes are “very reasonable.”

“Smaller sections make everything better,” said Burt, whose two classes enroll 48 and 70 students, respectively, but also have enough sections to accommodate smaller section sizes.

Some of this semester’s writing-intensive English courses include Elisa New’s “Fictions of America” and James T. Engell ’73’s “English Romantic Poets,” according to Urdang-Brown. Many of the English department’s “common ground” courses, concentration requirements for undergraduates, are also considered writing-intensive and require smaller sections.

Each spring, faculty from the English department must tell administrators how many sections they estimate their courses will require and note if their courses will be writing-intensive so that they can plan accordingly, Urdang-Brown said. Still, she said planning so far in advance can sometimes be difficult, especially if professors have not yet finalized syllabi and cannot anticipate how many students will actually enroll in their courses.

Graduate student teaching fellows and department administrators have cited several problems that they argue large sections create. Specifically, they say that larger sections inhibit student participation, increase teaching fellows’ financial insecurity, and train graduate students less effectively. Graduate students often say that large section sizes contribute to the stress and instability of their roles as undergraduate educators.

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