Phil Culhane ’88 sent in these thoughts on large lecture classes at Williams.

No pedagogical reason for large lecture classes and surely economic reasons for them. However, what about the desire, say, of a student to have a class or two in four years where he or she can sit in the dark and, gently, without too much engagement, look at pretty pictures on the wall? Is that so wrong? Williams could use some of that huge endowment to turn Art History 101/102 into an English 101 kind of thing, but would the demand be there? Maybe 100s of people per year take Art History 101/102 ONLY because they are ensured that they can sit on their butts and not have to do much of anything other than passively suck in cocktail knowledge? But I am biased — that’s why I took the class.

Students now, and us 20 years ago, desire many things. Sometimes the College is wise to fulfill those desires, sometimes it is not. The question is not: Did Phil (and I) have an relaxing time in Art History as lecture. We clearly did. The question is: Would we have been better off if the College taught art history the way it teaches politcal science and philosophy.

After all, nothing prevents the college from offering PHIL 101 and PSCI 101 as large lectures (along with a discussion section). Would it be so terrible if students could “sit in the dark and, gently, without too much engagement” think about truth and justice? Yes, it would. And, assuming that you think that there is are as many interesting topics to discuss, debate and arugue over in art history as there are in philosophy, it follows that as much is loss in treating ARTH 101/102 as a passive “suck” as there would be in other departments.

Of course, it could be that the reason that ARTH 101/102 is so popular is that it is (perceived to be, at least) so passive/easy. If it were taught like the old ENGL 101 (alas, the English department has reorganized things for the worst recently), perhaps fewer students would enroll.

But, big picture, it should not be a concern of the College how many students enroll in ARTH 101 versus PHIL 101 versus anything else. Let students study want they want to study. But it should be a central concern of the College that all the courses it offers be serious and rigorous. ARTH 101 taught in small sections would be a much more serious and rigorous course.

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