In our thread on job openings and class sizes, a TA for Political Science 120 was kind enough to point out that:

I believe that PSCI 120 is a discussion/lecture class in order to help freshmen and sophs (for whom the course is intended, Prof McAllister makes it very difficult for upperclassmen to take the class)try political science in an environment that isn’t entirely intimidating. Political Science is not a topic that is very common in high school, and many students have little confidence in expressing their opinions and views on controversial current events. I believe that the size of Professor McAllister’s class helps the students figure out if they like PSCI (I took the class and decided to be a major) and then they will go on to take other and perhaps smaller classes.

Also, another thing is there is a huge difference, as I am sure you know, between 50 and 15. Professor McAllister is an excellent lecturer and I do not believe that his skills are being wasted by having a larger class, rather the students are fortunate to have one of the most talented lecturers in the department.

1) Thanks for the detail! Discussions at EphBlog are always more interesting and productive when they are grounded in actual facts. If other readers could tell us more about PSCI 100 and PSCI 120, we would appreciate it. I would be especially curious about the roles played by the TAs. There were not, I think, TAs in political science at Williams 20 years ago.

2) Is the purpose of 100/120 to allow students to “try political science in an environment that isn’t entirely intimidating”? I have my doubts. Old timers will recall that the department used to be structured with 4 intro courses (101 — 104), which were almost exactly equivalent to the current 201 — 204. They were far from “initimidating.” They were meant to be introductions to political science and served that role perfectly. Moreover, they were all discussion-sized, small enough that the professors got to know us as individuals.

3) In what sense is PSCI 120 a discussion/lecture class? I understand the “lecture” part, but how/where does the “discussion” come in, at least in any meaningful way? The course that I found most frustrating at Williams 20 years ago (PSCI 221: Issues in US Foreign Policy) was, I think, the intellectual forerunning of 120. The professor (Mac Brown) was a fine lecturer, but discussion/debate was impossible because there were too many (40+) students in the class. Brown did his best to have a little back and forth, but it was painful and annoying. There was so much that I (and many others) wanted to say and talk about, and yet there was no way to have that conversation. The log was too crowded. But perhaps 120 is run differently. Details please!

Ridding Williams of all lecture classes is a longterm goal of EphBlog.

4) The (true!) fact that McAllister is an excellent lecturer should be about as relevant in a Williams classroom as the fact that he is a star squash player. There should be no lectures in political science! This is one of the central reasons why Williams is different (and better) than a place like Harvard. Is this even worth debating? Does anyone believe that a student is better off being lectured at by McAllister in a class of 50 than she would be having a discussion with McAllister in a class of 15?

I am not arguing that PSCI 120 is a bad class or that McAllister is a bad professor. In fact, I am sure that PSCI 120 is a wonderful class and that McAllister is a star professor (besides being an author at EphBlog and the sponsor of our Winter Study seminar). But PSCI 120 would be better with fewer students.

Williams should redirect resources so that it has more professors teaching courses like PSCI 100/120 that students want to take and fewer professors teaching classes that students do not want to take.

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