At Dave’s invitation, I’m posting an amended and expanded verson of my earlier comment on his call to limit class size at Williams.

In an earlier thread, it was proposed that Williams could improve student experience by setting a cap on class size and assigning other faculty to teach sections of any course that exceeds this cap. It sounds like a sensible idea, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. Here’s why:

–Today, student demand is infinitely elastic, while faculty staffing is notoriously
inelastic. Of course, Williams could follow the model of urban public institutions
and take on an army of part-time faculty who can be hired and fired as student
demand dictates. That, however, violates every tradition of Williams and in
any case can’t be implemented here because the North Berkshires region has only
a limited pool of under-employed PhDs willing to work for a pittance.

–People tenured two decades ago when Department X was hot are now teaching
small classes because students decided that they want to take courses in Department
Y, which has become more fashionable. Consider the case of Chinese, which a
few years ago taught small classes–as it should–with notable success. Suddenly,
bright Williams students figured out that China is the future, and the program
is dealing with an onslaught of frosh in its introductory courses. Five years
from now, the wave is likely to shift to something else. In the absence of a
required curriculum that exerts some control over demand, tracking student course
preferences requires the nerves of a day-trader, not the steady hand of a college
administrator committed to the long view. And Williams is committed to the long
view, which is one reason it’s a great college.

–Reassigning faculty to teach smaller sections of a large course has only
limited utility for at least two reasons. First, many of these faculty won’t
feel qualified to teach the course, and they may have little interest in doing
so. (It would be a bit like asking a dermatologist to serve as a neurologist
for three months.) Second, and more important, they are scheduled to teach other
courses that are required by their department curriculum so that majors can
complete their degrees. Even if a department has only a handful of senior majors
in a given year, a couple of courses have to be taught for them regardless of
the enrollment. In any case, precise levels of demand are never known until
a semester begins, but by then it’s too late for the department to drop and
add courses. (Williams used to ask students to pre-enroll for both Fall and
Spring terms of the next academic year, but the enrollment data proved unreliable.)

The problem here is what IT people call scalability. Student demand
can change almost instantly–and believe me, it does. Faculty supply, however,
takes a year or more to change, at least as long as Williams is committed to
doing national searches to hire the best faculty. And regardless of demand at
any given moment, prudent management requires college administrators to ask,
How many faculty in Field X can a balanced college handle? To give an example,
we already have the largest Economics faculty of any small liberal-arts college
of which I’m aware. For comparison, check out Amherst’s
Econ faculty
: 15 names on the masthead; Williams,
35 names. (The number of names doesn’t translate directly into full-time teaching
because of leaves, administrative appointments, etc., but it’s a rough metric.)
And yet Econ struggles to meet student demand. That’s partly because it’s a
terrific department, partly because Williams attracts more business-oriented
students than, say, Smith
(18 names) or Oberlin

In short, viable solutions to the class-crowding problem require the shaping
of supply and demand. Demand is controlled through curricular requirements and, to a more limited extent, through admissions policies. If you look at other liberal-arts colleges that
have imposed a cap on class size–and there are a few, I believe–you’ll find
that this is how they do it.

Some years ago, I chaired a faculty committee that looked at the class-crowding problem. Among other things, we discovered that something like 40 percent of Williams class sections were smaller than 14 students. That number of small sections is much higher now because of the tutorial program. Any students looking for small classes can find them in abundance at Williams–especially if they are willing to sign up for sections that meet at 8:30 AM!

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