Fred Thys ’80 reports for WBUR about the cost of Williams College. Fred is a knowledgeable and sympathetic alum but this story painted an incomplete picture. Perhaps later stories will flesh out the scene? In the meantime, let’s spend 10 (!) days dissecting this article! Today is Day 3.

Falk says the faculty is like a string quartet.

“And asking them to do it faster or asking them do it to three times as many students at a time are things we can ask them to do, but they will directly degrade the quality of what we want to deliver,” he said. “And so the entire framework of productivity when it is applied to higher education is one that has to be thought of very carefully and can’t be thought of in the same way that we apply the notion of productivity to the manufacturing sector.”

First, this is worse than wrong. It is Orwellian. It is precisely Falk’s predecessors who have created a Williams in which professors teach “three times as many students at a time” as they used to.

The math is unavoidable. Williams has about 2,000 students taking 4 classes a semester. That is 8,000 student/class combinations that will happen, regardless of how many faculty members we have and how many classes they each teach. Currently (ignoring the complexities of leave patterns and visitors) we have 250 professors each teaching two classes. Split up those 8,000 student/class combinations, we have about 16 students per class. So far, so good!

Now imagine a world with those same 250 professors each teaching 4 classes. In that world, the average Williams class is 8 students, small enough for every class to be a tutorial. If Williams went to a 4-4 requirement, professors would be teaching only 50% “as many students at a time” as they do today.

Recall the slogan from 9 years ago: No More Lectures!

First, lectures are inefficient for students. Anything that a professor says in a lecture, as opposed to a discussion, could just as easily be typed beforehand and read by students at their own convenience. Reading is much quicker than listening and, more importantly, allows different students to focus on the parts that they don’t understand and to skim the parts that they do.

Administrators sometimes believe that large classes save money (one professor teaches 100 students!) but the savings come in the form of less learning per student.

Second, the arguments in favor of lectures in economics at Williams are identical to the arguments for lectures at Harvard. According to Schapiro (and many Williams faculty members), there is a minimal amount of knowledge that a student must have in order to be able to even discuss a topic like microeconomics. That may be true, but it is no less true for the poetry of Emily Dickinson or the philosophy of David Hume. At Harvard, they are at least consistent on this topic, lecturing to students on microeconomics and poetry and philosophy. If you believe that students, having done the assigned reading, learn best by discussing poetry and philosophy on the first day of class, then why wouldn’t the same be true of economics and chemistry?

Third, the smaller the class, the more learning occurs. Consider Diana Davis’s ’07 description of her high school experience:

“I went to a high school where every single class — English, biology, history, math, economics, Greek — was a discussion class with 13 students or fewer. I have not taken a single class at Williams where I have learned as much, learned as deeply, or remembered as much a year later as I did in my classes in high school.”

Now, most of us did not have the good fortune of going to a high school like Diana’s. Yet no one makes the opposite claim; no one argues that students learn more in lecture than they do in discussion.

Fourth, there would be no better way for Williams to demonstrate to potential applicants that it is a different place, with different values, than by drawing a line at 15 students or so per class. If Williams had no lectures, then there would be less doubt about its educational superiority. The tutorial program already provides Williams with a leadership position in undergraduate education. Abolishing lectures would do even more.

Fifth, claims about the excessive expense involved in having small sections are overblown. A professor currently responsible for the education of 45 students in ECON 110 should organize the class in whatever way is best for her students, not most convenient for her. Better to have three sections of 15 students each, than one large lecture. This will take up more of the professor’s time, but, since so much of the work — planning the class, creating the exams, grading the papers — is a fixed cost (regardless of the number of class meetings), the marginal cost to the professor of having three sections instead of one is small. The very best professors, like Eiko Maruko Siniawer ’97 in history, already split up their large classes. Everyone else should do the same.

Second, to be fair to Falk, the target of his criticism are those who praise the possibilities of MOOCs: massive open online courses. We all agree that a Williams tutorial — in physics or English or statistics — is better than any MOOC. But Thuys does his listeners no favors when he allows Falk to frame the debate as Williams-verus-MOOC when the relevant debate, at least in the context of elite US institutions, is Williams-with-4-4-teaching-loads versus Williams-with-2-2-teaching-loads. That is debate that we ought to be having.

(Of course, the populist cut-all-costs position would argue for a 125 person faculty teaching 4-4: same (?) quality as today but much less expensive. I disagree with this view, as does every Eph I know, so no need to bother with it here.)

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