Fed up with supersized class diet

Matt Baker

When I decided to devote the best four years of my life and my family’s bank account to Northwestern, the small class sizes the university flaunted was an enormous factor in my decision. After 13 years in a floundering public school system with a major teacher shortage I wanted to have some one-on-one attention with an instructor.

Admissions counselors and campus brochures sold me on NU’s liberal arts feel that offered the vast resources of a state school. Visions of discussing Descartes in a small group by The Lakefill danced in my head. But three and a half quarters into a college education bogged down by gargantuan lectures, courses at my Podunk high school are starting to look pretty good.

While NU’s Web site boasts a 7-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio and that more than two-thirds of its courses contain fewer than 20 students, this is pure fiction for many undergrads.

Think about it. When was the last time you had an actual conversation with one of your profs? When was the last time an instructor asked how you were doing and actually listened to your reply? And when was the last time a teacher sat down with you to explain a concept?

Many students’ schedules are heavy with distros and electives with upwards of 80 classmates. Popular English courses top the 150 mark, and legendary courses like Prof. Morson’s Intro to Russian Lit and Prof. Moskos’ Intro to Sociology pack 400 students into Ryan Family Auditorium.

While these large lectures are informative and entertaining, they also restrict our education. With 300 other bodies in class, you can forget about asking a question at the end or raising your hand to counter a statement. And Heaven help you if the speaker’s microphone stops working.

Even classes with more than 30 students would benefit from roster reductions. Class participation stagnates because no one wants to be “that guy” who answers every question trying to show off. And when discussion does occur, it becomes chaotic with so many raised hands.

The advantages of small courses are easy to see. Students can actively engage in their education by asking questions rather than doodling on notebooks. We can discuss Dostoevsky and hear others’ opinions rather than listening to one person’s interpretation of a passage. We can get to know the students in our classes rather than sitting next to a different stranger each day.

And most importantly, students can get to know our educators as people rather than authority figures. College is the lone time where we have the opportunity to mingle with intellectual giants who are experts in their fields. But with enormous lectures dominating our educational landscape, student-teacher interaction is limited to mumbling “Good morning” as a professor heads to the lectern.

Though NU might not be able to supply homey classes at The Lakefill, we deserve to be recognized as interested students in a class rather than just seats in an auditorium.

Matt Baker is a Medill sophomore. He can be reached at [email protected]