Small classes secretly flourish

While English and history majors competed for space in “Faulkner” and “Art of Biography” this semester, dozens of humanities and social science seminars have enrolled fewer than 10 students.

Statistically, there are more small classes in Yale College than large lectures: 75 percent of Yale College courses have fewer than 20 students enrolled, while nearly one-third of all Yale College courses enroll fewer than 10 students, according to the Office of Undergraduate Admissions Web site. After many students spent shopping period nervously jockeying to get into seminars, when the dust settled, 40 classes were left with only two students, mostly in small, interdisciplinary academic programs like South Asian Studies and Ethics, Politics and Economics.

But despite the potential for awkwardness in these courses, students and instructors alike said they have had positive experiences in small seminars.

“They’re sort of like dinners — it all depends on your company,” said Kornel Chang, an Ethnicity, Race and Migration professor whose “Race and Racism in America” seminar enrolled only two students last semester. “It’s only a downside if your students aren’t very engaged.”

Yale’s exceptionally small seminars are most commonly taught by visiting faculty or postdoctoral fellows, like Chang. A visiting professor of American Studies from the University of Connecticut, Chang was required to teach one undergraduate course last semester as part of his two-year postdoctoral fellowship in Ethnicity, Race and Migration at Yale and will not teach another class before he completes his fellowship this spring. In hindsight, Chang said he thinks courses taught by visiting professors might be smaller because students may prefer courses taught by full-time faculty.

Giuseppe Sciortino, a visiting professor in Ethics, Politics and Economics, shared Chang’s concern. Sciortino taught two students in his “Classic Texts in Social and Cultural Theory” seminar this past fall, and he is working with four students in “Varieties of Cultural Analysis” this semester.

“You don’t have a reputation,” Sciortino said. “Not many students know you.”

“Varieties of Cultural Analysis” is the smallest course Grace Kim ’11 said she has taken at Yale. Kim said the size of the course motivates her to work harder at reading assignments and contribute more to discussion — but her hopes for developing a strong relationship with her instructor are dampened by Sciortino’s inevitable departure, she said.

“He is a visiting professor, so I don’t know how beneficial it will be once he leaves,” Kim said.

Both Chang and Sciortino said they enjoyed the amount of discussion in their small seminars, which Sciortino said was not possible in the 60- to 70-student lectures he has taught at Italy’s University of Trento, where he is an associate professor of sociology. But overall, Sciortino said, size was not his primary concern in the classroom.

“Really, I’ve never thought about the numbers before,” Sciortino said.

Near Eastern Language and Civilizations and History of Art lecturer Karen Foster said she was not surprised when only four students and an auditor signed up for her “Worlds of Homer” course. Foster’s classes usually enroll five to 10 students, she said.

Foster described her seminar, which is cross-listed in four different departments, as “special,” and said she is fond of Yale’s small classes.

“They are the jewels in Yale’s educational crown,” Foster said.

University Registrar Jill Carlton said in an e-mail Monday that there is no minimum enrollment requirement for a course. She said she did not know if a course can be canceled for being too small.

Comments

  • dk

    I think summer session classes are cancelled if they have fewer than five students. It would be great to have small classes in summer when the intensive coaching would help so much to cope with the pace.

  • faculty

    They are bracketing courses with enrollments of 60 or more when a professor goes on leave. But some departments are still able to teach to two. Students should complain — this is not good administration, this is politics.