Nick Hagerty ’10: Academic Inequality

Opinions Columnist
Monday, April 13, 2009

My last column (“Picnics or John Edwards?”, March 16) stressed the need for greater emphasis on teaching abilities in decisions about faculty hiring and promotions. But since faculty turnover can proceed even more slowly than a UCS meeting, here are two proposals that could improve undergraduate academics at Brown in the meantime. 
Brown, like all colleges, likes to cite numbers on average class size. For example, 70.1 percent of undergraduate courses at Brown are smaller than 20 students, while only 4.1 percent are bigger than 100. But this is misleading — looking at undergraduate enrollments by class size tells a statistical story more consistent with experience. It turns out only 31.5 percent of the courses the average Brown undergraduate takes have fewer than 20 students, and 27.4 percent of them have over 100.

(The Web site of the Office of Institutional Research has lots of other fun facts. Did you know that the median salary of full professors in the social sciences in 2008-09 was $138,000?)

Students sometimes complain about small classes — you actually have to be prepared lest the professor call on you! — but deep down, we know these are the settings in which we learn the most. Small classes allow for discussion of the material and reduce the temptation for the professor to spend 80 minutes summarizing the reading assignment you were supposed to do last night. Even in more objective subjects like math or biology, small classes allow professors to give individual feedback and make sure students are understanding rather than regurgitating.

Perhaps more importantly, small classes better engage students. The 25 percent of otherwise well-meaning students on Facebook at any given time in large lectures wouldn’t dare stare at their laptops the entire way through a seminar. It is much easier to develop personal relationships with professors when they no longer seem intimidating and actually recognize your face. 

But when it comes to small classes, some departments are more equal than others. In big departments (e.g., biology, economics, political science), it is difficult to either find or get into any courses with enrollments under 20 or 30. Others (religious studies, cognitive science) offer an abundance of small courses. 

I asked Andrew Foster, professor of economics and community health and chair of the economics department, about this discrepancy. Many factors besides teaching and course enrollments figure into University decisions regarding allocation of faculty funding, he said, particularly research interests and funding potential. At the same time, enrollment in economics courses has increased 40 percent over the past seven years. More telling, he said, is that enrollment is 25 percent higher than the last cyclical peak in 1998.

The University should seek to reduce the imbalance in class sizes among departments. It is unfair to economics concentrators when upper level courses, which would have 15-20 students in other departments, instead usually have around 50. In another illustrative example, the economics and physics departments have about the same number of regular faculty (34 and 27), but last year there were almost ten times more economics concentrators than physics concentrators (196 and 21).

Funding for faculty hires should be based more on course enrollment, and it should more quickly respond to changes in enrollment. In a pinch, there is little wrong with the temporary hiring of adjunct professors or lecturers or even graduate students, as long as they have exceptional records in teaching undergraduates. 

Another perpetual problem in those departments with large enrollments, as well as in those without their own graduate programs, is a shortage of teaching assistants. Graduate TAs, including Herald Opinions Columnist Mary Bates GS (“Have you hugged your TA today?” March 31), often bemoan the heavy teaching load on some graduate students that can impede progress on thesis research.

Why not encourage professors to hold their own conference sections? Some professors, such as those teaching introductory physics courses, regularly do. Others act as though the option never occurred to them, instead choosing to cap a popular class. 

The format of a large lecture by a well-known professor with discussion sections led by TAs causes at best discontinuity, and at worst the sense of a distant and deified professor. Courses are not always matched well with the expertise of individual TAs, weakening analytical rigor of sections when the TA is only two steps ahead of the students. 

Of course, it would not be feasible for professors to lead all sections in the largest lecture courses. Graduate students also need to gain their own teaching experience. But surely we could improve the undergraduate experience, lighten the load on grad students and alleviate the TA shortage by asking some professors to teach their own conference sections. 

Brown, as a university-college, can successfully compete against research universities as well as liberal arts colleges. After all, around this time three years ago I was agonizing over the choice between Brown, Pomona and Swarthmore, and it is evident who won. But as the administration pushes more in the direction of world-class research, the University will become lopsided unless there is a deliberate, corresponding push to maintain and improve the quality of undergraduate courses. 

Nick Hagerty ’10, a physics and economics concentrator, thinks maybe being a professor would be more lucrative than he thought.