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Columns, Opinions

Pipatjarasgit ’21: The advising tips we’re not told

By
Staff Columnist
Sunday, November 15, 2020

At Brown, we are told to take a variety of classes. We have been encouraged to explore the Open Curriculum. Our advisors suggest that we should meet with our course instructors in office hours for assistance throughout the semester. This is all generally good advice. However, during my time at Brown, I have come to form some of my own advice on academic advising that no one has ever suggested to me: Students should pay more attention to who their course instructors actually are and put an even greater emphasis on taking small classes.

At the University, courses are taught by many instructors of different ranks. Brown’s teaching core is comprised of its regular faculty members and includes professors, associate professors, assistant professors, distinguished senior lecturers, senior lecturers and lecturers. Regular faculty members are more likely to be around for a longer period of time because they cannot be denied reappointment or stripped of tenure without cause. Individuals teaching courses who are not regular faculty members include visiting faculty, adjunct faculty, research faculty, professors of the practice, fellows, postdoctoral fellows, senior fellows, teaching associates, graduate students and teaching assistants.

Every semester, I strongly believe that all students should take at least two classes that are taught by a regular faculty member, whether or not they count toward their concentrations or intended concentrations. If there are multiple sections of the same class taught by different instructors, students should try to take the one taught by the regular faculty member, unless there is a compelling reason for taking the class not taught by the regular faculty member.

Building relationships with faculty is certainly a point that is often reiterated in undergraduate advising. But understanding how to do this may arguably be within the “hidden curriculum,” or in other words, the “unwritten rules and unspoken expectations” that students need to know in order to succeed during their undergraduate studies. What Brown students are not told is that the most valuable, stable connections for advising purposes and professional letters of recommendation will likely be regular faculty members. While establishing relationships with faculty members who will leave Brown can be an easy way to build connections beyond the University, students who unwittingly put all of their efforts into networking with graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, adjunct instructors and other visiting faculty members may be left high and dry after these individuals have left and are harder to track down. 

 Of course, there are obvious exceptions to this rule, and there are sometimes good reasons to take classes with instructors who are not regular faculty members. For example, let’s say that the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs regularly offered a course titled “The World in Conflict.” Let’s also say that former U.S. presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, hypothetically appointed as visiting professors at the University, were scheduled to co-teach one section, while the other section of the course was taught by a longtime Brown professor. No offense to the longtime Brown professor, but I would rather take a class with the former presidents, even if they are not regular faculty members.

There are many real examples of experts who are brought to the University for a short, predetermined length of time to teach a few classes as a non-regular faculty member. Some academic units, such as the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (within the Watson Institute), have a visiting professorship program. Another example is the Provost’s Visiting Professor Program, which aims to “attract highly accomplished and visible senior scholars who are making distinctive contributions to their fields.” 

Another exception to the non-regular faculty rule might be if this is a small class. During the fall 2019 semester, I took a class offered by a visiting assistant professor who was not a distinguished public figure, but the class was small — I was the only student enrolled in the course. That leads me to my next point: Take small classes.

I loved the one-person class that I took during the fall 2019 semester. For an instructor of that rank, this class would have likely cost the University around $10,000. I had the instructor all to myself, so another way to think about it is that the University spent $10,000 to teach just me. The individualized attention was invaluable, and I enjoyed the highly interactive format. On the day that we had a guest speaker, it was just an informal discussion between the three of us.

Brown’s education is expensive, and students’ tuition dollars pay for smaller classes. While a class that only has one enrolled student will probably be difficult to find, the University does offer plenty of enrollment-limited classes. For the 2019-2020 academic year, 70 percent of courses below the 2000-level had 20 students or fewer. Only 12 percent of courses had enrollment greater than 50 students. While students can establish connections with their course instructors regardless of the class size, small class sizes allow for more individualized feedback and opportunities for instructors to get to know each of their students. This can make for stronger letters of recommendation when the time comes to apply for jobs, graduate schools and other opportunities after Brown.

Obviously, this is also not a hard-and-fast rule. Students probably should not favor choosing a small class over a larger class if they have absolutely no interest in the smaller class. Moreover, some areas of study are certainly notorious for having enormously large enrollments in most of their courses. In these cases, it might be impossible to avoid large classes, such as if they are requirements for certain concentrations.

 That being said, I truly believe that taking these ideas into consideration, wherever possible, can help improve students’ trajectories at Brown. Details such as course sizes or instructors’ ranks and titles may be small ones, but they are important, and they can affect students’ academic experiences. In addition to these two pieces of advice, I am sure that others who have journeyed through the Brown experience have additional advice to give that is not often given. As Brown’s incoming first-year students prepare for a first semester like no other, I hope that others will share their ideas, too.

Poom Andrew Pipatjarasgit ’21 can be reached at poom_pipatjarasgit@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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