One of Bowdoin's biggest draws is its small course sizes. Tour guides love telling visitors that the median class size is 16 students. And yet, first years and sophomores are often disappointed to discover that while their first year seminar is 16 students, almost all of their other courses are bigger—much bigger.
Often through junior year, students enrolled in the most popular majors—English, government, economics—find that their 200-level classes are consistently filled with upwards of 30 students. Of course, if the school was $500 million richer, smaller classes would be easier to come by. But given our present budget constraints, we still think there may be a path to improving the educational experience: allowing for more flexibility in class size.
There are many introductory or lecture-style courses, at the 100 and 200 level, that either because of the subject matter or the professor's personal style, are not particularly discussion-based. The classroom experience in a large lecture course where discussion is negligible is hardly different from that of a slightly smaller lecture class. A spade is a spade: let's call a lecture a lecture.
It's worth questioning the general assumption at Bowdoin and other liberal arts colleges that larger class sizes are always a detriment to student learning. Class size is clearly an important factor, but it is also just one of many that together determine the success of an educational endeavor. More important than capping lecture classes is keeping discussion-based courses small.
Many of us have had the awkward experience of vying with 34 other students to participate in a discussion course, just as we've sat in a room listening to a lecture with the same number of students, wondering why more people on the waiting list weren't allowed in. Increasing the size of lecture classes could free up more professors to teach discussion courses, and make them smaller. It may even function to decrease the discrepancies between how different sections are currently taught. Finding ways to reduce the class size where it counts would give many students a considerably more meaningful experience.
What we are suggesting is not unprecedented, nor is it, we believe, drastic. Bowdoin has already allowed for classes to expand above the cap of 50 in order to satisfy overwhelming student demand, as any of the 96 students in Classical Mythology this semester can attest. Art History 100, Environmental Studies 101, and Physics 103 and others are all capped at 60 students, and may even exceed that level.
Professors should have the flexibility to determine their own caps that don't necessarily correspond to the usual standards of 16, 35, or 50, so that these caps more accurately reflect the demands of the curricula, rather than arbitrary limitations. There are challenges that may arise, like increased grading workloads for professors, or the need for more departmental coordination to determine the total number of spots offered. But the benefits of an intimate classroom setting are immeasurable, and that promise is at the heart of what Bowdoin has to offer.
The editorial represents the majority view of the Bowdoin Orient’s editorial board, which is comprised of Nick Daniels, Carlo Davis, Sam Frizell, Linda Kinstler, and Zoë Lescaze.