April 16, 2007

Intellectual Humility v. Large Classes

A question struck me upon reading Jacob Baron's column, titled "Large Classes, Misplaced Priorities", in today's D: what does he think he's doing here any way?

No, I'm not just being glib—it is apparent that the logic which drives a lot of students' complaints about large classes is that students are in classes to contribute, and not to learn. Thus, the need for more small classes, where contribution is expected (though rarely universal), and fewer large ones, where a student's contribution is largely a matter of attendance. Memorization of facts, dates, and names seems antiquated; discussion, dialogue, interaction—that's where the action is—that's how you really get an education these days.

I know the old phrase that goes something like "if you want to learn something, teach it," but I fail to see how that translates to "if you want to know something, give your strong but not necessarily well-informed opinion about it." Participating in a discussion is not teaching, and I think a lot of students (maybe even me) frequently fail to recognize the difference.

I'm not saying that small, discussion-based classes aren't helpful for learning, but a lot of students I've run into think that discussion is the point of these classes (some profs may think this too). Call me old-fashioned, but I still think the point of discussion-based classes is learning—facts, concepts, argumentative strategies at the very least—and I don't think that goes on for a lot of people. I think a lot of "discussion" is just extemporaneous speaking.

To put it a different way, Dartmouth students have, for the most part, no intellectual humility. I don't think they ever pause to consider how smart the author of the novel they're reading is, or how much more information the sociologist who wrote their textbook has combed through to come to her conclusions. There is no sense of the scale of intellectual achievement at Dartmouth—a poem by Keats is just raw material for one's next paper. Theories are not accomplishments—they're merely discussion topics.

I'm sorry for the rant, but I've gotten bitter in my old age. Unlike so many here at Dartmouth, I'm no longer young enough to know everything.

(This post was inspired, in part, by this annoying freshman.)


  1. Anonymous12:16 PM

    I don't think the students who argue that smaller is better necessarily follow the logic you ascribe to them. I think there are 2 other explanations:

    1. Some students think that smaller is better because everyone says this, and they haven't given any thought as to why. US News says it's good, college promotional literature says it's good, so it must be. Who cares why.

    2. In smaller classes, the professors are typically more accessible, both during class and in office hours. If you're in a class of 8 people, it's more likely that if something either confuses or interests you, it won't be too difficult to bug the professor about it after class. If you're in a class of 50, you'll have to sign up for a 10-minute slot 2 weeks in advance, or you'll be shunted off to a TA or something like that. I always got more out of office hours than out of my vocal classmates, and I think that at least some of the people who favor smaller classes see it the same way.

    Anyway, maybe I skimmed too quickly, but if I recall correctly, Mr. Baron didn't say why he thinks smaller classes are necessary, and I don't think that your intuition as to why he feels the way he does is necessarily correct.

    The "no intellectual humility" humility point is still valid, though.

  2. Maybe there's something I'm missing, but I actually find Mr. Gottlieb pretty funny. Self-awareness is a pretty key character trait for anyone, but especially so for those who put themselves and their opinions into the public sphere. What are your specific objections to his writing?

  3. Anonymous, maybe my intuition is not correct for Baron, but I don't think it's that far off.
    I assume that Baron is thoughtful enough for the first option not to be the case, and as for the second, I guess I'm just so used to freshmen flaunting their opinions that this was the first thing I thought of—they want to be able to share their opinions in class too. Perhaps that's bad psychologizing, but it doesn't seem outlandish to me.

    Adi, I don't personally feel that self-awareness is redeeming. I'm sure that Larry the Cable Guy is self-aware to some extent. That doesn't make him funny or reasonable. Self-awareness is only redemptive when it leads to (some, occasional) subtlety or nuance. I think that Gottlieb wouldn't know nuance if it wrote the Collected Works of Oscar Wilde on his face.

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  6. Jake Baron4:40 PM

    "If ----- felt that Glovsky's criticisms were unjust, he should have just written a better column the next time out." I like that idea. Unfortunately, it seems the sarcastic, retaliatory pieces always get too much attention regardless.

    On that note, leaving aside my tone or my intellectual pretension or whatever it is, do you have a response to the content of the piece?

  7. Anonymous11:19 PM

    Mr. Baron, Of course he does not. If he did, he would have written it in his diatribe. It is painfully obvious Mr. Seal is in bed with the administration for some odd reason and will defend them no matter what.

  8. Do you people really think that there is one singular Administration that consistently positions itself against the wishes of the student/alum body? The administration is made up of hundreds if not thousands of individuals with just as many agendas, without power consolidated in any one body with the possible exception of the trustees, which are obviously ideologically fragmented. There is no Administration to be in bed with. He could be in bed with Jimmy, I guess. Or in bed with OPAL, or whatever. But let's be specific.

    Also, Jacob, I can't speak for Andrew but the problem I had with your article was that it was completely vacuous and put forward meaningless statistics to make a point. You know as well as I do that the 8:1 ratio means next to nothing considering that we don't have grad schools or a widespread TA program, and you used it because you were lazy. You also failed to make it clear why all classes need to be made smaller, all the time. The piece was poorly thought-out and needlessly alarmist.

  9. I do have a response to your piece, Jacob, and it's basically along the lines that Connor laid out—raw statistics are pretty meaningless without a solid rationale why the statistics work your way. I don't feel you adequately did that, and I didn't think I needed to explain that to the readers of this blog. I can't really argue you point by point if your only point is that Dartmouth has a faculty growth percentage which you think is too small. It's not that I think we have more than enough faculty, but that I think there are a number of other, more important reasons why students may feel dissatisfied with their classes and the amount of interaction they have with their profs.

    One thing is the D-Plan. It forces students to be filling distribs their junior and even senior year and, given the way most Dartmouth students fill their distribs, this means that upperclass students are taking intro level courses in subjects they couldn't care about. Even if the professor actually is quite accessible, a lot of students won't take the time to connect to her if they hate the material, and they won't bother to understand it much either.

    Second is the distrib pattern itself. I'm not for a rigid core curriculum and I'm less for a Brown-type system and, quite honestly, I'm not sure how to improve on what we've got, but i do know that what we do have encourages students to fill up almost a third of their Dartmouth career with courses that they often outright dislike and never planned on liking.

    Third is the fact that students take so damn long to choose a major. By not choosing early, or by switching late, students find themselves taking basic courses in their major in their junior or even senior year. And you're not going to build very good rapport with the professors in your department if you haven't been in it for very long.

    Fourth is the sad state of student work habits and study skills. You're typically not going to have meaningful conversations with your professor if you don't even do your reading, and you're not going to be able to get good help from them if you're having trouble with reading you never did.

    Fifth, and most irritating to me, is the tenor of student expectations for professors' treatment of them. A lot—-almost all, I think—-of students expect to be awarded points for trying-—not even trying hard, just trying. Many will say that their professor is inaccessible or distant if she doesn't do everything in her power to help you ace her class. I find that ridiculous. Students here expect to be coddled and then rewarded for not completely ignoring their professors' efforts to make it easy for them to do well. And they expect a strong relationship with professors to be something that just happens right away. Maybe they all watched "Dead Poets Society" too many times, but if you want a good relationship with your prof, you should work at it a little. She shouldn't have to do all the outreach.

    All this, and I haven't even touched on class sizes, which I don't think works quite as straightforwardly as you seem to believe anyway. I don't think there is a causal or even strongly correlative link between class size and actual worth. I've taken maybe five classes with enrollments over 100 at Dartmouth. I've enjoyed and been stimulated by every one. I honestly wouldn't trade them for five 12-person seminars on the same subjects.

    So now I've given you a response, Jacob. I think you're trying hard and I appreciate that—and I don't mean that in a patronizing way. I think it's great that you're already thinking about Dartmouth's "issues." I wish more students did. But don't settle for statistical explanations or for simple comparisons to other Ivies. There are a host of reasons—many unique to Dartmouth—for almost every Dartmouth phenomenon, and it's important that you consider at least the possibility of their presence before you rush to your computer to write your next column.

  10. Anonymous @ 11:19 : Please show me where in this all I've defended "the administration." I complained that students' attitudes toward their classes suck and should be reconsidered. What in that praises "the administration"?

  11. Anonymous12:21 PM

    "I think a lot of 'discussion' is just extemporaneous speaking."

    I find this hilarious.

  12. Anonymous12:22 PM

    "To put it a different way, Dartmouth students have, for the most part, no intellectual humility. I don't think they ever pause to consider how smart the author of the novel they're reading is, or how much more information the sociologist who wrote their textbook has combed through to come to her conclusions. There is no sense of the scale of intellectual achievement at Dartmouth—a poem by Keats is just raw material for one's next paper. Theories are not accomplishments—they're merely discussion topics."

    This, however, is a good point.

  13. Anonymous1:34 PM

    Your eventual reply toward my Baron should have been your initial post. It is very well laid out and less accusatory.

    In general, your ideas are cogent and your writing is sound. You should waste less time on pointing out the faults of others. Reading about the origination of your ideas/solutions is far more interesting than a stream of enmity toward the opposition you've defined.

  14. Jake Baron6:59 PM

    To Connor's points:

    1. This is not a conspiracy theory. I in no way claim to oppose anybody all the time, whatsoever. The word "administration" does not appear in the article. (I used "bureaucrats" instead--one of the reasons for this was the one you point out.)

    2. "... put forward meaningless statistics to make a point." It annoys me that you would say this. It makes me feel like I'm banging my head against a wall. If you don't have statistics to make a point, you have anecdotes. In other words, you have nothing at all. Any anecdote you can give Harvard can give better. All it takes to make any point using anecdotes is finding the right handful of eloquent people to interview and quote.

    I readily admit that the cross-institution statistics I was able to find are certainly not perfect measures of an institution's "intellectual intimateness." For instance, I don't know precisely which classes U.S. News counts. Do the figures include classes not normally open to undergraduates? How are TA sections handled? These are legitimate questions. But in doing basic, lay-of-the-land research, you use the numbers you can get. Alas, I don't have a team of graduate students to run around and collect new data for me every two weeks.

    That being said, U.S. News's numbers are great indicators. The basic assumption, which I thought was obvious, is that there should be a strong negative correlation between class size (measured however) and intellectual intimateness. I suppose you can attack that assumption if you want, but I don't think you'll convince anybody. So given the great deal of energy Dartmouth's bureaucrats expend to convince people that Dartmouth's intellectual atmosphere is much more intimate than it's competitors', it is jarring to find that its classes are actually LARGER, no matter what questions one may have about guts of the statistic that says this. It is jarring because according to U.S. News's numbers, it's not an exaggeration to say Dartmouth's classes are smaller than its competitors'--it's a blatant lie. By their count, the claim is objectively and demonstrably false. Normally one doesn't expect the people running an institution of higher education to be spreading outright lies about it.

    So shoot all the holes you want in the U.S. News figures. But in order to compensate for the giant gap between the bureaucrats' claims and U.S. News's version of reality, you'll have to shoot some pretty big holes. Either that or refute the very basic assumption that when it comes to classes, smallness leads to intimateness.

    And if you want to shoot holes in the U.S. News numbers, you have to do so with other numbers. You can't speculate. One might guess for instance that the percentage of Harvard's classes that are not normally open to undergraduates is higher than the same percentage at Dartmouth, but until you have a credible count, the guess is worth next to nothing to the discussion. (Whether or not it's just extemporaneous speaking.)

    As for the Dartmouth-specific statistics, well, they're about as irrefutable as you can get. Simple, plain numbers about how many new professors and administrators we've hired recently. When I see something like this,

    "The net gain in administrative positions over five years was more than twice the net gain in tenure-track faculty positions over ten years,"

    I'm left with a blank, quizzical stare. What? Excuse me? Are we reading the same mission statement? This is supposed to be an educational institution?

    That covers Connor and Andrew's first paragraph. The rest of Andrew's comments don't really bear on my piece. I wasn't discussing student dissatisfaction with anything. I was discussing the disconnect between the PR emphasis on intimateness and the apparently low priority faculty growth is given in reality. But I'll respond briefly anyway.

    D-plan, distributive requirements, major: I approve of the way all of these work. If some students have problems with these systems for the reasons Andrew mentions, the fault is entirely their own. It's very possible to navigate the system of requirements without taking a single undesirable class, given a little foresight. Any student not doing so is wasting his or her parents' money.

    Bad work habits, unfair expectations: again, blame for this lies solely with students. I'm not really interested in discussing what I see as the rather obvious conclusions that if students are incompetent or set unrealistic expectations, they will be dissatisfied.

    Class sizes. My personal experience has been this: classes are less enjoyable and less educational the larger they are up to a critical number of about 80 students, beyond which size no longer has any effect. That is, a 100-student intro lecture is, to me, no different than a 1000-student intro lecture. (That's one of the reasons I'm skeptical of people who knock large universities for having "gigantic" intro classes--yes they're gigantic, but ours are huge enough to feel every bit as dissatisfying and alienating.) If your personal experience disagrees with mine, well, I have nothing to say. You know how I feel about anecdotal arguments, and I'm utterly uninterested in having a theoretical debate about it.

    As an aside, about freshman writing for campus news organizations: I would like to point out that I, an ignorant freshman, received a blitz yesterday from who but the Dartmouth Free Press, with the subject line "Join the DFP!"

  15. Jake, I have no problem with freshmen writing for campus publications. I think it's a good thing, in fact. But I don't think the track record for the crew of freshmen D opinion writers—Brett, Nathan, Zach—has been all that good. You're a lot better than they are, and I will readily admit that I'm reacting a lot more to a whole year's worth of frustration with the columnists than just to your column, but I do think that even by the standards of years past (and people like Zach Moore and John Wisniewski set the bar really low), the freshmen columnists have been ridiculously self-important and cocksure. I'm sorry my frustration was vented on one of your columns, but I really do think you all could spend a little more time getting used to the idea that answers don't come as easy as you all apparently think they do—at Dartmouth or elsewhere.

  16. Jake,

    In response to the last para in your post: speaking from experience, inviting freshmen to JOIN a publication is a far cry from actually allowing them to write anything, at least if it's not heavily edited first.

    To paraphrase a former Op-Ed editor of the D: "if it fits in the space we have, we'll run it." If you don't see the inherent problem there, well, you've just proved Glovsky's and Seal's point.

  17. Oh yeah, and how could I forget Max Bryer! He knocked the bar really low.

  18. Jake, I read the rest of your comment. I think you actually missed the point of my response (the comment one, not the post one). I'm saying that students' actual experiences matter more than a bunch of numbers about class sizes, and that that's the kind of analysis you should be taking on. I think you're biased toward pure statistics because your bank of experiences at Dartmouth is pretty low yet. Maybe I'm biased toward anecdotal and theoretical analyses, but I can give you reasons why I think that beats straight up statistics if you're interested. You say you're uninterested in theoretical discussions, so I won't press the issue. Suffice it to say, I think your analysis was superficial and doesn't really get at any of the real problems facing students, which is all I really care about. The PR office can tell students that every class is catered daily by Ben and Jerry's for all I care if students are actually being served well by their professors when they get here. I think they are to a greater degree than you're allowing for. If your only aspiration in this piece is to point out that the PR department overstates its case, well, you're shooting fairly low.

    As for my focusing on the faults of students—yeah, that was completely purposeful. I think a proper analysis of why students may feel like they're not getting much out of their big classes has to focus on what the students are actually doing. I don't think you care about that, or didn't think about it, and I find that problematic.

    But more than anything, I disagree that your assertion "smallness=intimateness" also produces a valid inverse ("largeness=lack of intimateness"). I could be wrong, but I think that's actually a common logical fallacy.

  19. I have some anecdotal evidence backed by statistical data I took on how class participation based classes are not as beneficial for learning as they might appear to be. A few terms ago, I took a 20 person seminar. The teacher, an expert in the field, would start the class with some initial comments then open the floor for student comments and questions about the readings. The goal was for the students to sustain a discussion with minimal input from him. I have to confess, I enjoyed the classes where that goal failed much more than the ones where it succeeded. He knew what he was talking about and so did the authors of the books we read, so listening to him talk about the readings was much more helpful than discussion.

    Here are the stats I took to keep myself occupied during the less helpful classes.

    A single student was responsible for 15% of all comments made in class. The worst part is that this student admitted outside of class to not doing the reading, ever. He wanted the full participation grade, so he would open the book to a random page, look at it for a minute and say, “It’s interesting on page x where the author says y.” The top 6 participants were responsible for 64% of the comments. If the learning-by-participation theory is true, does that mean the other 14 students weren’t learning as well? Should a class be run in a format that benefits a relatively small percent of the students (the ones who like to hear themselves talk)?

    There was also an interesting gender divide. Of those top 6 participants, 5 were male. There were only 6 males in the class, so this is significant. In fact, males spoke 2.8 times as much as females. I don’t know what to read into these stats, but someone might be interested.

    The main point, though, is that anecdotal evidence could be valid. Just because no one’s taken data on how beneficial small classes are, doesn’t mean that they aren’t less beneficial then they are promoted to be. This data is a start; keep track of your own seminar classes if you want more. I’m not certain, but I’m guessing you’ll find similar results of a precious few making the vast majority of the comments. The point Andrew made earlier about professors being experts and your classmates being novices who like to talk is a good one. Professors are experts, and if they’re good, you’ll learn more in their lectures then you ever will in a discussion with you peers. Lecture is a teaching method that scales well, so considering that it might be a superior method to discussion makes class size a less important issue. I can’t really see how my thermodynamics lectures would be more beneficial to me or any other student if there were 20 people in lecture as opposed to 30. The same goes for a almost every other subject I’ve studied in my 4 years here.

  20. Anonymous12:00 AM

    As a freshman myself, I've come to really hate a lot of the overriding themes that characterize the freshman class. The ridiculously inflated self-worth and pompousness of freshman girls is the pinnacle of this, espeically in light of the fact that the only reason these individuals are given a special status is because they're expected to behave in a naive, stupid, and easily manipulated manner. Even more generally speaking though, I think that freshman should know their roles - we're not stupid and unable to contribute, but there are certainly limits of experience to our ability to do so. Especially given that we haven't had the opportunity to access some of the key elements of Dartmouth life (upper level classes, senior societies, leadership positions on campus, and of course the Greek scene), I really feel as though my classmates need to understand the value of shutting the fuck up and learning from those people who know more about Dartmouth than they do.

    Oh, and slutty freshman girls who think they're the shit because they're dating senior frat brothers should go to hell - I can't wait until next fall when suddenly no one gives a shit about you because they finally realize what a stupid social climbing whore you are.

  21. Jake Baron4:00 AM

    There are no missed points here. Neither Andrew nor I have missed any of each other's points. We're simply interested in different issues. Andrew is interested in exposing problems with student behavior and with Dartmouth's academic structures that cause students to be dissatisfied with their classes. (As I understand.) I'm interested in exposing the eggregious mismanagement of a multi-million dollar budget by a small group of politically pandering, hypocritical bureaucrats. (Case in point: indiscriminately tossing away $14 million out of the Capital Campaign for the Floren Varsity House, in order to quell political flames for which they themselves were directly responsible.) Apparently Andrew thinks I'm setting my sights low with that topic, or something. Whatever.

  22. Jake, I'm not sure where you're getting your facts, but the news release I saw (here) that the Floren Varsity House was largely funded by a direct gift, not by funds from the Capital Campaign.

    I also think the indiscriminateness with which you link PR department tactics and spending decisions with the programs and goals of the athletics department is a little suspect. Connor pointed out before that you seem to envision the whole administration as a monolithic entity; you objected, but here you show that very same kind of impulse.

  23. Anonymous11:04 PM

    12:00 - Why are you so angry at first year women? It sounds like you are really lonely.

    I'm a senior at Dartmouth, and even in my larger classes I've been able to speak up in class and go to office hours to get my questions answered. I feel like students want so much "hand-holding" at this school. Are you those students that had their mother's fill in their applications to college? If you can't gather up the courage to raise your hand and ask the question, it probably doesn't matter if the class is 15 or 50 people.

    It's the same thing when people complain about access to deans and even Prez. Wright. He has office hours every week, and has lunches with students. You can talk to him about whatever you want, and if you can't make those times, you can email his staff and they are more than happy to make an appt for you. Don't call the administration "inaccessible" when it's your problem that you are too intimidated by "Parkhurst."

    Students are always asking for more autonomy and independence, but then saying that they need more easier, meaningful ways to access the administration. Just go talk to them; what's the big deal?