Letter to the editor: Occidental underutilizes its small classes

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At my high school in New York City, all of our classes were conducted in a seminar style. Because classes catered to student discussions, the teacher was less of an overpowering instructor and more of a facilitator. Coming to a small liberal arts college, I expected more of the same. This learning environment was, in fact, the reason I was drawn to small schools like Oxy. 

I started college online and from my bedroom — a story many of us know well. I was obviously upset about having to start college online, but I was at least eager to begin learning at an exciting new institution! Yet during my first First Year Seminar (FYS), I was shocked at how much time the professor spent talking. I understand that it can be harder to facilitate a discussion over Zoom, but it still felt silly to have such an intentionally small class size — 12 students — and still be listening to my professor lecture off of a PowerPoint slide or summarize a reading for 55 minutes. All I really wanted was to talk to my classmates about the material and hear what they thought. We are situated in a unique environment, where classes are small enough that professors are able to recognize each student individually. That’s a significant part of the purpose of a small school: so students can have more personal connections with professors and peers, especially compared to larger institutions like the Universities of California, with lecture halls filled with hundreds of students. So why don’t we use our small class sizes to their full potential?

Small classes also present a clear opportunity to personalize the class structure based on students’ different learning styles and make room for flexibility. According to a study in the BioMed Central (BMC) journal publisher, 2-8 percent of college students report having symptoms of ADHD. When a significant portion of our population has difficulty learning in our current system that reinforces monotony and limits organic thought, this puts students with attention deficit disorders at a disadvantage. We should focus our attention to changing the classroom environment to reflect a more natural, fluid and curiosity-driven form of learning.

In all of my humanities classes at Oxy, which usually have no more than 20 students, I find that students only talk directly to the professor, rather than to their classmates. I’m guilty of this too — it feels like a dance we do, trying to say something that the teacher will applaud us for and competing for who can provide the most profound and well-articulated answer rather than an organic group discussion. To me, a true discussion occurs when everyone is engaged equally in a conversation. I find that this works best in a physical setting where each participant can see everyone else, and each seating position in the configuration is no more powerful than the next, like a seminar-style circle or rectangle. This is how we conduct many professional and social interactions — like our meetings at work and our meals at the Marketplace. Why can’t it also be how we learn?

One high school memory that sticks out to me is when my teacher opened up a discussion about the city-wide student-led climate strike that was to occur later that day. Because some students were participating and others weren’t, the teacher was curious to know what our reasons were for participating in the strike or staying at school. This led to almost a full period of class time that the teacher willingly sacrificed for us to discuss a topic that was personal and timely. We openly disagreed with each other and asked thoughtful questions. I’m grateful that we were all given the chance to have an important conversation that would not have occurred outside of class. We sat around in our rectangular configuration of desks, debating something that was deeply academic but also deeply personal. This kind of care and openness bled into other conversations in our class, whether we were reading “Pride and Prejudice” or unpacking the philosophy of W.E.B. Du Bois. Our teacher demonstrated flexibility and clear interest in what students cared about. To me, that is what stands out as a model for a school culture of care, openness and adaptability. This culture had a ripple effect as I noticed myself really caring and listening to what my classmates had to say, which made our discussions much more meaningful.

I find that I less frequently feel empowered by my professors’ interest in what I have to say at Oxy. Asking what the class thinks seems more like an act of courtesy or a performative question, when in reality the professor believes themself to know the information or the answer. This is clear to me when my professors end a class by saying, “I realized that I spent most of the class talking, I’ll leave more time for discussion next class” — a promise that is rarely fulfilled. If it didn’t cross their mind to let students participate, it seems to me like they didn’t expect much of us (or take much interest in what we had to say) in the first place. I often leave class feeling angry and disappointed — at myself for not listening or engaging, and at the professor for lecturing for an hour and a half.

Let’s give ourselves the patience and time to work through big ideas at our own pace, and take real interest in what our peers have to say. Give students the opportunity to ask questions and we will. By this, I don’t just mean pausing during a lecture to ask, “Any questions?” I want students and teachers alike to envision a learning experience that is fueled by student curiosity at its core. This might look like allowing classes to go on relevant personal tangents, carving out time for students to explore their reactions, questions or connections to a topic (through exercises like free writes) or facilitating a discussion with guiding questions while still letting students arrive at a conclusion of their own accord.

I know that my high school was very unique, so I’m aware that I have high standards for how respected I should feel in an educational setting. This is my vision for a future of education that values curiosity and discussions, and which also humanizes the connection between students and teachers. I’m not blaming the students nor the professors at Oxy — I know it can be difficult when we are stuck in the traditional methods of teaching and learning, but I also know that change will be worth it.

Contact Sarah Williams at swilliams3@oxy.edu.

American Studies major, Class of 2024