FOGEL: Lecture me not

Top-tier professors should dedicate more time to smaller classes

This past week, Professor Larry Sabato officially announced what he had previously told his current American Politics 1010 class — that next year he will discontinue teaching his ever-popular introductory class. The announcement came after 35 years of teaching thousands of students. Nevertheless, Sabato made the right decision to step down from his intro class, and it is important that other high-profile professors consider following suit.

It is wondrous how the largest classes here at the University manage to attract the most attention. This phenomenon is largely due to the multitude of impressive professors in various fields as well as certain required courses for departments. On the other hand, when a lecture-style class reaches over 100 students, let alone 300 or more, it is nearly impossible to maintain any sort of interaction between professors and students.

As a member of Professor Sabato’s last intro class this semester, I have observed his ability to entertain some questions, except they are few and far between. Other large introductory lectures featuring distinguished professors — such as Professor Elzinga’s Principles of Microeconomics class — fail to allow room for questions at all. No matter how well-known professors are, lack of engagement with students immediately reduces their classes to an experience similar to that of an online course, which is obviously no fault of the professors.

Besides a lack of interaction, introductory classes also often contain the tedious foundational context of a particular department. Introduction to American Politics features the basic concepts of the Constitution and three branches of government, just as Principles of Microeconomics features the basic concepts of supply and demand. Despite only taking a few introductory classes so far, I expect that the basic concepts involved with intro classes extend to all departments as well. Although these concepts build the foundation for future classes in a department, they are often dull and at times repetitive. They are usually meant to prepare students for the more interesting information to come in the future.

Professors like Sabato and Elzinga who teach classes of 400 or more students are thus faced with the ultimate task of not only holding students’ attention for a 50-minute period but also keeping them from being distracted by the people around them. In all of my intro classes, there are always students with laptops, and students with laptops usually cause plenty of distractions.

A strong point of contention would be that it is better to have excellent professors teaching dull intro classes in order to make the material more interesting. Even though there are students who genuinely appreciate the material in these introductory courses, the majority of the students taking intro classes taught by acclaimed professors are likely doing so to gain the “experience” that comes with taking the class. Often these students have no intention of pursuing that particular field. If these large introductory classes are in fact filled with many students just in it for the experience, this means that distinguished professors teaching intro classes are spending less time with students who are truly inspired to pursue a degree in that field. By devoting more time to 2000 or 3000 level classes and above, well known professors spend more time engaging with the students that most appreciate the subject.

This is not to say that large lecture courses are not important in order to teach many students pertinent information; rather, the talents of professors like Sabato and Elzinga may be put to waste on classes in which they cannot inspire their students to the fullest degree. I recognize that Sabato possesses a unique ability to attract guest speakers who are often exciting in an introductory politics class; however, these guest speakers might be even more meaningful if presented to a smaller politics class. For example, on February 12th Professor Sabato brought in Virginia Supreme Court justice William C. Mims to speak to his intro class. Those that do not closely follow Virginia politics, however, do not know who Mims is and are therefore unable to truly appreciate his lecture. On the other hand, if Mims were introduced to a smaller group of students majoring in political science or other related fields, there would be much greater engagement and excitement between Mims and his audience.

I had no intention of picking on Professors Elzinga and Sabato, as there are plenty of other large intro classes with famous professors. I’ve heard that Professor Bloomfield’s “How Things Work” class is worth taking. Ultimately, these professors are teaching these intro classes in order to spike student interest and inspire students. If they were to be taken away from such classes, as Sabato will be next year, introductory classes could potentially risk losing departmental attention. One possible solution would be finding exciting, young and spirited professors who could still get across introductory information in as interesting a manner as possible. This could free up space for the more experienced professors to impart wisdom on the more experienced students. Although finding new intro teachers is easier said than done, placing more familiar professors in smaller classes will be a better use of their time and expertise.

Jared Fogel is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. His columns run Fridays.

Published February 21, 2014 in Opinion

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