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Crowded classes impede learning experience

PICTURE this: a board meeting. The new recruit, fresh out of U.Va., is busily scribbling, taking note of everything important. The boss finishes his talk, then turns to the table for suggestions. He needs help - the company just realized their toughest competitor is planning to steal their government contract.

Our Wahoo looks up to see the group staring at her. After all, she did just graduate with good grades from the government department at the nation's top public university. She should know exactly what the firm's targets on Capitol Hill need to hear, how the bill will progress through committees, which foreign interests they can count on for help. And she does - she read all the books and wrote all the papers. But for some reason that learning is failing her now. She flips through her notes, but the scribbles just outline the problem and offer no clear, repeatable solution. "Um..." she stammers. The boss looks annoyed.

She did get good grades, but often they were based only on a written exam or paper - one in a sea of 60 or 70 that her professors had to fly through before grades were due. She went to all the lectures, be they 100- 300- or 400- level classes, but she spoke up only the little she had to for a decent participation grade. And when class was over, she went home to her books, not to see her professor or have a meaningful discussion about the material until the next week in class.

Abnormal? Not at all. With the department's overcrowding problem, even upper level classes can have 30 to 40 students. Of 51 government and foreign affairs undergraduate courses this semester (500 level and below), almost half have more than 30 people, and a third have more than 50. At the 400 level and above - classes meant for seminar-type participatory discussion - seven classes have more than 30 people, and only half have less than 20. According to ISIS, 18 of the 51 are overdrawn - some by 10 people or more.

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  • Department of Government and Foreign Affairs

    Even in "discussion" classes meant to supplement giant lectures, the amount of work given TAs is ridiculous. Each TA in the department has at least 40 students; some have as many as 70 and the average is around 60. That's 60 names to learn every semester, 60 10-page papers to grade, 60 different viewpoints to listen to each week in class. Some students just slip through the TAs overworked fingers.

    Attending class is one thing; getting an education is entirely different. With classes this size, government majors can attend every class and still not get the education they need to succeed in the "real world." At that board meeting, our young Wahoo didn't have time to review the literature and come up with a 10 page response. She needed to think on her feet, answer the tough questions promptly and succinctly, and put that book knowledge to work. In her 30-person "seminars" she never had to think that fast - she could let someone else answer the question if she didn't know it. Even when she did answer questions, she didn't have to present all the information or a well-reasoned train of thought. That would be monopolizing the class, after all, since everyone should get their turn.

    The government department isn't the only one having this problem. Other popular majors like economics are getting swamped with students and don't have enough classes to contain them. These departments need help from the powers-that-be to keep a decent program running through the present glut, or else our precious rankings will be severely undermined by our students' performance in the real world.

    Smaller class sizes can be accomplished in other humanities fields right here at the University. The history department offers 70 classes this semester; only 40 percent have more than 30 people, and at the 400-500 levels every class is less than 30, and most are less than 20. They have a much larger professorship than the government department as well, to better handle the load.

    The English department is equally well suited with more than 70 professors offering 83 classes (counting first-year ENWR as one giant class and public speaking as one giant class). Only 15 percent of their classes have more than 30 people, and at the 400-500 levels only one class has more than 30 people.

    Detailed discussion of literature is absolutely essential to an English class, so small sizes are the only way to go. But that discussion is equally important to an upper-level government or foreign affairs course - perhaps more so. The point of majoring in government and foreign affairs is to take that knowledge and apply it in the real world - making and affecting concrete policy. If only our Wahoo could have had such an opportunity.

    (Emily Harding's column appears Wednesdays in The Cavalier Daily.)