Something that has disappointed me about Philosophy 105 so far is that, despite the professor’s clearly stated invitation for we across the lectern to engage in active debate and discussion, there is a paucity of student participation in class: outside of the usual suspects — leather-jacket guy, etc. — most of the class never says a word.
And then something happened this morning. It snowed. And so what is usually a class of 30 became a class of 16. And the dynamics of the class changed in a palpable way.
More people than ever before made contributions. Some who hadn’t said a single word to date. The class was more of a discussion than a lecture. It was as if an important population threshold had been dipped below and whatever combination of reticences had kept people quiet was suddenly not there.
I don’t want to exaggerate the change — we didn’t achieve Algonquin Round Table-levels of thrilling interplay — but that it was so obvious a change makes me wonder whether there is a natural size for the university classroom that, if exceeded, transforms the environment from one of collaboration to one of performance.
Of course a class of 30 would, in many situations, be seen as a luxurious ideal. And certainly this format, setting aside the reticence issue, seems to be working well.
This has me thinking a lot about my time at Trent University in the mid-1980s. One of Trent’s calling cards was “small group teaching” and because I’d never experienced “large group teaching” elsewhere, I never really saw what the big deal was: I simply took it for granted that a tutorial of a dozen students plus a professor gathered around a table was how university worked.
The further I get from Trent, and the more I see how other institutions work, the more I come to appreciate its virtues: at least back then Trent, through thoughtful architecture, the college system, class size and educational philosophy managed to achieve something very, very special. At the time I thought it was commonplace; obviously it is not.
On Friday, assuming the weather returns to normal, the class size will balloon back up to 30 and, I’m afraid, the unexpected breakout of collegiality will become a distant memory. It was nice while it lasted.