Small Class Bliss

My senior seminar on early medieval chronicles has a total enrolment of sixteen.

In twenty years of full-time teaching, I’ve never had a senior seminar with so few students. Two years ago I had nineteen and thought that I was fortunate. Sixteen seems even better. This particular group of sixteen is an absolute pleasure to teach.

I suspect that some of the bliss also results from the background many students bring to the topic. Four of the students have completed at least first year Latin, two others say they’re currently studying it. One student is clearly fluent in both Latin and Greek. I am envious as my Greek is at the elementary level of recognize the letters and about three dozen key words!

While all of our readings are in translation, it’s wonderful to have students critique the translator’s word choice or comment on the echoes of other classical models they see in the writing style they’re analyzing. I’m more accustomed to students taking my seminars lacking even the most basic of prerequisites such as our western civ freshman course or a sophomore-level subject survey. When half the class doesn’t have a clue about the history they’re tackling, no amount of background readings will fix the problem.

But it isn’t just the linguistic and topical course background that distinguishes the class. Almost every student has identified a useful background they bring to the course. For instance, another number of students have a strong grounding in religious and Biblical studies. A few others have a good sense of theory that’s quite applicable. Put all of these together and you have a nigh-on-perfect mix for lively discussions on the class board as well as in the classroom.

I like to think this makes up for my other two undergraduate classes sitting right at the course caps of 80. These are also pretty good classes where students are following my lead to comment and contribute but it is far more difficult to achieve this in a group of 80 than in the much smaller class where I’m mostly scrambling to get out of their way and facilitate the shift from talking to the professor to talking with each other.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Small Class Bliss

  1. That sounds like the class from heaven, for the professor and for the students as well.

    I never managed to take one of your seminars, but of the ones that I did take I had those with lively discussions and a couple that you could almost hear a pin drop most weeks. The former were rewarding in so many way. They even made the crazy number of students in my 4th year manageable.

    Have a great term!

    • jliedl

      I think the students are appreciating the chance to get more personal attention (not just from me but from their classmates who’re all part of the dynamic).

      You have a great term with your teaching, too!

    • jliedl

      I don’t want you to be in a position where you have to envy this good fortune, but it’s definitely a pleasure for all involved. I was chatting with a former student who’d taken the same course several years ago when we had about 28 or 30 students. He agreed that the large size had often made the seminar a frustrating experience of non-communication.

  2. Lovely! Here’s the moment where I should be quiet about the fact that all of my classes are about that size, but of course they’re not coming in at the same level or with the same background as yours are. Sounds like a fabulous term for you and for them.

    • jliedl

      I once taught an undergraduate class of four (we’d started with six but ended with four!) and that was terrifying because of fears they’d cancel the course or that one strong flu bug might wipe out the class for a week. Nowadays all but my seminar run at the cap which I set at 80.