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.