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We have just completed our first week of classes, and I am tired.  I always have this reaction -- I have taken a few weeks to catch up on sleep, mentally fold away the previous semester's content and challenging students, and opened the new books and the new brains (hah) to deal with the next semester's issues.  But it always surprises me how tiring it is to stand on my hind legs and be a show(wo)man for an hour or three at a time.  I need to be entertaining, informative, enthusiastic, and supportive in mentoring students through discussion of the answers to the questions they have.  In some cases this means guiding myself through to a conclusion as well, as they ask questions I may never have thought to ask.  Many of my classes are art history classes, with discussions and lectures delivered in the dark, right about lunchtime or just after lunch, and I feel I need to keep people awake, so I need to be awake and lively as well.  Needless to say, after a few weeks of rest, it is exhausting, and last night I slept ten hours straight through and didn't move at all.  Today I am more or less able to face the day, although I think I am going to get another cup of coffee in a few minutes!

This semester I had two classes that were "underenrolled" as we like to say at my university.  They had limits of 25 students per class, and they ended up with 10 each (as of this morning, and yesterday was the last day of the add/drop period, so it should probably stay at that number).  My normal teaching is three classes, two of them in the 40-45 range (I have one this term that is there), and one in the 25 student range.  Plus a senior thesis class, each term, which ranges from 1-10 students, depending on the year.  So this is new.  And, I must admit, wonderful.  It may never happen again, but I can already see the difference in how I am dealing with the class.  Follow me below the coiled serpent of orange delights to see what differences I am noticing, and please add your observations from either a teacher or a student perspective below.

The differences I can see already in the way I am interacting with my classes are dramatic.  For starters, I already know most of the students' names, and I am terrible with names!  But there are little things I can remember.  One student has as one of her languages Indonesian and that is something unusual, so I can remember that, and her.  She is an international relations major.  The student in the front row who is always willing to offer his opinion is interested in film.  The tall, quiet one in the third row uses his middle name instead of his first one and he is interested in new media studies.  There is a Japanese student who has a very heavy accent and always needs to be asked to speak up, but does offer his opinion occasionally, and he picked the introduction to interdisciplinary studies class, not because he wants an interdisciplinary major, but because he saw we had a Japanese book as a required text and that intrigued him.  There is someone interested in LGBTQ Studies, and came to class with an article on Jodie Foster's speech at the Golden Globes as the article he wanted to discuss.  There is the Biochemistry major who wants to apply her studies to the environment.  I have details to attach to individuals, and they are all individuals already.  I contrast that with last semester when two sisters sat in the front row of a class and I still couldn't keep them straight after a whole semester -- and worst of all, they were not identical twins -- there was no excuse!

In a discussion, they all are talking.  It could be the classes, but it is a good way to start.  Of course, the class that is sticking out in my mind is my interdisciplinary studies one, and I was told  by people who have taught it in the past  that the students would all be enthusiastic about the class, as they would all see it as relevant to their majors (we have only the Interdisciplinary Studies (IDS) frame for them to design their own program, so if nothing else fits, this is where they come, and no one is required to take the class, so they are all voluntary "inmates").  But even aside from the fact that they are there voluntarily, they are already learning about each other, and how to interact with each other.  As for me, I didn't have to stop and say "person in the back row with the yellow tshirt -- what do you think?" which was a lovely contrast with the usual "seminar" class.  I have taught our junior interdisiplinary seminar before and usually there are a couple who don't want to participate at all, but this class it is different.  I hope it continues.  I have tried to structure it so they are focusing on their own interests in a broad framework so I hope it is great for them.  If it continues this way, I will indeed just open up the class, make some announcements, and then tell them at the end that the time is up.  I will be a true facilitator.  That is so cool.  Wish me luck!

My other class is a bit different -- it is one of those interdisciplinary junior seminars that you have to take one of, but you may not get into the one you want.  I am teaching a class on London this semester, and while I think it would attract a lot of people, it was very much a last choice for a lot of people, apparently (or a second choice, anyway, and they got their first ones).  So it is small.  But I know the names of students already, and they seem to have a sense of humour about London.  I showed them some videos on Thursday to give them an historical sense of the city -- a video about the Great Fire of London (in 1666) and one very enthusiastic war propaganda one "we can take it" about what life was like under the Blitz, and one from the same date about "How to make proper tea" and I brought in tea for them on Thursday.  Unfortunately it was Tetley's and a bit rot-gut.  I will give in and bring in my Fortnam and Mason tea next Thursday so they can really taste the good stuff.  I couldn't conceive of doing that with a class of 25, but with a smaller one they can have good tea on Thursday afternoons and I will still have tea left over for myself when I need it.  

The one thing that won't change, no matter the size or number of students in the class, is the attention I give to their writing.  But the smaller size does mean I can get that writing back to them in a more timely manner.  I am looking forward to that.  I know it is unrealistic, but I am fantasizing about a next-class-period-for-all-assignments turnaround time.  hahahahaha.  But it is at least conceivable with this size of class, whereas with 25 or 45 it is much more challenging (i.e. almost impossible for me, but not for others who somehow manage).  Last semester with two of the large classes, and one that settled in about 21, it was a constant juggling act.  Maybe this semester it won't be.  It is a nice thought with which to start the term, anyway.  

What differences have you seen when you suddenly get an unexpectedly smaller class?  What are the challenges you have in the smaller classes?  And how is your semester starting?

Originally posted to annetteboardman on Sat Jan 19, 2013 at 10:35 AM PST.

Also republished by Teachers Lounge and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip jar (20+ / 0-)

    I thought about writing about honesty, cheating, and downright stupidity, what with Lance Armstrong, the Notre Dame idiocy, and this shocking (yet sadly not so surprising) scandal at Yale.  But I couldn't manage to do it without being prurient and depressing and outraged all at the same time.  In other words, my attempts kept turning into rants, which was doing no one any good.  I will leave it at this -- their parents should be ashamed of their kids.  And the kids should simply be ashamed.

  •  Most of my classes are small (8+ / 0-)

    usually 5-8 students. I really prefer the smaller classes because of the increased interaction.

    Classes start next week. I'm going to have one that has 24 students--huge from my perspective. Last semester this class had 8.

    It looks like I will lose half of my classes this semester due to low enrollment. As an adjunct, I get paid by the class so this will be a bit of an economic blow.

    •  Ouch, sorry to hear that (8+ / 0-)

      Low enrollments are the big terror. We are competitive where I'm at about enrollments and theme our classes, generally, and do a lot of recruitment and advertisement for classes to try to avoid this painful blow. The end of the Semester always involves running around telling everyone to go sign up for whatever we're next slated to teach, bring a friend, etc.

      Our class sizes have been swelling. They've been capping many of ours at 30 for in the discipline and then 45 for GE classes. A few hold 120; this requires TA's and is awful, IMHO. Can you say "ouch"?

      Click the ♥ to join us on the Black Kos front porch to review news & views written from a black pov - everyone is welcome.

      by mahakali overdrive on Sat Jan 19, 2013 at 11:10:19 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Letting adjuncts (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        annetteboardman

        who teach foundation level classes sit in on yours can go a long way. They can use the experience, and they will also know students that will get the most out of your classes. I loved teaching foundations level in the university where I was a grad student because I knew all the upper level faculty and had taken their classes. In a big school, or a school that is unfamiliar, this is often impossible, so everyone would benefit.

        "We are monkeys with money and guns". Tom Waits

        by northsylvania on Sun Jan 20, 2013 at 03:18:57 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  Oh, you have to love small classes (6+ / 0-)

    I'm thrilled for you this Semester, annetteboardman! I'm on teaching hiatus this Semester working with another University issue right now. My classes, in the past, have mainly been smaller other than some GE classes which were handled with TA's (nothing over 45 students, although the University has most of our classes capped at about 30 right now -- too high).

    The difference in a small setting is really profound, although if it gets too small, say below 12 students, sometimes the dynamic gets thrown off by a few quiet students or one dominant one, or just any oddities like two students with a strong interpersonal spat. My preference is 12-18 students. That lets me properly focus my attention on each of them, get to know them more personally, give them the right amount of personal advising time, go through their papers with more caution, and connect. Over 20 and the work load gets rougher in terms of grading, and a few will fall through the proverbial cracks and not get the same quality personal education I best like giving. I would imagine this changes tremendously though between disciplines.

    Click the ♥ to join us on the Black Kos front porch to review news & views written from a black pov - everyone is welcome.

    by mahakali overdrive on Sat Jan 19, 2013 at 11:06:34 AM PST

    •  I agree about the numbers. (4+ / 0-)

      Depending on the specific makeup of the class, 12 students is about right for getting a diversity of voices and a community going, particularly if it is for freshmen or sophomores (and sometimes juniors). Seniors and grads can work in a smaller class but no matter what, in any class that is community-oriented (rather than a large lecture) you need to draw out the quiet ones and stop or redirect any bullying or aggressive behavior.

      •  I think it definitely spurs positives. (0+ / 0-)

        One upside I found when I was forced into a smaller sized physical space (half size of reg rooms), but with the same # of students - about 18 - 22 on average - was that the pulling of us together, physically, enhanced the conversation and sense of community. The space itself (or lack of) fostered this more so than when everyone was pushed back into the distance.

        I think when in a larger space, if you want greater connectivity, opening up of expression and sharing, listening to each other, it helps to pull the group into a circle for certain activities, away from desks. It brings you closer to them, them closer to you and each other.

        Of course, with 40 or 50, this is just not doable. You cant make that physical closeness. I suppose one can teach some things well with that sort of a class, but there are positives, enhancements to the learning experience one just cant get with that large a group. (Barring superhuman skills!)

  •  I'm thinking about my older daughter. (10+ / 0-)

    She is all grown up now, a thousand miles away from me and half way through her own Masters program on her way to becoming a certified teacher.  

    When she was six, we placed her in a private school associated with a local Episcopal church: class size 12. Her teacher once remarked to me that it was less like teaching a class and more like having the kids over to visit in the living room.  My daughter thrived.  

    By the following year, Mrs. Left was transferred by her employer to another city.  Because poor public schools had forced us to go private in the 1st place, we looked for a new home with public schools we could respect.  We bought a house within walking distance of one of the best elementary schools in our new state.  

    But the new school used open classrooms, so the second grade class had over 100 students and four teachers, all in one large, open, multipurpose  classroom. We agonized over the decision about that school, worried that the shock of going from 11 to over 100 classmates might shock our beautiful seven year old and set back her education.  

    We needn't have worried. It was not for nothing that the school had the reputation that had attracted us in the 1st place.  The teaching teams had virtually perfected their art and our daughter thrived, both academically and socially, despite being one of the only African-Americans in the school.  

    Years later, the school district, over the protests of both the faculty, the principal and the families of most of the students, decided to conform our school to the rest of the district and wall off a classroom for every teacher in every grade, abandoning the team teaching that had succeeded so well for so many years. They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to build walls in our school that would have been better spent tearing walls out of others.  

    Aren't you glad that the clueless won't get a chance to run the country again, just yet? Yeah. Me too.

    by LeftOfYou on Sat Jan 19, 2013 at 11:09:15 AM PST

  •  I have a class of one this semester. (10+ / 0-)

    I'll be teaching Topology to a native Albanian who is a double major in math and chemistry, is very smart, highly motivated and a very hard worker.

  •  I'm giddy that my clinical course (4+ / 0-)

    is actually the size it was originally designed to be. I will never have more than four students at the clinical site with me at once.

  •  Speaking as a student (6+ / 0-)

    my favorite university-level classes were the upper-division classes that numbered 10-15 students - the smaller ones were sometimes held in the offices of the instructors (some had enough room just for this purpose -couches, etc).

    I think I simply survived my freshman and sophomore years and then thrived in the final two. More interaction, more learning from each other, easier to be heard, better access to the instructor, etc, etc.

  •  The smallest class I've taught is 14 students (4+ / 0-)

    The largest was 220. I much prefer the smaller courses, because I can get to know the students and can tailor the course (upper level/grad) somewhat to their background/interest.

    In the large classes, I still learn names of the students who sit in front or ask questions, but it's a different dynamic.

  •  Ten is an outstanding size for a class. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    annetteboardman, worldlotus

    You can really have good discussions. My Molecular Cell Biology class tends to be about that size, held down by the 2 1/2 years of chemistry (genchem, organic, and a term of biochem) one must have completed before entering my door. You can respond to the particular skill levels and personalities so much more freely in a class that size. One term I very often would put a powerpoint slide of a signaling pathway step on the screen, and instead of explaining it, I just asked the class what was happening here. (Oh hey!  Sar1 is a G protein!!!)

    I have to say, your teaching load is brutal. I'm sure I should know this from your previous diaries but... big state school? I taught at one of our Cal State schools one term, and the full-time load there is appalling. At the UC system schools, profs tend to teach 1/3 of a term, one course (that's a total of 15 lectures) twice a year. Mine (teeny private college) is the equivalent of five lecture courses per year (a lecture course being 3 ~1 hour lectures/week) plus committees and advising and stuff. Kind of in the middle.

    We all understand that freedom isn't free. What Romney and Ryan don't understand is that neither is opportunity. We have to invest in it.
    Julian Castro, DNC 4 Sept 2012

    by pixxer on Sat Jan 19, 2013 at 09:16:36 PM PST

    •  We are at a 3/3 load for the most part (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      pixxer, worldlotus

      sometimes more, plus the senior capstone on top of that.  Non tenure-track full time faculty (sometimes with years of employment) teach 4/4 as do those in some of the more pressured disciplines (comm is the main one, I think).  But there are other things one is expected to do with a 3/3 load -- service (both on-campus and to national organizations -- I am an incoming divisional chair for one of those), research, advising, etc..  But I generally love the job, so I whine, but don't really complain, if you get the difference.

      •  I definitely get the difference :) I love my job (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        annetteboardman, worldlotus

        too. I look at the profs at Cal, where their teaching load is mainly "Biochem 500" or whatever number is made up to reflect their supervision of grad students, and I envy their freedom to do their research - or at least to supervise a lot of pretty fabulous grad students doing it. But then, I have the freedom to sit in my office for an hour listening to my advisee talk about how her best friend isn't speaking to her, or to write in support of a petition to help a student withdraw from a class she shouldn't have taken in the first place, and all that. I had an interesting experience when escorting a faculty candidate across campus one day. I said hi to a number of students en route, and when we arrived, the candidate turned to me with saucer-eyes and said "You greeted every one of those students by name!" Of course I cheated - we were walking from the Bio building to the Chem building; if we'd headed through Music to Art I wouldn't have been batting 1000 ;) But yes, I do love my job, even if I whine about it occasionally :)

        We all understand that freedom isn't free. What Romney and Ryan don't understand is that neither is opportunity. We have to invest in it.
        Julian Castro, DNC 4 Sept 2012

        by pixxer on Sat Jan 19, 2013 at 09:55:48 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  The largest class I've taught regularly was (3+ / 0-)

    at Cal - I had 320 students each year for the last few years I taught it. I managed to get a bunch of them to come to office hours, and so there were 15 or so people in the same room, and we had some really nice discussions in that context. This also happened the single time I taught Bio 1A there (about 475 students, a projection screen and an entire AV team at every lecture) when I had 25 or so students come to office hours every day. By the end of that class, there were some I knew well enough that I could write them meaningful letters of reference.

    LOL! I just noticed that my Bio 1A class at Berkeley was more than 1/2 the size of our entire undergraduate student body at my full-time institution. :)

    We all understand that freedom isn't free. What Romney and Ryan don't understand is that neither is opportunity. We have to invest in it.
    Julian Castro, DNC 4 Sept 2012

    by pixxer on Sat Jan 19, 2013 at 09:31:41 PM PST

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