My old friend and first teaching mentor, John, wrote: “A class with 64 students? That sounds like an institutional problem. How can you possibly be pedagogically effective with a class that large?”
Just like that he had, as usual, driven straight to the heart of the matter and pointed to the structural issues at the root. John maintains it is profoundly impossible to teach a class of 64 using sound pedagogy and that it is the responsibility of the school or college to not force teachers to work with that many students.
Clearly he is right in so many ways. However, I have several questions. Here’s a few. Is it really impossible to teach large classes in a pedagogically sound way? Aren’t there ways of doing this well? When the drop rate is high in a setting—such as a large, urban community college, which is where I teach—does it make sense to allow large classes thinking that some of the students won’t stay and that, therefore, I am creating an opportunity for more students to pass the class that semester? If I do that, am I in fact limiting my ability to support all the students and therefore causing more students to drop than would have if I’d started with a smaller class and been more able to support a large percentage of them? In what ways could my college support me so that I don’t have classes this large?
All this began because of my somewhat unorthodox method of adding students. At my college, beginning on the first day of classes, the instructor has total control over the enrollment of his or her class. We start with, hopefully, a full class (35 for most math courses); from there we can either give or not give “add codes” to new students until the add deadline, approximately 2½ weeks later. The officially sanctioned method of adding students is to give priority to students with early registration dates, which they must prove. I don’t like this method because of the potential to manipulate early registration dates: essentially, students that know how to work the system can get an early registration date; those you don’t, can’t.
Partly to combat what I think of as an unfair system, I have been using a different method. On the first day I announce that if a student who is not registered for the class wants to be added, she or he must come to class every day and turn in homework every day. The students who do that for two weeks get an add code.
I like my method of adding students for several reasons beyond any partial alleviation of inequities in the registration system. My method gives more power to students by letting them choose whether they want to be in my class or not; as long as they follow the agreement I propose, they are in. My method also promotes good habits—doing homework and coming to class every day—that usually lead to successfully completing a course. Finally, I’m giving them and me a chance to find out if they really can do what is necessary to pass.
Up until this semester, my little system has resulted in my giving between 10 and 15 add codes per class. The class is still a little larger than ideal, but it is not so bad that I can’t handle it. However, this semester, everything changed. In my intermediate algebra course there were 80 people on the first day. That was a little surprising, but the truly amazing thing to me was that 64 of them came to class and did their homework every day for two weeks. Some of them don’t have desks. I gave a quiz on day six. People were working on notebooks in their laps and even on the floor. I was a little in awe to see this kind of effort by so many students, not to mention a more than a little overwhelmed by the amount of grading I was doing. I mentioned all this to John in an email and back came his simple, probing response.
I can’t back down now. I am committed to my class of 64 for this semester. To deal with it, I am trying to be as creative as possible, using as many structures that promote individual and group interaction with the material. Just this week I had a great day of group work in which I helped students make connections with each other that seemed to be especially powerful, answering questions for students that needed help and giving stronger students the opportunity to show what they could do. Nevertheless there will always be times when I have to lecture. Now, I know I could work on giving better lectures, but I have a hard time believing that lecturing to 60 people is effective pedagogy for more than about 5 minutes, maybe 10 if I happen to be especially riveting that day. No one comes up after a lecture to say, wow, that was compelling, Hal. Sometimes they do come up after class to let me know that an activity was good for them.
As you might expect, bell hooks has something to say about class size. In “Building a Teaching Community”—is a dialog between hooks and her colleague, Ron Scapp—from Teaching to Transgress, she writes, “even the best, most engaged classroom can fail under the weight of too many people.” hooks uses “liberatory pedagogical practices” in her classroom, practices that make her classes more popular and “those practices are undermined by sheer numbers. . . . Over crowded classes are like overcrowded buildings—the structure can collapse.”
Scapp responds with:
In terms of the institution, we have to realize that if we are working on ourselves to become more fully engaged, there’s only so much that we can do. Ultimately, the institution will exhaust us simply because there is no sustained institutional support for liberatory pedagogical practices.
hooks follows that with:
It’s been really troubling to me. The more the engaged classroom because overcrowded, the more it is in danger of being a spectacle, a place of entertainment. When that happens, the potential transformative power of that classroom is undermined, and my commitment to teaching is undermined.
What they describe is almost exactly my experience this semester. When I’m not able to create effective group or individual activities for my class, I find my self exaggerating, gesturing, using wild metaphors—performing for them in an effort to keep their attention. I have also noticed that I have less energy for reaching those students who aren’t keeping up as well as they or I would like. Sometimes I find myself (guiltily, shame-facedly) hoping those struggling students will drop so I’ll have less students—this is just wrong, wrong, wrong. Finally, I can just feel myself getting tired; I’m wondering how to survive it on a Tuesday at midnight with two more hours of grading to do and class at 8 AM. I am at best on ethically dubious ground, and I cannot sustain the schedule. I am not the teacher I can be and I may ruin my psychological and physical health.
Hooks and Scapp point to another danger for teachers with large classes and our tendency to perform for them.
Scapp: We have to resist being turned into spectacles. That means resisting “star” status, resisting playing the role of performer. One of the disadvantages, I’d say, to your own [hooks’] celebrity might be the attraction of certain people to the classroom to watch, rather than to be engaged. That’s a problem in our culture with celebrity itself, but one can refuse to be simply watched.
hooks: When we have start status, iconic status as professors, people stop coming to classes solely because they desire participatory education. . . . The classroom is not for stars; it’s a place for learning. For me star status can be diffused by willingness to inhabit locations where that status does not exist.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not in danger of becoming a star in the same sense that bell hooks is one. But I do worry about the danger of being the star of the classroom in my mind and in the minds of my students. The more I can remove myself from the center of the room and make each student their own center, the more I’ve succeeded in helping them take control of their learning; certainly, they learn more in that case.
I don’t have the answers to my questions. I do know that I will not let my class be this large again. To do so is a disservice to both my students and myself. Unfortunately, this will mean taking back some of the power I’ve been trying to give my students. As with most things in life, I will try to find a new balance of these issues that preserves as much power for students as possible, while also preventing too large a class.
Beyond that, however, there is the issue of creating an institution that better supports teachers in their attempts to be good teachers. How would it do that? Ongoing, systematic professional training seems a minimum (probably the subject of another post). Should there be mandatory class size limits? I’m reluctant to give the power of my class roll away, but maybe that’s what I need. At the risk of incurring the wrath of my fellow teachers, I say if it would help me be a better educator, I am willing to give up that control. Checks and balances are necessary for all of us. I believe giving up some of the control (while still retaining responsibility) in the classroom is at the root of the liberatory practices that hooks and Scapp discuss. Finding the right balance is difficult. I welcome your thoughts and comments on where that balance should be.