Monday, April 9, 2007

Smaller Classes: An Improvement for History

As noted in my previous post the academic year is drawing to a close, and an institution is allowed the opportunity to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of the year that has passed for its student body and how it can improve undergraduate programming. My home institution of the University of Southern California (pictured at the left), as a member of the Association of American Universities, takes full advantage of the chances that are provided with self-reflection at the end of another academic year. More specifically, the College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences has what is known as the Dean’s Prize, an attempt to actualize both the core ideals of USC and its plan for the future.

According to its role and mission, USC holds that its task “is the development of human beings and society as a whole through the cultivation and enrichment of the human mind and spirit….through a broad array of academic, professional, extracurricular and athletic programs of the first rank.” The USC 2004 strategic plan provides a more detailed set of values as to how the institution is going to improve the educational experience by stating that it “will focus [their] educational programs on meeting the needs of qualified students worldwide…This commitment will guide our choices regarding pedagogy, instructional technology, curriculum, admissions, and support services.” The Dean’s Prize places some of the decision making as to the learning experience into the hands of the students by asking those who directly coming into contact with the curriculum, as to where they believe the programs are falling short and how improvements can be made, which is one avenue that the college is using in an attempt to enrich the educational process.

This week I had decided to take on the task of looking back on my familiarity with the history department as a junior in my educational career and how it could best be helped. Numerous ideas whirled through my head about grand improvements that could have been made to the department buildings, classes provided, locations of instruction, but I came to the realization that there is actually a very simple change: smaller class sizes. I know that this may appear to be an insignificant and simplistic solution but it is the solution that the degree of history has been searching for.

I am not talking about making classes that already contain fifteen people in them smaller, but those classes are upper division courses typical of any major. One of the most fundamental ways of achieving that goal is by starting out with smaller class sizes at the lower division course level. Instead of having 100 and 200 level course where there are well over 100 people per class (similar to the one pictured at the right), make those classes smaller. The advantages are as follows. First, more personal interaction with working professionals rather than Teachers Assistants, for TAs are sometimes lacking in knowledge of the subject matter, causing frustration and dissatisfaction with the class, quickly shifting to discontent with the major as a whole. Next, professors are able to provide students with a fuller range of employment possibilities from museum curator to archivist or author instead of the typical lawyer or teacher. Many people starting out in the field of history fail to see these various avenues available to them. Finally, with a smaller class size there would be a greater opportunity for professors to make history a more tangible thing rather then merely information in a book. All of these benefits exemplify the strategic plan of the improvement of undergraduate education in accordance with the beliefs of USC’s history department of the ability to “appreciate and evaluate the world beyond” our lives.

I had a personal experience with this more physical technique of teaching through a class that I took in the spring of 2006. The class was the Vietnam War class taught by Dr. Roger Dingman (pictured at left), in which he planned and implemented a field trip to Little Saigon where our class (of only 20 people) was able to come face to face with the religion, food, and history of Vietnam. We were able to see, touch, and taste what we had been learning about in the pages of our books. That experience would not have been possible with a class of 150 people, and I would not have felt the joy and excitement of living history that I did that day. However, this was an upper division class made up of mostly juniors and seniors. These experiences must be made available for freshmen and sophomores so that they may see the enjoyment that comes from being a history major. Though it may look to be trivial change on the surface, the prospects that become available with the change are countless. The financial expenditure of employing more quality professors will be far outweighed by the enrichment of the learning experience of countless students and the robust growth of quality of the history department as a whole on a national and international level.


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