By Alaina Perdon
Elm Staff Writer
“Small is mighty” is more than a witty aphorism plastered on Washington College promotional pamphlets: from the cozy campus to the classes of less than twenty students, there is a particular power to be drawn from this small college.
As financial needs for the college change, so too must the way of life for members of the WC community. Should it come to such extreme measures, would reducing teaching staff and increasing class size be a viable money-saving option?
As is the case for many of my peers, size was among the primary reasons I selected WC. I believed the small classes would serve as the ideal setting for intimacy and intellectual understanding between peers and professors alike, and have been delighted to find just that.
“Part of the draw of WC is that we are small. You get a class with, like, fifteen students and a professor that actually knows your name and makes themselves accessible,” sophomore Carrie Jackson said.
I feel I have formed a personal connection with nearly every professor I have been taught by in my time here. Because I am not vying for attention against hundreds of other students in a lecture hall, I am able to have deeper conversations to better my understanding of the course material. Oftentimes, we are also able to learn more about each other’s lives outside of the classroom, making it easier to solicit mentorship or collaborate in an academic setting.
“I have that better relationship with my professors. I can go to them with certain issues or questions when I need them,” Jackson said. “My professors know me well. I feel comfortable going to them for a letter of recommendation or career advice, and I know the fact that they actually know me personally will make it super helpful when networking in the future.”
A personal connection cannot be formed when one professor is faced with tens or hundreds of students.
“In regards to personal connections with my professors: I have almost none. This is not to say they are uncaring or unreachable by any means; however, it is more to speak to how challenging it is to stand out in a class of around 750 students,” University of California, Berkeley sophomore Riley Nevil said.
While class sizes would likely never reach this magnitude at WC, competition for the attention of a professor would only increase in correspondence with an increase in class size, as one professor simply cannot split their time equally amongst such a large number of students. Lacking a personal connection with their professors, some students’ academic performance may be in jeopardy.
“As someone who thrives in environments with a lot of interaction with instructors, I do find that sometimes this challenges my academic success… often, I study less or commit time to something else because of the lack of relation to the professor,” Nevil said.
The transition from friendly professor-student relationships to being but a number in a sea of many peers would potentially pose even greater difficulty.
In addition to being closer to the instructor in a small class setting, students at WC enjoy the ability to know their classmates better as well. This creates a safe environment for academic discussion to occur.
“You get to know people better in smaller classes. You are able to interact, and have discussions, and have more of a round-table sort of class, rather than just the professor standing there and lecturing,” Jackson said. “It opens up discussions, especially in classes where more controversial topics come up…a safe setting like a classroom makes people feel better about sharing, and it is really important to have such talks to expand our world views.”
Additionally, having a friendlier relationship with classmates is beneficial when seeking assistance. I rarely find myself in a class without at least one friend, and, regardless, I feel no discomfort asking a classmate to study together or share notes. Because there are so few of us, we are able to form a close-knit support system.
“In terms of relationships with other students in class: I have none,” Nevil said. “Thus, I find it very hard to find peer help in classes, which I believe impacts my academic performance more than a lack of relationship with instructors.”
In larger classes, there is no opportunity for “bonding” to occur. Students must seek alternative support sources, but these are often unhelpful or difficult to organize.
“There are study groups offered for a lot of the major intro courses of 1000+ students in the form of adjunct courses taught by former students of the class, but these often fill quickly and are challenging to fit into an already busy schedule,” Nevil said.
For the type of person that thrives when part of a supportive, close community, the intimacy of a small class is essential for academic success. Especially for current WC students who have spent a majority of their academic career in such a setting, a sudden shift to crowded, competitive classes could come as a horrible shock.
“I think something missing from the narrative of big classes and large institutions is truly how hard every day is. It is a fight to get a seat in lecture, and it is a miracle if you get one where you can hear the professor and see the screen,” Nevil said.
We as students of a small institution are not accustomed to the “fight,” Increasing our class sizes would be of major detriment to our academic and mental well-being as we struggle to acclimate to a vastly different classroom structure.
That is not to say that there are not students who benefit from a larger class, or positive attributes to be found in larger institutions.
“Though I definitely have highlighted a select few of the challenges of big classes and large institutions, they are not all bad. I have a great opportunity to meet new people at any turn and have learned how to succeed with no guide at all,” Nevil said. “Yes, everything is hard, but success feels so much better, and I believe that I will be prepared for anything any workplace has to throw at me.”
There are pros and cons to any size institution, but WC would simply not be the college we all adore without the tight bonds that form in our small classes. So keep WC small, for it is the reason we are so special.