Dear Provost Rocha:
I am writing to you at the request of Edmund Jones who worked for a number of years with me in the writing program at New York University. He asked me to share my thoughts with you about the size of writing sections in a demanding undergraduate writing course.
The national standard established in conjunction with the Conference on College Composition and Communication is sixteen students/section. I am sold on that standard because my experience confirms its importance (more on this in time). The standard applies to sections where students have average compositional skills; the student/teacher ratio must be much lower (8-10 students/section) when students need special skills training.
I have taught in three schools that have honored the national standard by commiting money and other resources to its preservation: U.S. Military Academy, Harvard, and, now, New York University. I have been serving as Director of the Expository Writing Program at NYU for the past six years. I held a similar job at West Point for twelve years, and at Harvard I designed and conducted faculty development activities for more than forty teachers of writing. During all of those years, I have taught freshman composition every semester, without exception. I have also written or edited five writing textbooks, two of them now in their 2d or 3d editions. The teaching of writing is both my passion and my profession.
When writing sections begin to creep beyond 16 students, there is an inevitable decline in the intensity of classroom supervision and the amount of work that a teacher can effectively supervise. Quality writing instruction requires not only a systematic pedagogy to give a program definition but also a rigorous set of daily writing requirements, both in and out of the classroom. The daily work must aim to prepare students to write three or four longer essays each semester.
A teacher teaching two sections of writing with 16 students in each section carries a full-time load at West Point, Harvard, and NYU. Add just one student to each of those sections, and you begin to add hours to the weekly reading and grading load during many weeks of the semester. If your teachers are teaching more than two sections, the problems increase exponentially. To survive under those conditions teachers inevitably cut back on the essential, smaller writing requirements, on their own written responses to students, and, finally, as they become more and more overwhelmed, on the longer essay requirements. They change the course and students learn less as dissatisfaction increases.
Even with more than twenty year's experience in the composition classroom, I feel a significant added burden with just two more students, whether I'm teaching one section or two. I have experimented with fifteen to twenty students in each section and can assure you that the break point in quality (and in student satisfaction) occurs around 17/section. There is no way around this fact.
I would be happy to talk with you and your faculty in greater detail about these matters should you be interested. I am not concerned about consulting fees. I am interested only in quality of education and the important foundation that strong writing programs provide for the entire undergraduate curriculum. If you think I can help, please call on me.
Pat C. Hoy II
Director, Expository Writing Program
Professor of English, New York University