ENGLISH DEPARTMENT STATEMENT ON CLASS SIZE
The English Department faculty is strongly opposed to any increase in the size of Freshman English courses. We originally reduced enrollment in these classes in order to increase the amount of writing our students do in their first and most important semesters at the University. English Department faculty, using the latest pedagogy as well as anecdotal evidence, determined that only with more frequent writing and increased instructor feedback could the overall quality of student writing improve.
The reduction in class size three years ago allowed the faculty to restructure Basic Skills and College English I to meet the standards in the Statement on Class Size of the Conference on College Composition and Communication as well as to be in line with progressive writing programs such as NYUs, whose director, Pat Hoy, recently wrote a letter to our provost explaining the critical importance of keeping classes small.
Our freshman writing classes are now essentially writing workshops, and such classes are traditionally small so that instructors can comment at length on student papers. In fact in College English I and Basic Skills, students receive feedback on at least twelve pieces of writing, in addition to journals, quizzes, group assignments, and other forms of writing. Students also have the opportunity to further revise papers, adding another set of essays to those already assigned and often providing an extra opportunity for the student to meet with the instructor. The results have been overwhelmingly positive: a much more intensive involvement of students in a critical component of their early college work as well as more frequent contact between instructors and students. Instructors have also been able to assign additional writing in College English II. The relatively small number of students allows instructors to emphasize close, in-class analysis of texts as well as out-of-class discussion groups and more collaborative work.
These improvements to the freshman curriculum have been influenced by such studies as the Harvard Assessment Seminars, which demonstrated the importance of small classes that encourage in-class interaction, especially for freshmen. The seminars also determined that students writing improves significantly when they work directly with a writing instructor. Hillocks important meta-analysis of research into the teaching of writing reveals that the "environmental mode" of teaching--which largely describes Seton Halls current writing program--far surpasses other teaching modes, such as lecture, individualized instruction, or less teacher-directed instruction. As Roberts-Millers study indicates, it is precisely this mode of instruction that requires--and benefits from--smaller class sizes. Students with low SATs and GPAs respond particularly well when the teacher has fewer students to handle--and respond poorly when class size increases. These are our Basic Skills students, whom we need to retain. If Seton Hall wants to maintain its commitment to students of color, particularly African-Americans, it would do well to pay attention to research demonstrating that smaller classes are even more essential to their success than that of white students.
Such a commitment to the environmental, or workshop, mode of teaching is not practical, however, when an instructor has more than 15 students in a class (12 in a Skills class), especially if that instructor is assigned three or more writing sections in a semester. Freshman English instructors are now able to interact with their students in ways that would be impossible with larger classes. For example, all instructors are currently required to have at least one conference with each student during the semester in College English I and two in Basic Skills. These conferences already add to regular office hours. Having even a few more students in each section would add several hours to the out-of-class teaching load. The out-of-class demands on faculty (meetings, grading, e-mail correspondence, planning) would also increase because of drafts, final papers, and revisions that would need to be addressed. Available time for faculty development (scholarship and keeping up to date in the field) would be even more severely curtailed.
As recent surveys of SHU freshmen have shown,students recognize the value of the small class size--for many of the same reasons as researchers and instructors have articulated--and in fact many students mentioned the small class size as a determining factor in their decision to come to Seton Hall. Increasing class size for the entire freshman writing program would have to change our student-teacher ratio, which is already higher than many of the schools with whom we compete.
Large classes affect outcomes, as the studies mentioned above have demonstrated. Students will use skills acquired in freshman writing classes for the rest of their time at the university, regardless of their discipline. We are training the writers of the future and preparing students to take their place within a community of writers. The immediate results of increased enrollments in these courses will be several: instructors will be forced to assign less writing, a prospect that is antithetical to everything we know about teaching. Many of our students arrive with serious writing problems that can only be addressed when the instructor is able to work one-on-one with them and assign frequent, increasingly lengthy and more complex pieces of writing. We firmly believe that the quality of the Writing Program will be compromisedin fact, the department requirements for those courses will have to be completely changedif class size is increased in any substantive way.