The recent news that McGill would cut 100 Arts classes for the 2013-2014 academic year was met with near-universal disdain. Many were quick to lament the decision as financially necessary due to the recent budget cuts enacted by the Quebec government. Unfortunately, this explanation does not hold water. This move, in fact, saves no money for the University. Instead, the money saved from cutting courses will be put back into hiring more teaching assistants (TAs), organizing internships, and advising students. The unilateral decision by the administration to cut 100 classes isn’t a cost-cutting move; it’s an ideological move that continues a popular trend for the administration: ignoring student feedback and well-being.
The proposed plan would eliminate, as Dean of Arts Christopher Manfredi recently told The Daily in an interview, “lower enrolment courses” and replace them with “a more broadly defined slot course.” At the same time, these broader classes will be taught almost exclusively by full-time professors while part-time course lecturers are laid off. The administration would like to tout this as a move beneficial to students – more classes with full professors is better, right? What it really means is bigger classes taught by full professors at the expense of smaller, seminar classes.
The benefits of smaller classes are well-established: unlike larger auditorium-style classes where the professor delivers lectures, smaller seminar-style classes feature professor-student interactions. In essence, a student is forced to participate in the learning experience, helping to shape it, instead of passively receiving information from the professor. This sort of discussion-based learning facilitates the kind of intellectual interactions that really enhance educational experiences. It also promotes a stronger bond between professor and student, as they are in constant conversation with one another during class. In this way, students can gain connections to their professors, giving them more opportunities to attain research positions or reference letters, among other benefits.
In larger classes, connections with professors are hard to come by, as the professors have more students to deal with and less in-class interactions with them. The benefits of small classes have been revealed by scientific studies, which show that in almost all cases, students learn more from smaller classes. In a 2008 study published in The Economic Journal, researchers found that students learn best in classes with less than 33 people, are negligibly affected by mid-size courses (33-104 students), and negatively affected by courses above 104 people. The Faculty of Arts’ proposed cuts would slash the most effective courses and leave either intermediate-size classes or large classes that negatively impact students.
Students already have enough trouble registering for classes necessary to graduate; it’s tough to see how expanding intermediate-level courses will aid this problem. Under this model, the higher-level classes that are often needed to achieve a major will be less accessible, and those that remain will be harder to get into.
The move to hire more TAs would be admirable if there weren’t already a dearth of TAs in many departments – these hires, while beneficial to grad students, will likely not have the promised effect of smaller conferences due to such large classes; they may, in some departments, create conferences in the first place. While conferences for bigger classes are in most cases a good thing, this move begs the question: Would you rather have more conferences, or participatory classes with your professors?
Merely placing full-time professors in bigger classes is not a way to create better student-professor connections and better classes, no matter how much the administration plugs their ears and continues to say so. This move is not to the benefit of students. This move is not financially beneficial to the school. It’s not even necessary. Instead, it represents a deprioritization of the Arts program at McGill and a disregard for student feedback.
—The McGill Daily Editorial Board