Volume XXXVI, Issue 2, November 1, 2013
Everyone has that friend. The humanities major who never seems to have class. We all know him: jaunty, wide-eyed, Val sitting for the third straight hour. It’s not that he doesn’t have reading to do. He does. But he knows he can do it whenever, wherever, or even—gasp—not at all. On rare days, he can be seen heading to class. But never fear. He’ll be out again within a few hours. And now, thanks to the proliferation of the once-a-week two-hour seminar, he’s in class less than ever. Three cheers for the $58,000 education.
I aim to convince you that this situation is a bad one. That the two-hour seminar is a blight on the Amherst College education. Two-hour seminars are bad for a variety of reasons, but the simplest also happens to be the strongest: two hours in class is not enough time to learn the material. The classroom experience suffers accordingly.
I recognize here that I may be speaking to a hostile audience. If you’re a student reading this, then “too little class time” is probably not high on your list of concerns. Often it feels like we’re assigned too much work as it is, and campaigning for more class time feels counterintuitive. Likewise, faculty members insist that they know how much class time is needed to convey the course material. If a professor believes that two hours are sufficient for their pedagogical needs, then who are we to say otherwise? Some professors argue that the two-hour class period is perfect for a seminar: a condensed, efficient time block to complement
Why the humanities could use more class.the majority of hours that are spent conducting independent research. They argue that the two-hour seminar is much like the two-and-a-half or three-hour seminar, except without a “break” in the middle. Administrators tend to be agnostic on the issue, and are anyways reluctant to incur the faculty’s wrath. The result is that every institutional force at the college—whether student, faculty, or staff—has an incentive to allow two-hour seminars to continue. No one argues for longer classes.
That’s where the government steps in. The federal definition of a credit hour (each Amherst class is four credit hours) requires “not less than one hour of classroom or direct faculty instruction”—thus totaling four hours of in-class time per course. The Amherst College course catalog pays no mind to that definition, and instead states that courses “typically meet for at least three hours a week.” Yet two-hour seminars do not comply even with our own meager standard. If two-hour seminars were to receive a grade for their adherence to the College’s expectations, they would flunk out with a 67%. Right now, two-hour seminars violate both college-wide and national standards for time in class. But most of our humanities classes fail to meet the three-hour (180-minute) benchmark: three 50-minute classes (for a total of 150 minutes) and two 80-minute classes (160 minutes) are also insufficient. Aware of this, some faculty members have objected to singling out the two-hour seminar for extra scrutiny. If all classes are in violation, why should only two-hour seminars be lengthened? Why not all of them? And for that matter, how is Amherst College allowed to evade the federal definition of a credit hour?
This is the quintessence of the tu quoque argument, that is, “I may be wrong, but so are you!” Such a logical fallacy should not stand between us and lengthening the two-hour seminar, whose pernicious effects on the curriculum are manifest. Two-hour seminars widen the gulf between science and non-science students, as science students toil in labs and class (sometimes for up to nine hours) while humanities students do not. Although out-of-class reading is intended to compensate for this difference in in-class time, reading can be skimmed; lab time can never be. This imbalance may draw students away from STEM courses to humanities courses that are perceived as less time-consuming.
More important, however, two hours is not long enough to learn the course material. Professors often run out of time during the two-hour seminar and are forced to continue discussions the following week. I’m an LJST major (one of the most egregious offenders), have taken four two-hour seminars, and have watched this overrun happen repeatedly, often omitting course material as a result. The simple solution is to lengthen seminars from two hours to two-and-a-half hours or three. This would not burden our course scheduler—our course time slots are designed for three-hour seminars. Instead, the two-hour seminars have proliferated. What’s worst about this is that there is absolutely no benefit to be gained from a two-hour seminar over a three-hour one. It is not too much to ask to spend three hours in class a week. Not given the price of this education; not given the quality of our professors. The burden of proof should be on the professor to explain why class times should be shorter. “Students get distracted with longer classes,” “faculty autonomy,” and “out-of-class work” are not adequate responses.
All of this points to the saddest byproduct of the two-hour seminar. Not the inequality in teaching but the message it sends to students: that our faculty are not willing to teach the extra thirty or sixty minutes that would put them into compliance with their own catalog. This is particularly damaging because we all know how much faculty care about students at this school. We’ve all benefited from professors’ generosity and kindness in and out of class, with essays, tests, and recommendation letters. No one here doubts the faculty’s commitment to teaching. Which just makes it all the more puzzling (and saddening) that professors strive to teach less.
Successful pedagogy requires time, in class, with students. The two-hour seminar is an uncharacteristic betrayal of the values that Amherst proclaims to hold fast. We should abolish it.