Whitman needs to reexamine 3-2

Zach Duffy

Freshmen, transfers: Welcome to Whitman College. This college is a great place, one where you will make friends to last a lifetime and take classes that alter your worldviews. But put all of the praise that you’ve been hearing aside for a second, and let me tell you something you probably haven’t heard as often: Whitman is not a perfect institution.

In this column and following installations, I will discuss some of the more pressing problems at Whitman and offer potential solutions. It is my hope that both students and the Whitman College administration will find my suggestions agreeable; my opinions in The Pioneer, after all, reflect a concern with Whitman’s student affairs policies and a belief that they should change. At the very least, I invite readers to use this column as a forum to engage in a substantive debate about our college and how it might better serve students and the Whitman community at large.

A shift in the course loads assigned to professors has resulted in increased class sizes and fewer classes offered at Whitman. Prior to this academic year, professors taught six courses annually, three in each semester. Whitman faculty voted in the fall of 2009 to approve a reduced five course load. The shift, they argued, makes Whitman a more attractive institution to new faculty members; many of Whitman’s peer institutions assign similar five course loads to their faculty. In addition, the prior six course requisite for professors did not take into account their huge research burden or the amount of time they had to spend working outside of class. A reduced course load ensures that current professors can fulfill their many job responsibilities without being spread too thin.

The benefits of the shift to “3-2 course loads,” as they are called, have yet to be fully revealed. But the negatives, from a student perspective, are painfully obvious: a “reduction in the number of course sections per semester by 17 percent,” as reported by The Pioneer last year; increased class sizes; and, at least in my experience, difficulty registering for sought-after courses with small enrollment limits.

In an ideal world, Whitman’s administration would hire more faculty to reduce class sizes and expand course offerings. But at least in the short term, that’s not a feasible option. Expanding the workforce at Whitman would likely be unaffordable, and, even if it weren’t, it would take a long time to identify and hire qualified professors.

In the meantime, there needs to be some compromise between the interests of students and the interests of Whitman faculty. So why not expand the college’s course selection by expanding the one-credit interdisciplinary lecture series currently offered just once or twice a semester? This year, John MacAloon, an anthropologist and Olympic Games scholar from the University of Chicago, is serving as the O’Donnell Visiting Educator. Registration for his two-week lecture series filled up within a day of its offering. Were similar courses to be offered by Whitman faculty in their fields of specialization, I believe that students would register for them with similar enthusiasm. Faculty would be tasked with teaching shorter, less demanding classes while Whitman students would have more opportunities to earn credit in academic courses and explore majors and disciplines.

This plan would have to be carefully thought out to avoid any potential pitfalls. If Whitman suddenly offered a plethora of relatively undemanding classes, for instance, could its standing as a college diminish? Perhaps registration for such classes could be capped to one or two credits per semester. Would these courses increase the burden on Whitman’s professors? My hope is that professors would see the lectures as exciting opportunities to present their independent research to the student body. How would professors be paid for these new classes? The O’Donnell Lectures are sponsored by an endowment, so a new source of funding would have to be identified.

Ultimately, the 3-2 issue boils down to some very basic questions about Whitman’s status as an elite liberal arts college: Can entering freshmen truly explore their interests when course choices are now so constrained? Can discussion-based classes previously taught to 20 students be successfully translated to rooms packed with 40 students? What does this shift mean for Whitman’s future? My hope is that the administration comes up with satisfactory solutions to these problems before irreparable harm is done to Whitman’s reputation.