Too much of nothing: Academia’s apocalypse

Students of Lawrence take note: I have foreseen a minor apocalypse. Not the end of the world; it’s rather the end of meaningful class discussions. Its arrival is hailed not by Conquest, War, Famine or Death but by the Horsemen of large class sizes and overuse of the word “problematic.” Call me the new Nostradamus, for I predict that the world of collegiate class discussion will end in neither fire nor ice but in large groups of people saying a lot and meaning nothing.

Class size limits are often frustrating. Who hasn’t logged onto Voyager the moment the registration period begins only to see that a bunch of seniors already filled the class you really wanted to take? I know the frustration of being sixth on a waiting list; I can empathize. Even still, professors should respect the class limits, and not just because the rules are the rules.

Two of my classes this term, both English classes, were limited to 25 people. Five to seven people showed up to both classes the first day hoping for spots. Both teachers let them all on the roster, 25-person limits be damned.

Which isn’t cool. A group of 25 is already pushing it for a discussion class, and 30 or more is ridiculous. You can hide in a group of 30 people in a way you can’t in a group of 15 or 20 or even 25. One way to counteract the big class size is to break up into smaller groups, much as larger science courses are broken into smaller lab sections. This solves the problem of participation but making a new one: less teacher feedback. Professors simply can’t monitor six discussion groups at once. In a 30-person class where small groups are not utilized, the result is even worse: participation by the same handful of people and drowsy inattention from the rest.

Ideally, an English class discussion would be composed of a smallgroup of people critically examining a text by making and responding to meaningful observations. Large classes render impossible the small group part of that definition.

As for the other criteria, the meaningful observations, the second horseman of the class discussion apocalypse is the overuse of the word “problematic.” It has plagued every discussion-based class I’ve had this year; this catch-all precludes further examination of a topic by masquerading as a conclusion.

Students too often describe something as problematic without continuing to say how or why. For example, “I think it’s problematic that this film about a lesbian couple was written and directed by a man.” And that’s it. That’s all you get with the word “problematic.” We’re all validated in feeling icky about something without having to examine why, which is the whole point of having a discussion. The word should be discouraged in class, maybe with aswear jar: you can say “fuck,” but every time you use “problematic” it’s a quarter.

Which leaves only one question: what are the other two horsemen? All of the good scourges come in fours. I’d bet my crystal ball on ceaseless head nodding and people taking their Toms off during discussion.