Size Matters

In a given year, the biggest class I teach is about 100 students (intro students learning not to drool on the computers). The smallest is 8 (grad students learning not to drool on each other).

Ever since I was a little baby art professor, it has been standard procedure to bitch and moan about class sizes. Like, "how dare they put 18 people in a 16 person class!"

I exclusively teach artmaking, so the concept of teaching something over 45 students was unthinkable to me until I adapted the fundamentals class in digital art into its current form of 100 people making things.

I'm not going to talk about credit hour economics in this piece, I swear. And I'm not going to describe the process rationale behind the change from a traditional make-digital-stuff course into the humongous thing it is now. Those are interesting, but for later.

There's this assumption when I talk to people about the big class that it is some necessary evil that I would eject in a heartbeat were I at a richer school or in a different economic time. That the one best pedagogical model for making art is a small circle of no more than a dozen apprentices sitting at the feet of the master. Not true.

This is a long way around to my point, which is this: size matters, but not in an obvious way. This dawned on me this morning as I thought about the wacky array of courses I taught this year. My Big Class is always a great class. I always have a great time teaching it, and though I hit a bump from time to time if I misjudge something, it evens out and goes well. But why? Because there are so many student in the class, that statistically the composition of each class is about the same. There will always be a certain percentage of on-the-ball superacheivers, soul-searchers, just-gimme-the-graders, I'm-smarter-than-you-ers, prodigies, geniuses, and doofuses. There are slight variations, but the character of the mix is remarkably stable.

Whenever I get a really good or interesting class, like my teeny-tiny grad seminar, I have this anxiety that I will never be able to replicate the experience for future students. Like a great music performance, you can mimic it, but you'll never catch the lightning in the bottle again. With so few people, the entire feel depends on the chemistry of the players.

So much of the teaching I do is in the large setting where I can could on my designs working pretty much no matter what. It makes it so clear in a small seminar how much actual knowledge is created by the group and not dictated the professor. Very unnerving to have proof of how little control a teacher actually has. Unnerving and lovely.