To acquire wisdom, one must observe

The tragedy of the common(s) course

There’s a well-known problem in political economy: the tragedy of the commons. The problem proposes that where there is a sought after, but limited resource and an unregulated group of agents, the agents, hypothetically acting in their own self-interest, will deplete the resource. The problem underscores that in situations where there is a lack of institutionalized rules that govern the usage of a limited resource, agents act against the broader group’s and their own long-term interests. Customarily, economists talk about this issue’s application in the policy making realm. Countless climate and scarcity-based bills have been drafted across the globe to address this exact kind of problem. 

I want to use the premise behind this problem to discuss, not climate policy—though such topics are worthwhile, and you, fine reader, should definitely read the Hoot’s Year of Climate Action column to learn about them—but instead, I want to use this premise to discuss the ever-enlarging class sizes at this university. It has gotten out of hand. I did not come to Brandeis to take a niche humanities course with forty other avantgarde, dweeb-looking, glasses-wearing Jews. I would have gone to Tulane if I wanted such things.

Seriously, what has happened to our 10-person seminars? 30-person lectures? Call me a spoiled humanities student if you so please, but my lord, our kind deserve better! My class sizes have swelled to outrageously large sizes, with no explanation or justification. 

Allow me to explain through an illustrative example: two semesters ago, during the fall of 2021, I took a 15-person course with a fairly “underground” professor, whom I will leave in anonymity for privacy’s sake. At the time, this professor had only been teaching at Brandeis for a short period of time, and hence, was not particularly well-known among my academic circle of peers. The course was de facto offered through the very small (and splendid) department the professor directs. Consequently, it was marketed to students mostly through flyers distributed around campus and (very persuasive) word of mouth. The course was niche. Sure, we read one book throughout the entire term and dissected it to bits. Dissecting frogs, or virgin fruit flies for that matter, has got nothing on the close reading we partook in during those 14 weeks—but I digress. 

I absolutely adored this course. I had it twice-a-week, up the Rabb-steps, in a shoe-box-like classroom in Lown equipped with the loudest air conditioner one could conjure, and unconventional peers. Sure, the room got stuffy, but all things considered (and such things were many and varied), I loved the course. The material was an intellectual feast comprised of science, religion, philosophy, psychology and oh so much more—it expanded my interests and led me to all kinds of thought-provoking questions. Shepherded by our encyclopedia of a professor, my peers and I discussed the course material in depth, up close. We had debates and discussions: heated and muted, silly and serious, absurd and grounded all surrounding the material discussed in the book. 

Looking back, I think those 14 weeks were pivotal to my development as a student and a thinker, more generally. I took the class during the first semester of my freshman year, and I think it laid the philosophical foundation for much that would follow thereafter. When I think about what made the course so spectacular, the first, most obvious element, is the material. My professor had us read a truly incredible book, perhaps one of the single greatest works the Western world has produced. But, if I dig a little deeper, think a little harder, I think my learning benefited tenfold from the size of the class. 

Think about it: on a bi-weekly basis, the same group of 15 students, who, over the course of the semester, became more comfortable in each other’s company, would sit around a table and discuss a great work of writing. Our discussions, lasting roughly an hour and a half, were rich, forcing us to think critically about the world around us. These discussions were dynamic, natural and energetic. By week four, we had all gotten to know each other’s names and were comfortably settled in the language of the material. The ambiances associated with the bureaucracies of the classroom had all but fled. We were a group of seminarians working together to find our way through a text, debating and discussing along the way, trying to parse out truths and errors in a significant piece of historical work. This effort was worthwhile, intimate, and contributed to a greater sense of learning on all fronts. 

Reflecting on this course now, two semesters later, here I am taking another course with this not-so-underground professor. He still bears the same magic which made me adore being his student two Fall’s ago in his new classroom. However, this twice-a-week, to left of the Rabb-steps, large lecture hall in Mandel equipped with an average air conditioner, and (still) unconventional peers (this is Brandeis, after all) just doesn’t have quite the same impact. This forty-person lecture is packed with fascinating material, intelligent peers and modern facilities, but it is undeniably missing the stimulating and cozy conversations I used to have in my small seminar. I find myself longing for that environment every time I enter the classroom. 

Now, I know what you STEM people are going to say: girl, get over it. We have hundred-person lecture halls and we have gotten along just fine without kvetching about them in the student paper. I will posit that, of course, there are courses which cannot (and should not) be taught in the ultra-compact classroom. The economists in the room may take their seats. And yes, of course, I’m very proud of my ever-popular professor and his up-and-coming department which have both become the pinnacle of “the Brandeis experience.” 

All that is left to say here, is that I think my experience in these two courses speaks to two broader “problems:” a) the tragedy of the common course, where students, acting in their own self-interest, register for courses taught by well-loved professors whose class-capacity is stretched and b) the fading influence of the virtuosity inherent in the small seminar. Regarding the first issue, there’s obviously not much students can be expected to do, and I don’t pretend to have the answers for the registrar’s office. But regarding the second, I think we should keep these things in mind when reflecting on the kind of institution we want this university to be. I think that the seminar is truly a fantastic format for countless courses, and I do hope that this gem of academia doesn’t fade into the obscurity of former teaching methods. Intimate classrooms bursting with animated discussions about the conditions of our world are much too important to be forgone for the convenience and capacity of a spacious (and all-too-often) impersonal lecture hall.

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