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ISSUE 119 VOL 12 PUBLISHED 3/3/2006

Senior seminars expand

By Derek Zobel
Contributing Writer

Friday, March 3, 2006

Remember when you were a prospective college student and you spent many coffee-filled late nights weighing the pros and cons of the 16 schools you applied to with your equally anxious parents?

Neither do I.

However, I do remember that one of the selling points of St. Olaf College, which the administration was quick to point out to my pre-college ignorant face when I came to campus for a tour, was class size.

While the introductory and mid-level classes of most fields would have between 20 and 30 students (introductory science classes excluded), senior seminars, supposedly taken during senior year, would only have eight to 10. No other school I looked at – well, the other three – could compete with that bold claim.

It made academic sense: The intro – and mid-level courses would cover broad subjects while the senior seminars would consist of focused study on a focused subject, one you had theoretically spent the last three years narrowing down. This turned out to be the first piece of St. Olaf propaganda to which I was exposed (the latest being that we are a “college of the church” but not a “church college”).

I am currently enrolled in an English seminar and an art history seminar. Both have 17 students. So why was I lied to on that brisk fall day four years ago? Did the tour guide have something against me? Was there any truth to what I was told?

Technically, the student-to-teacher ratio reported in the Discover St. Olaf College catalogue, given to prospective students, is 12:1. So, while senior seminars do not meet the expectations I had coming here as a first year, the student-to-teacher ratio is still extraordinarily low.

Nonetheless, the question remains: Would I have gained more from my two seminars if the class sizes were smaller? The intuitive response would be a resounding “yes,” but there are other angles to consider.

“I could definitely see the benefit to a smaller class size, especially when it comes down to the relationship with the professor," Jeremy Schowalter ‘06 said.

So are the additional viewpoints worth the loss of more individual time with the professor? If the answer is “yes,” then St. Olaf has quite the system in place already.

I am currently enrolled in an independent study, something that St. Olaf is able to offer because of its exemplary student-to-teacher ratio. I manage to get a one-on-one learning experience with a professor on one subject, while meeting with around 20 of my peers concerning another advanced topic.

But what if someone cannot take an independent study? What if the only upper level experience a student gets is in an arguably over-crowded seminar?

In that case, let us hope that St. Olaf convinces departments to offer more senior seminars or, at the very least, provides its tour guides with updated information.

Staff writer Derek Zobel is a senior from Bloomington, Minn. He majors in English and in studio art.

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