The Conference Method of Teaching
Methods of instruction vary with the subject matter of the course, the number in the class, and the judgment and personality of the instructor. Most Reed courses are taught as conferences, in which the students and faculty work closely together. Ideas, facts, methods of analysis, and interpretations are exchanged, challenged, and defended by both students and faculty members, who jointly share responsibility for the learning process. All MALS courses are conducted as conferences and generally enroll between 5 and 10 students, with a maximum enrollment of 15 students and a minimum of 5; upper level undergraduate classes generally range between 10 and 24 students.
While many colleges offer small classes with personal attention, the Reed conference experience is distinctive, if not unique, among higher education institutions. Here is how a couple of Reed faculty members describe the Reed conference:
At Reed we follow an unconventional tack, and we do so self-consciously. To be sure, there are as many kinds of Reed conferences as there are Reed professors. But they all tend to share this belief: that . . . education is most effective when students develop, articulate, criticize, and defend their own arguments. . . . Students—all of whom have a comparatively limited acquaintance with the subject matter—are responsible, through discussion, for formulating and evaluating theories and interpretations. Understood in this way, education at Reed is an eminently practical activity because it gives students systematic and ongoing experience in the actual practice of making and evaluating arguments.
—Peter Steinberger, former dean of the faculty and the Robert H. and Blanche Day Ellis Professor of Political Science and Humanities
A good conference starts with an engaging topic and a syllabus made up of thought-provoking readings, arranged in a sequence that enables the participants to get up to speed quickly and go deeper as the semester goes on. Everyone is responsible for reading the material carefully and contributing to class discussions. Ultimately, when a conference functions well, it is an amazing experience. It allows all participants in the class, faculty and students alike, to learn from the texts and each other. There is a sense of joy in taking the material to a deeper level of understanding, and becoming part of a group that learns together and is deeply invested in how much each one of us learns.
—Walter Englert, Omar and Althea Hoskins Professor of Classical Studies and Humanities
The culmination of conference inquiries is the class paper, ultimately leading to the final thesis project. The act of writing goes directly to the heart of human inquiry. The best writing, therefore, proceeds from thoughtful engagement with the important issues of life, through course readings, and discussions in a range of different fields.