Growing Pains by Peter Steinberger

by Peter Steinberger

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President Koblik’s historic “10:1” initiative—to add new tenure-track faculty positions without increasing the size of the student body—is aimed, in part, at enriching the academic program. Reed is a small college, and it cannot offer but a limited range of courses. This is, at once, a virtue and a defect. It is a virtue in that it requires the faculty to construct the curriculum with special care, ensuring that we offer only the most substantial and timely courses. It is a defect, however, in that any number of extremely important courses are rarely offered, if ever. In political science, for example, students have no opportunity to study African, Latin American, or East Asian politics—which means that they’re missing out on over half the world.

The attempt to fill some of these gaps by adding new faculty members raises, however, a different sort of question: how large can the faculty get before its fundamental character begins to change?

We have always prided ourselves in being an academic “community.” What this means, among other things, is that the faculty has often thought of itself not merely, and not primarily, as a loosely connected set of independent and autonomous departments but, rather, as a single, unified body, a more or less coherent, corporate entity. Such an entity is capable of thinking about the

curriculum as a whole, of making academic policy decisions from an institution-wide perspective. Faculty in one field are apt to become knowledgeable about and interested in what faculty in other fields are doing. A sense of interdisciplinarity is encouraged, enriching and deepening intellectual life on campus as differences and connections among various modes of thought are explored. All of this encourages the development of intellectual friendship across disciplines; I think it a historical fact that such friendships have indeed produced a sense of community—a shared intellectual life—that benefits the academic program in many ways. It may be that community is harder to sustain as the faculty becomes larger. One way to think about this is from the perspective of an individual professor working in a small department. A three- or four-person department is hardly likely to provide a faculty member with all of the scholarly, intellectual, and collegial sustenance that he or she needs—the daily exchange of ideas, exposure to new ways of thinking, access to the latest findings or most recent literature, and the like. Sitting in a very small department, one is virtually forced to look elsewhere. As a political scientist, my own ties with colleagues in philosophy, literature, and history have been as important to me—as influential upon my own thinking and teaching—as those within my home department.

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Reed Magazine: Feb. 2001
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