None of this speaks directly to the issue of class size, and in a sense adding faculty members will not, by itself, solve the problem. Popular courses and popular professors will continue to be popular. But a larger faculty, hence an improved student/faculty ratio, can greatly increase the options for dealing with this issue. Limiting enrollments in certain classes is easier to do if the number of alternative classes on similar subjects grows. And if smaller and under-enrolled departments and programs are strengthened, pressures on larger, more heavily subscribed departments may decrease. A larger faculty may make it more possible for an extremely popular course to be taught in two sections rather than one, thus helping ensure that each student has a genuine conference experience.
Reed's conference experienceis unique, or nearly so. Every first-rate liberal arts college has small classes. In most cases, such classes are designed primarily to permit a more personalized kind of instruction. They allow professors to get to know their students, to learn about their intellectual strengths and weaknesses, to read papers and exams with particular care, to present the academic program with a human face. But the actual pedagogy in such classes is often, perhaps usually, not all that distinctive. Small class sizes allow students to ask their professors questions and to receive personal responses. That's a wonderful thing. But professors still profess. They impose information on students, interpret material for them, tell them how a particular subject matter is to be pursued and what the conclusions of that pursuit ought to be. This seems only natural. Professors have the knowledge, students don't. What sense would it make to discourage faculty members from sharing what they know?
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 undergraduate education is most effective when students develop, articulate, criticize, and defend their own arguments. A conference is, in effect, an academic version of the blind leading the blind. Students-all of whom have a comparatively limited acquaintance with the subject matter-are responsible, through discussion, for formulating and evaluating theories and interpretations.