When I started earnestly thinking about life after grad school, I talked to as many people as possible who went to a small liberal arts college (SLAC) and asked them what it was like. I knew about halfway through grad school that I wanted to end up at a SLAC, but I slowly realized that my “standard” college experience may not generalize to liberal arts students. Both my undergraduate and graduate institutions were research universities (Research-1 or R1, after the Carnegie classification), so outside of reading about SLACs, I had no personal experience of what it meant for students and professors. It was only through informally interviewing my friends that I got some ideas of what to expect. All of them were grad students, and I thought that would provide a common experience to contrast against. Nonetheless, some things are hard to get across, and there were other things that I thought I understood but I actually didn’t. So for this post, I want to talk about what I learned from my friends and whether I found now agree with them after one semester. Maybe this will help others thinking of going through a similar transition from R1 to SLAC.
The first thing anyone will say about liberal arts colleges is that classes are smaller. At Oxy, classes with more than fifty people were rare (there have only been thirty or so such classes since the 2010 Spring semester), with classes of five students not uncommon. While class size is an obvious difference, I now think that it’s actually a shorthand for referring to other differences. I have taught discussions at Michigan with ten students before, but it was not at all like the classes here; the atmosphere is different. Part of it is that SLAC students are more willing to speak up and to answer questions, and are less likely to just sit and listen – Michigan students would only reluctantly participate in classroom activities. It’s not a matter of whether the students of one institution are “better” than the other, but I think there is a cultural difference between the two types of schools, and I’m not just referring to students. I actually find myself teaching differently to involve students more, because students have the expectation that I will, and this expectation is passed on through generations of students. (I have also grown as a teacher since I taught the ten person discussion.) I was initially afraid that I won’t have enough students in my class, but even fifteen students is a good amount of interest, and required more managing than I thought due to less lecturing in class.
Related to this, something that surprised me is that students are more willing to critique my teaching, and in fact take that role seriously. This was something I even noticed at my interview, when I had lunch with students and they had a list of questions prepared. Maybe it’s just me, but when I had lunch with faculty candidates as a graduate student, I just glanced over the candidate’s publications. Similarly, in my teaching evaluations a student actually discussed their view of the balance between lecture and active learning and which direction they would like me to shift. This is not a type of feedback I have received before, and I can’t quite tell how it’s affecting my teaching yet. I don’t think students necessarily know how to best teach a subject, but instructors can be wrong on that count as well, and I find this new pressure from students invigorating.
On to something different. Most of the people I talked to were in computer science grad school, and a number of them expressed the sentiment that they felt their undergraduate education did not adequately prepare them for graduate work. This was not a universal statement, but there was enough of a trend that it stuck in my mind. For computer science at Oxy, this is confounded by the fact that no major exists yet, so I’m still undecided about this trend. From the students I have met, however, the distribution of ability doesn’t seem that different from the students at Northwestern. I suspect that had I also sampled students who went to a research university, they would also have said that grad school was difficult – that this is a universal phenomenon. It’s also possible that it’s a difference in perceived aptitude; I will have a better answer when I teach a computer science course next semester.
One difference I did find is in the attitudes of the students regarding computer science: the students at Oxy are more open to discussing the social or other non-technical aspects of computer science. This may be partially because I am situated in the cognitive science department, but it’s also possible that this a result of the structure of liberal arts colleges. A friend suggested that the smaller student population meant that most students in computer science classes are not computer science majors (or even minors). Instead, the students are studying other subjects and involved with other activities. It’s not that they care less about computer science on an absolute level, but that they care equally or more about other things. The roster for my course next semester is more diverse than other introductory courses I have taught, but I suspect the difference is rooted more in attitude than in actual interest – that is, students at larger schools are also interested in these issues, but may just be less willing to talk to professors about them. That students enjoy programming assignments that are situated in real-world contexts, and want to learn more about them, may be evidence of this. For a cognitive science AI class, this has worked out well, although I’m slightly apprehensive of whether I can remain sufficiently broad in an actual computer science class
There is one last aspect of liberal arts colleges that I want to talk about, which is the much touted student-teacher relationship. All of my friends told me that that was one of the defining parts of their college experiences, and so I was surprised that I don’t find my interactions with students outside of class to be that different from before. I would like to think that the anomaly here is not in Oxy’s students or my friends’ descriptions, but that even at Michigan I took an interest in my student’s lives outside of the classroom. To be fair, I do think Oxy tries harder to foster these relationships, but I think I was already predisposed to them. Because I had built up this expectation, I thought that students would be more proactive in coming to office hours, although in retrospect I understand that my friends were talking more about non-academic conversations. Still, I suppose if students are interested the broader impact of topics, they might also be more willing to talk to you about them.
Despite all the differences that people suggested, I actually thought the transition into a liberal arts college from a research university went fairly smoothly. I sought out these expectations six months before I even submitted my applications, and I have no doubt they helped focus my application material. I hope that this post will help someone with theirs as well.