image/Alice Batista
image/Alice Batista

If money, class size and faculty availability were no object, what would you study if you could take any course in college?

This question was posted to the “Prin’s Crägslist” Facebook group as an experiment by Pilot staff. However, the volume and variety of responses triggered more questions: Why can’t Principia offer certain classes? And what is the administration doing to offer more of the classes and programs that students want to pursue?

Follow-up interviews revealed that many students are interested in courses or subject areas that Principia does not offer currently. The majority of responses, both to the Crägslist post and in person, centered on broadening humanities offerings, especially languages. Junior Alaina Carlson and sophomore Tessa Miller both expressed interest in Italian classes. Mandarin and German appeared to be other popular suggestions from students offering similar sentiments.

When asked the same question, faculty members had similar responses. “If we had unlimited money and faculty, I wish we’d teach a lot more languages, including Mandarin, Farsi and Arabic,” political science professor Julie Blase said. Another political science professor, John Williams, also expressed interest in Mandarin and Arabic, as well as Russian. In fact, both professors offered an interest in expanding the non-Western course offerings in the areas of language, religion, arts and history.

Students also suggested courses in life skills, the arts and a variety of physical education courses. Pottery classes were an especially popular suggestion, along with broadcast journalism and film studies. Physical education suggestions included whitewater kayaking or team handball.

Although the majority of courses proposed by students were humanities-type courses, a fair number of students expressed interest in a full-scale engineering program at Principia. Currently, the College offers a “three-two” program in engineering, through which students have the opportunity to spend three years at Principia and two years at another college in order to earn an engineering degree. The College does not have its own four-year engineering program.

Junior Gabe Korinek said that he would be interested in such a program because “it would increase the amount of funding and professors [for] the science department.” Other students agreed, despite a lack of personal investment in engineering as a field of study. Senior Jamie Rybak, a business administration major, said, “I wish they had engineering here. Not that I’d do it, but I think it would be nice to keep engineers at the school.”

Associate Dean of Academics Joe Ritter also expressed interest in an engineering program at Principia. As expected, a new program includes initial costs that mean that Principia must tread lightly. However, Ritter said, “We’re looking into options.”

When asked about possible computer science courses at Principia, computer science professor Tom Fuller said, “The computer science department faculty has gradually shrunk over the years from three to just over two at present. Thus we have reduced the number of courses we teach.” He went on to list several courses that have faded from the program, including Artificial Intelligence Systems, Management Information Systems, Intro to Computer Science (offered this semester on a one-time basis), Computer Graphics and Advanced Algorithms.

The sheer volume of student and faculty responses to the ideal world of possible classes prompted questions. What restricts the number of courses that Principia can offer? How can the administration respond to student demand in currently unoffered study areas?

The simple answer to the first question is that Principia is a small college. Most other colleges that fit the “small liberal arts college” description have between 1,000 and 5,000 students or more. Principia is much smaller, at approximately 500 students, and that restricts the number of professors, as well as the number of courses, that Principia can support.

College President Jonathan Palmer asserted that the administration is constantly walking a thin line between the courses that Principia must offer to fulfill major requirements, and the courses that students want to take. It is all about finding a balance, and sometimes, “there just aren’t enough students.”

Provost Scott Schneberger agreed, saying that along with budgetary concerns about how many faculty members Principia can hire, “a low number of enrolled students can also limit what we can offer, because we need a sustainable number of students interested in a course before we invest in faculty and course development.”

A small student body and a lack of apparent student interest has also had an impact on the much-requested courses in the language department. When asked about why Principia does not offer a wider variety of language courses, language professor Duncan Charters answered, “I think the main question has always been the number of students who would actually be taking the course. We’d love to offer more languages, but right now its just a bit of a struggle, because even in French there are just a handful of majors. In the more advanced courses, you might only get two or three people sometimes.”

Despite students’ seeming interest in foreign language, there is a great lack of students in the language classes that are currently being offered. “We have a fair amount of interest [in other languages], but how many students would really sign up for a whole program? If we could get a dozen students to commit to another language, we would want to offer it,” Charters said.

Instead, the language department is working on making other language learning resources available for students. Because Principia cannot offer the courses itself, due to student interest and limited faculty, Charters said, “We feel the best thing we can do is try to guide people to where they can do something with the language they are interested in.”

What can Principia do about disparity between the courses students want to see, and the courses it can offer?

Ritter said the solution lies in hiring faculty that can teach in multiple subject areas. The right number of professors in a subject area is not always a whole number, according to Ritter. “The idea of having multidisciplinary faculty, is like having a utility player,” he said. “Part of it is finding faculty who can teach in more areas, who could help broaden or strengthen our curriculum.”

Another option is, as Charters suggested, for students to seek out faculty that can help them develop their interests in areas of study that Principia cannot offer.

Image courtesy of Julia Suber