Is the lecture replacing Sarah Lawrence's seminar-system standard?

The Donnelly theater in the Heimbold Visual Arts Center hosts numerous lecture classes and screenings each week. Photo by Ellie Brumbaum '17

The Donnelly theater in the Heimbold Visual Arts Center hosts numerous lecture classes and screenings each week.
Photo by Ellie Brumbaum '17

Large universities such as UC Berkeley and Yale University have courses that typically range from 500 to 700 students. The humongous class size can make it nearly impossible to find a seat and cause little to no student-to-teacher interaction. Sarah Lawrence College believes in smaller, more personal classes with a 10:1 student-faculty ratio. Students are required to take a total of two full-year lecture courses or the equivalent prior to their senior year. Lecture courses are typically capped at 45 students but if demand is higher, the class size can be as high as 60 students. While in comparison to bigger universities the size of a Sarah Lawrence lecture is very small, because Sarah Lawrence is such a tiny school it is considered “a big deal.” 

 “As the lecture requirement was originally described to me by my Don, it is in part to free up space in seminars. Given that seminars cannot really function with more than 15 people and we have a growing student body, lectures help us maintain small seminars. The 4-semester lecture requirement is certainly doable,” says Ari Jones (‘14).

While Sarah Lawrence’s seminar system is not necessarily losing its touch, students have their own learning styles, which causes some of them to identify with the setup of a lecture course more than the one of a seminar course.  “I took lecture classes first and second semester because I like being in big classes with a lot of diverse people,” says Schehrezade Rahim (‘17) “I am also really scared of speaking up in class, so I wanted to learn the other side of not being in a seminar.”

Lecture courses may be growing in popularity because they do not require mandatory conference project. Because there are so many students in lectures, required one-hour group conferences (which can be likened to a seminar) are substituted for one-on-one conferences. This does not mean that there will not be any work; most Sarah Lawrence lectures have a final project or paper that is no more than ten pages. “It makes more sense that a lecture course would not have a conference project because the subject [being taught] is broad and not as focused as subjects covered in seminar. I like this because it is a lot less work and stress put on me,” says Isabelle Campbell (‘17). 

However, a professor teaching a lecture course has the right to assign a conference project. For “Trauma, Loss, and Resilience,” Adam Brown asked every student to write a 20-page conference paper to turn in at the end of the semester. Despite the amount of work, “Trauma” is one of the most popular Sarah Lawrence courses and has a current enrollment of 60 students. To those who think they have tricked the system, make sure to read the syllabus carefully before signing up for a lecture class.

Even though the number of lecture courses has increased, they are not “taking over” the Sarah Lawrence course curriculum in any way or form. Small seminar classes remain a key reason why students enrolled at Sarah Lawrence in the first place. “I have more strongly enjoyed and had more powerful academic experiences in seminars. However, I think the experience in any class depends on the teachers and students. Lectures at SLC give some teachers the opportunity to really just teach material they are experts on, and students a chance to get a broader overview or one clear perspective on a topic,” says Jones (‘14). “I think it is ridiculous for SLC students to avoid seminars their whole time at SLC because they are the cornerstone of a Sarah Lawrence education. You come here to have in-depth and personal conversations and relationships with professors, which are really only possible with the seminar-conference model.” 

There will always be students who feel uncomfortable with speaking up in class or take longer to resonate with the seminar system. But the reason Sarah Lawrence prides itself on its seminar system is because it is truly stellar, there are very few other colleges in America where students will receive the individualized attention Sarah Lawrence offers them. While some students may add a lecture course to lighten up their schedule and workload, it is important for all students to immerse themselves in the seminar system and take advantage of every opportunity the system at Sarah Lawrence has to offer them.  

by Adrianne Ramsey '17
aramsey@gm.slc.edu