Another semester, another add/drop period gone by, with course registrations just around the corner. As we gear up for another round of stressing over class selections, I’d like to consider the question that constantly strikes my mind as I stare longingly at my registration screen: Why do Amherst students only have four course slots a semester?
While taking five classes is possible here, Amherst makes it unnecessarily difficult for students to do so through its permission system. Currently, in order to take five courses, you have to justify your reasoning and receive extra advisor and class dean approval — approval that is sometimes excessively difficult or impossible to get. From stories I’ve heard from my peers, some advisors heavily discourage or outright don’t allow their students to take more than four classes, citing a student’s perceived inability to handle them. This unnecessary and sometimes impassable hurdle makes it difficult for students to even consider taking five courses.
The reason why Amherst institutes this permission system is obvious: We don’t want already stressed students to feel that they need to take more classes to demonstrate their ambition or intelligence to their peers. The current system simply doesn’t make five classes a feasible schedule for many students, and if we want to make five class slots a reality, we will have to change that system.
First, let me address the reasons why having five class slots can be better. For one, taking five classes allows students to better take advantage of the school itself. Amherst has an incredible course catalog, filled to the brim with learning opportunities in any (well, almost any) subject you can imagine, and an open curriculum to facilitate taking advantage of that variety. It’s no surprise that students would want to take as many classes as it is possible for them to handle given such a curriculum. But in our current system, people who are double majoring or planning on studying abroad often have little time to explore courses outside of their majors. Allowing people to take five classes would facilitate the mission that Amherst is trying to achieve with its open curriculum.
Also, taking five classes simply looks more competitive to outside institutions. Prospective employers comparing the transcript of an Amherst student with four classes and another student with five classes may be incentivized to look more kindly upon the latter simply because they’ve taken eight more classes throughout their college career (and thus have eight more classes’ worth of knowledge and skills).
Under the current four class slot system, the majority of our “learning” is centered not in class time, which is typically only three hours a week per class, but in what Amherst calls “academic engagement,” consisting of labs, discussion sections, studios, or good old homework, for nine hours a week (a figure that may or may not represent reality). For someone taking five courses, that’s an estimated 60 hours of work weekly, taking up more than one-third of your week. But if we lower the amount of additional academic engagement hours to, say, six to seven hours a week, then someone taking five courses would have about 45-50 hours of work a week — 15 hours in class and 30-35 hours of outside work — a similar number to the 48 hours of work someone enrolled in four courses would currently have.
To be clear, I am not advocating for a drastic decrease in the 48 hours of work we get overall — that’s an article for a different day perhaps — but rather for a decrease in the workload per class in order to make space for one more slot. One consequence of this is that we would spend more time in class overall, but I don’t see that as a bad trade-off at all: I think face-to-face interaction with a professor is actually much more beneficial than homework to the learning process. When I reflect back on the new things I’ve learned in college and carry forward with me, the majority of that learning stemmed from class, not from the readings and forum posts I did in preparation for said class.
I’m not denying that homework does have an important role in building upon and shaping our in-class learning — I just think our educational system should maximize rather than minimize the number of in-class hours we have, and distribute homework accordingly. A concern some people have with adding more class slots and reducing the amount of homework assigned per class is that teachers won’t be able to dive as deeply into certain topics as they do currently. But less homework doesn’t mean less learning, it just means that professors have to rethink the way they currently structure classes so that students can get the most out of class time (a task, I’m sure, they’re already optimized to do).
We don’t have to look far to find other schools implementing this system; there are already numerous examples among our peer institutions, including Yale, Columbia, and Bowdoin. All of these institutions have five class slots as the “average” number of classes a student takes per semester. Students are managing to maintain a work-life balance with five classes instead of four, surely because their academic workload is set up by their college in a way to facilitate that.
In registering for my Spring 2023 courses, I’m sure I’ll have to undergo the very same debate with my advisor about wanting to take five classes that I’ve undergone every semester (if you’re reading this, I know you do it out of care for me; don’t worry Professor). But hopefully, future students won’t have to go through that song-and-dance.