Small Departments at Princeton

By Jeremy Rosenthal ’15

Princeton has 34 different academic departments covering a wide range of topics, but some of these departments are – to put it bluntly – tiny. Given the fact that there is evidently little interest for some of these disciplines, many have asked why these departments exist at all. Though it may be a fair question, that’s only so if we intend to consider the answers. In interviewing five representatives about their departments generally, I found a wide variety of explanations as to why these departments are invaluable to Princeton and why more students ought to consider taking advantage of them. First, in evaluating these departments’ impact, the number of majors is a poor measure. These departments strive to, and do, reach a wide range of students in the courses they offer. Furthermore, many of these departments place a strong emphasis on interdisciplinary work. In regards to what they offer, the fantastic student-to-faculty ratio is a great benefit, especially for students interested in research. Finally, these departments are looking to grow, and they hope that students will remain open-minded to their fields. Though students may be cautious of a department that seems to attract few majors, it is telling that all of these departments focus on areas students aren’t typically exposed to in high school.

First and foremost, it’s important to outline just what a “small department” is. When I asked undergraduates to name some of Princeton’s small departments, I got a list that included Astrophysics, Religion, Geosciences, Slavic Languages and Literatures, and Near Eastern Studies. These departments all had 25 or fewer majors (juniors and seniors), so I’ll retroactively use that as the dividing line between a “small” and a “medium” department. As I soon found out, however, it isn’t quite fair to base this definition on the number of majors alone. Many of the courses offered in these departments are being filled by those majoring in an altogether different area. For example, Professor Michael Wachtel, Slavic Department chair, teaches a 400-level course on Russian poetry with four students enrolled: a Slavic major, a math major, an engineer, and an EEB major. It seems that contrary to the understanding that the small departments are extremely narrow, these departments often have a broad appeal. This stems in part from the fact that, perhaps unlike larger departments, these departments aren’t only concerned with the “majors” they have, but actively reach out to the general student population.

As Professor Judith Weisenfeld, acting chair of the Religion Department, explained to the Tory in an interview, “I wouldn’t characterize the small number of majors as limited undergraduate interest. Religion departments tend to see themselves as serving the broader humanities.” Even though there may not be a large number of students choosing to major in the department, the courses offered attract a range of majors. This is significant in and of itself. Professor Wachtel echoed this observation: “We care much less about how many majors we have than we do about the number of students taking our courses.  I would hardly begrudge the Comp. Lit. Department for a student doing that rather than Russian. It would be nice to see more students in the humanities in general.” While these departments would be happy to have more majors, they also have an overarching goal of broadening students’ horizons and preserving and furthering the humanities.

These smaller departments, in addition to pursuing a general broadening of humanities-based studies, pride themselves on offering students intimacy and access to professors. When asked about increasing the number of students majoring in the department, Professor Bess Ward, Chair of the Geosciences Department, said, “We’d love to have 50 majors, but we don’t want to have 300. Something rewarding that we are able to provide in Geosciences is individual attention for a smaller number of majors.” Fifty was by far the highest number offered by any of the departments; the average number these representatives offered as an “ideal size” was closer to 25 undergraduates. Though all seemed interested in growing, the professors I spoke with qualified such growth, putting considerable importance on the benefits that a small department is able to confer upon its students.

One such benefit is a sense of community and warmth that these smaller departments have. It’s difficult for the majors not to know each other, and the departments are happy to have it that way. Michael Reynolds, NES Departmental Representative, offered, “I think students like our department because of the size of it; it’s intimate. Classes tend to be small, and students get a lot of access to the professors and faculty.” Similarly, Neta Bahcall, Director of the undergraduate program in Astrophysics, called hers a “small, friendly, flexible department” that is “well known for its very collegial, supportive, good atmosphere.” Indeed, the Astrophysics Department seems to shine in this regard, with morning discussions over coffee about papers published the night before that regularly attract 20 to 30 students and faculty. In the afternoons, graduate students often have tea and cookies, and discussion is open to any and all areas.

The accessibility of the faculty (all of these departments boast a near 1:1 student-to-faculty ratio) is another strong suit of these departments, especially given Princeton’s atypical focus on undergraduates. In the Astrophysics Department, Professor Bahcall said, “The undergraduates can work with any faculty they want on any topic they want.” Simply given the raw numbers, the larger departments cannot offer the same guarantee. The close relationships between students and professors that can be formed in these smaller departments also allow for improved communication and collaboration.. Professor Weisenfeld explained, “It’s nice to know every major and every majors’ thesis topic. I was a conduit for information, to suggest that they talk to so-and-so. There’s a sense that we’re all invested in everyone else’s work.”

Interestingly, it seems that even the few students that are majoring in these small departments aren’t only doing so because they’re interested in the subject matter; some come precisely for the intimate nature. Professors Wachtel and Weisenfeld both confirmed this, and Professor Reynolds went so far as to say, “Of course, we also get students who are really interested in the topic, and the flexibility is also something students might like. But I think it’s the size of the department and the access to faculty that students get number one, and subject interest number two.”  Certainly, small departments serve students well in appealing to varied interests, but they also cater to the varied priorities students have. Some find the chance to work closely with professors an invaluable opportunity that can’t be passed up.

For students who recognize that their undergraduate education doesn’t necessarily directly line up with their career plans, it seems some choose to take the opportunity to capitalize on the accessibility to professors that small departments grant them. Multiple departments pointed out that they’ve had students go into medical school or finance, reportedly with tremendous success. One student even went so far as to say he only got his job at [a large financial firm] because of his degree in Slavic. In such instances, it could just as well have been a desire to work closely with professors as an interest in the subject matter that attracted these students.

Though the departments are proud of and committed to preserving these special benefits they can offer as a result of their size, all of the representatives I spoke with indicated a desire for their department to grow, and many have already noticed a marked increase in recent years. Though a portion of this growth can be attributed to the 10 percent growth in Princeton’s undergraduate population over the past six years, there also seems to be a growth in interest. The Astrophysics Department has twice the number of majors it used to have – it now has ten –  and it is aiming to double that number yet again in the near future. Professor Reynolds calls the NES Department’s experience “basically a story of expansion. There used to be two or three concentrators every year just a decade ago, but that really changed with 9/11.” The department now has 21 majors, and “could take more than we now have.”

Yet it is important to recognize that few, if any, of these departments will ever grow to the same size as most other departments at Princeton in terms of undergraduate majors. To a large degree, this is due to limited interest in the subject matter. But another common reason I heard from these departments was that without exposure to these areas in high school, few students really think to consider them. Professor Bahcall explained, “Freshmen are familiar with the science fields they’ve taken in high-school such as biology, chemistry, physics, and of course math.  But here we have a much broader selection of very exciting fields that the students are not yet familiar with, such as astrophysics, geophysics, neuroscience, and ecology and evolutionary biology.  We’re trying to make sure that students expand their horizons once they come to Princeton.” Professor Ward agreed, adding that geosciences is “not accessible to an undergraduate education unless you know something about it.” This issue of minimal previous exposure extends beyond the sciences. Professor Weisenfeld explained the limited number of religion majors as partially owing to the fact that “for many people entering college, the study of religion is not something they’ve imagined as an academic discipline.” Though these professors felt there was little more Princeton could do beyond the current efforts, such as the majors choices program and majors fairs, they highlighted what a shame it is that our preconceived notions of what is and isn’t worth studying are solidified before we even reach campus. It’s fantastic that these departments are here to offer us a broader picture of significant fields, but we must be sure students are capitalizing on these opportunities, and are not too stubborn or intimidated to give these departments consideration in deciding on a major.

In discussing the importance of small departments, it is often said that the work done in these more “niche” areas helps inform other studies and our understanding of the world in general. Indeed, interdisciplinary work is something these departments put particular focus on and contribute to. In the religion department for example, every person on the faculty has a connection to an interdisciplinary program, be it African-American Studies, East-Asian Studies, or the Center for Human Values. These sorts of interactions are highly valued by many departments because of the importance they place on the humanities as a whole. As Professor Wachtel put it, such study “was the common practice of Western culture for many years; it’d be a pity if people stopped seeing value in it for its own sake.” Such interdisciplinary focus is not limited to the humanities. In many smaller science departments, there’s also an emphasis on working with other disciplines. Professor Ward explained, “Basically, we’re a small university, so we cover a lot of ground by having all of these departments. The collaboration and communication between all of those departments is excellent . . . even though they seem small, [the departments] are not silos;  there’s a lot of sharing.”

Clearly, this piece is focused on a usually ignored side of a complex issue. I mean this as a response to what I perceive as the prevailing apathetic attitude many students (myself included) have towards these departments. Though few of us have, or take, the opportunity to examine the efficacy of our smaller departments, it seems worthwhile to give them more careful consideration.  In the end, the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Though there may be few majors in a given department, that doesn’t speak to its value or even its impact.  Considering the fantastic opportunities for working with dedicated faculty that these departments offer, it should come as no surprise that many of their graduates feel passionately about their time here. It just might be time we underclassmen give these departments a second look.

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