The Way I See It: No Way To Rank Benefits Enjoyed By Being Small By Steve Libowitz It's hard not to cringe when another of those magazine rankings of universities hits the street. Whether at the top or bottom of these things, you have to wonder if anyone really takes them seriously. "They really don't affect graduate school applications," says Larzer Ziff, chairman of the Hopkins English Department, which ranked ninth in the March 20 U.S. News & World Report rankings of graduate and professional programs. "Students who consider our program apply because they want to study with our faculty. I think the rankings have some importance for parents and alums and donors. They create a perception of quality that is at best questionable." What that perception rarely reveals is that the English Department--like many other departments in the School of Arts and Sciences--is so small. Its 12 full-time faculty members and four joint appointments compete successfully in scholarship and for students with departments at Yale, Princeton, Harvard, University of California, Berkeley and Cornell, which are five and six times their size. In many ways, says the department's graduate program director, Jerome Christensen, being small is the secret of the department's success, which he measures by the so-called industry standards. "Above all is the quality of the faculty," Dr. Christensen says, all but one of whom is senior faculty. We have always had faculty who were or who became the intellectual leaders in their field. In the past, people like Hugh Kenner, Earl Wasserman and Stanley Fish created the field of critical theory while they were here. Today, Ronald Paulson is the major figure in 18th-century literature. Jonathan Goldberg, a distinguished Renaissance scholar, is one of two scholars in the country recognized as having created the field of gay and lesbian studies. "Both fields are important scholarly disciplines and neither was considered in the [U.S. News] survey." High-quality faculty attract high-quality students."We get about 300 applications and admit eight or nine," he says. Those who enroll and do well here do so, he says, because the program does not train students simply to transmit and readjust the existing body of scholarship, but rather to make major contributions to their fields. "We expect our students to be the academic leaders," he says. "That's not a philosophy that every student can live with, but it's the kind of student we want." The department's tradition of individualized and intense training has helped maintain its outstanding reputation for getting graduates jobs at the country's top schools. "Placement is an important indicator of how good our program is perceived around the country," Dr. Christensen says. "Last year we placed five students at top schools in an incredibly tight market." Being small also affords the department a greater intellectual and curricular flexibility. It's like a P.T. boat in an ocean of battleships. "One of our great strengths is that we can really respond quickly to important new scholarship," Dr. Christensen says. "At a school like Berkeley or Harvard, a change in a course title can take a year. Here, if someone has an idea for a course or an entire new field of study, we sit around and talk about it and come to a consensus. That's how the minor in Film and Media Studies developed, for example. I had an interest, and the next semester it was a reality. This ability to make quick decisions and sharp turns in a discipline defined by its anchorage in tradition can only occur because of a small department's internal versatility and readiness to collaborate with other departments. "The trend in my department, and I think it's true throughout Hopkins, is that faculty have a major academic focus, but also develop other areas of scholarly interest. This kind of flexibility lends itself to exciting interdisciplinary possibilities that develop slowly, if at all, in the bigger schools. "It's a source of pride to all of us," he says, "that since the 19th century, Hopkins' academic stature has far exceeded people's perception of our size. Outsiders are consistently amazed to learn that we achieve such a high level of productivity with only 12 faculty members. "Such intangibles are not measured in these [magazine] rankings. They count, though, where it matters most: in the esteem of our peers and in the success of our Ph.D.s. So in our case, it's good to be small."
Go to Gazette Homepage