Johns Hopkins Gazette: April 3, 1995

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

     "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."

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