'Minutes' from Coffee Talk of 15-Feb 98
Barry F. O'Connell, Professor of English
"The State of Amherst"
The first thirty minutes of the talk were centered on the issue of "intellectual conversation" at
Amherst. Gene Alexeyev '00 voiced a concern, echoed by several others, that there is a lack of
such conversations outside of the classroom. One replied that her first-year dorm's floor is
evidence against this. Eldar Brodski '00 linked the void to overextension on the part of students.
James Dubick '99 linked the void to a campus that, in general, is not conducive to non-mainstream activity/image.
This last comment was the first of the evening that Prof. O'Connell felt supported his belief that
the College would in general be a better place if it enlarged its student body from 1600-2800
students. This would give room for anonymity - in classrooms and socially - and would allow for
a more diverse student body.
The next bit of conversation centered on the Amherst classroom. One student felt that classes are
structured too strictly, limiting room for thought and synthesis. A freshman argued that
conversations would be more illuminating if students were not so cynical, i.e. they believe that
what they say in class will not matter, be it to the professor or other students. Several other
students were wary of grade inflation, asking professors to "tell the truth."
Professor O'Connell called upon participants to suggest "concrete structural changes" that would
address the concerns voiced. His proposed structural change, of course, is to enlarge the student
body to 2800ish.
One student suggested toning down the alumni/admissions relationship. This relationship
contributes to the viewpoint that an Amherst education is a place to go through to get a diploma,
not to stay at and be educated.
Another student reiterated the grade inflation complaint, citing it as a structural problem
throughout the school.
Ariel Sokol '98 cited the lack of core curriculum and the in-name-only shopping period as
potential structural problems of the school.
Other students proposed that tenured faculty be reviewed in some fashion, either by students or
by professor sit-ins.
Prof. O'Connell recalled fondly the days when every department had its own student steering
committee. A steering committee is a committee of between five and ten majors that consult with
faculty in a given department to address concerns of students taking classes in the department.
They also suggest curricular changes. Prof. O'Connell also called upon departments to install,
within themselves, a sort of core curriculum, that is, a series of courses that constitute an
appropriate study in, say, History. The department would then be responsible for ensuring that
these courses are staffed.
Recording Secretary, SGO