As a (pre) Writing Seminars major here at Hopkins, I take a good amount of small, coffee-table-discussion-style humanities courses on topics ranging from slavery in cinema to introductory fiction and poetry writing. I’m talking 15-17 person classes in which we’re all circled up in a small (sometimes windowless…I’m looking at you, BLOOMBERG) classroom. The professor poses one thought-provoking question to the class, sits back, and watches us squirm in our seats for this awkward ten second silence in which we’re all searching for any remotely intellectual way to start the conversation.
I love it. In these classes, there is no way to disappear into a massive lecture hall of students.The professor doesn’t just see a mass of 120 faces; they see each student and watch for any distinct reactions, or lack thereof. While each type of class — the auditorium lecture and the round table discussion — has equal relevance in the academic life of a Hopkins student, I’m here to give my homage to the beauty of the small humanities course.
First, let’s talk enthusiastic hand gestures. One of my favorite aspects of my smaller writing courses has to be watching as each of my classmates wildly gesticulates while they explain how a certain rising action affected the power of the narrative, or how they can’t believe how much they actually enjoyed reading that 62-page excerpt from War and Peace, specifically when Tolstoy wrote this metaphor or that monologue, etc. Maybe this sounds super nerdy. Actually, I’m quite sure it does. But I’m telling you, when you’re on that literary soapbox waving your hands in the air and discussing how you finally got around to understanding So-and-So’s cheeky use of symbolism, or simply watching one of your classmates do so, you’ll feel That Power filling the room. That nerdy Hopkins power.
The format of discussion in these small humanities classes runs a bit like a 15-person game of ping pong. Or maybe more like soccer. You’ll see what I mean in a minute.
It’s essentially like one big collaborative brainstorming session between my classmates and I. Our professor moderates it, and periodically throws out mind-stumping questions for all of us to eventually find an answer to, but not before we bounce concepts and ideas off of each other for 10 or 15 minutes at a time (hence the ping pong/soccer metaphor ???). Of course, there are days when the discussion has more awkward lag moments than the professor would prefer. It’s scary how an entire class can manage to wake up on the wrong side of the bed on the same day. Generally, though, discussion flows with this uninterrupted ping pong/soccer match. Inevitably, we all reach this “ah-hah” moment about some double meaning that we finally grasp or this manifestation of a social injustice that has been occurring right under our noses, and class ends with me feeling a bit reluctant to cut off the conversation so abruptly. Unless I get to eat lunch immediately after class, in which case I’m more than happy to break it off. But I’ll save my food homage for another day.
Basically, the small humanities courses here at Hopkins make for this awesome environment in which you are free to rant as enthusiastically and gesture as broadly as you feel is necessary in the moment. Your brain will likely implode multiple times throughout the semester…probably even throughout the week. Your professors will find this highly entertaining; they pick up on everything, from your “highly confused” to “slightly less confused” facial expressions during class discussion. Humanities major or not, these types of courses are part of every Hopkins student’s experience. In my opinion, that’s a pretty wonderful thing.