There is no shortage of studies saying that a smaller class size is better for childhood education, but measuring the impact of a smaller class size gets a bit tougher as the students get older. Fortunately, most college-aged and older students can articulate well for themselves what they prefer in a classroom setting and why. My first semester of undergrad had me in General Chemistry with about 100 students and Japanese Society and Culture with four students (including myself). A lecture hall worked for introductory science classes. I don’t believe it would’ve worked for my society and culture course, and the two creative writing courses I’ve been in that featured more than a dozen students felt like they were past a critical tipping point. Those were in undergrad as well — you won’t likely find that at Columbia.
My first workshop at Columbia had five students, including myself. The current first-year Poetry MFA students have a seven-person workshop. The workshops in my second semester had about eight students each. My literature courses have had ten students (African American Poetry) and six students (Emily Dickinson), while my craft courses have had eleven students (Otherness in Verse) and six students (Fetish, Sustainability, and Self). Literature and craft courses were open to all creative writing students. Right now I am in Thesis Development in a small conference room with the incredible view pictured above. There are four of us plus the professor. Next semester, I will have one-on-one time with my thesis advisor, too.
While there is something to be said for having the feedback of more peer voices in a workshop setting, most students come to an MFA program for a combination of that peer writing community and feedback from professional writers — and Columbia knows that a smaller class size means more of the latter, more help from established artists to help you hone your craft. The only courses I’ve been in with more than eleven students have been classes that benefited from the increased size.
Introduction to Writing and Rhetoric had almost all of the creative writing students who entered alongside me — poets, fiction writers, non-fiction writers — learning to teach college composition from two professors working together. The increased size offered a forum for easing anxieties over teaching and sharing ideas to make classes run more smoothly. Literary Magazine Editing has had about eleven students each year on the editorial board and then three or four editors in addition to them, assembling Columbia Poetry Review. In that setting, a larger selection of voices can easily call attention to a great poem that flew below the radar of other classmates.
When you’re in a larger class at Columbia, it’s not to line the school’s coffers; it’s for a purpose. And the Department of Creative Writing knows that the only way they will be able to give MFA students the attention they deserve is to keep workshop and craft sizes small. The result is an environment where I feel my writing has grown substantially, and the knowledge that this wasn’t just a happy accident but a deliberate consequence of how the department is designed. It’s one of the things that makes me comfortable advocating for Columbia and inviting readers like you to apply.