Street | Cover Story

Size doesn't matter: a sampling of Princeton’s smallest departments

Though the Princeton experience guarantees an education with a superior focus on the undergraduate and countless opportunities to work with, speak to and learn from professors, one can’t deny this experience is vastly different from department to department. Although the economics department boasts a faculty of 61 members, far more than the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures’ faculty of 17, there are presently 257 students concentrating in economics, compared to just nine students in Slavic languages and literatures. Departments with more faculty than students can be considered to be struggling, but some students in these departments would say this ratio is a major benefit to their academic pursuits. This week, Street takes a look at some of the smallest undergraduate majors on campus to get a glimpse into these academic communities at Princeton.

 

Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Cultures

With seven students currently concentrating in Spanish and Portuguese languages and cultures, the department is the smallest on campus. With 12 faculty members and 19 lecturers, students concentrating in the department frequently have the opportunity to work one-on-one with professors. For Martha Jacobs ’15, the decision to declare as a Spanish and Portuguese major was obvious by the beginning of sophomore year. She has enjoyed the close-knit community in the department and the close relationships she has developed with other students and faculty. “There’s actually a pretty common misconception that it’s just grammar classes that you take as a concentrator,” she says. “Most of the classes are actually literature and culture-based. There’s a lot of variation in the classes we take.” Students in the department can choose to study Spanish or Portuguese, but many actually do learn how to speak both. New summer programs developed in the past couple of years in Argentina and Brazil have made the process of learning the languages more flexible and made fulfilling the language requirement a faster progression. According to Jacobs, getting to know the faculty and other students in the department has been the best part of her experience thus far.

 

Astrophysical Sciences

The astrophysical sciences department is composed of 24 astronomy faculty members and research staff, six plasma physics faculty members, and seven associated faculty members — but only 10 students. This ratio was what drew Ben Cook ’14 to the department. Having entered Princeton as a prospective physics major, Cook decided to declare as an astrophysical sciences major after taking his first class in the department. “In physics and astro, you take similar classes and work with similar students. But the difference is, whereas there are somewhere around 30 students in the physics department, there’s only four seniors in the astro department,” Cook said. “I knew I would have people looking out for me, and I have really gotten to know every graduate student and every postdoctorate.” Cook and fellow astro major Alexandra Pleus ’15 have both found the professors in the department to be particularly welcoming. Each of the 10 students in the department has a workspace in the department’s undergraduate computer lab, where students can work in a shared space. “We would all be down there, so we all got to know each other and help each other out,” Cook said. Seniors in the department also frequently advise juniors on experiences, like when to take the GRE, and the process of applying to graduate school. “The community has been one of the best parts,” Cook said. Pleus agreed and noted that she enjoys weekly opportunities to discuss topics in astrophysical sciences weekly over coffee. Cook did acknowledge a disadvantage of the department’s small size in that there are a few niche areas of astrophysics that are not really covered, whereas larger departments on campus have faculty for every subtopic. However, he has not felt that this has had a major effect on him. The department is dedicated to getting students interested and hosts a variety of events for underclassmen, such as star parties, to attract undergraduates.

 

East Asian Studies

The East Asian studies department hosts a substantial sized faculty of 38, with 25 students. However, students in the department, like Cameron White ’14, could not be more thrilled with their experiences in the department. White originally intended to major in history or the Wilson School, but ultimately decided on East Asian studies after taking CHI 303: Third-Year Modern Chinese I, and a departmental taught in English. The department acts as an umbrella to the Korean, Japanese and Chinese language programs, but the major requires a balance between departmentals taught in English and language classes. Many students in the department opt to focus on modern Asia, especially China, but the department has faculty focused on premodern Asia, as well. All junior concentrators take the same junior seminar, which allows the students to get to know one another and each concentrator’s research. “Larger departments have to take the extra effort to foster community,” White noted. Students also all have carrels in the same part of the East Asian Library, allowing for a communal workspace and the opportunity to interact with other concentrators. White is excited about the department’s recent activities. “On the day our thesis is due, we have a big Major Choices event where seniors talk about their theses, alumni come back to talk about their careers, and then our whole department has its own Prospect House dinner with alumni, faculty and seniors. It’s pretty amazing because a lot of departments couldn’t fit everyone in, or the event wouldn’t have the same intimacy,” White said. He was also enthusiastic about a new opportunity for concentrators to spend their entire junior year at Beijing University, which he wishes he had had the opportunity to do. The East Asian studies department is diligent in talking to students in language classes to get them interested in concentrating, as well as to freshmen and sophomores taking departmentals taught in English, encouraging them to pursue language summer programs in order to be eligible to concentrate.

 

Geosciences

As a sophomore preparing to declare, Alison Campion ’16 is excited to join the geosciences department. She was introduced to the department after taking “Earth’s Environments and Ancient Civilizations — in Cyprus,”  a freshman seminar taught by geosciences faculty. The seminar took students to Cyprus to apply class concepts and conduct independent research over fall break. Campion felt that she learned more than she had in any other class. As a department, geosciences has a ratio of 24 faculty members to 17 declared concentrators. To engage undergraduates, the geosciences department sponsors the Princeton Undergraduate Geosciences Society, which hosts many events and informational dinners. Upon deciding to declare as a geosciences major, Campion has noted that the size was a main factor in her decision. “I’ve gotten to know so many professors and grad students very well individually and that’s only made all my experiences with classes better,” Campion said. “I feel like every time I take a class the professors are really there to teach, and they want you to learn, and that’s a really refreshing feeling.” The department also offers many classes that include field trips, which Campion feels has been a great way to get to know the students and professors. Additionally, the department offers weekly Friday teatime for undergraduates, graduate students and faculty to mingle.

 

Slavic Languages and Literatures

With 17 professors and nine undergraduates, the Slavic languages and literatures department is certainly a niche area of academic study on campus. The department requires three years of Russian language to graduate and, at any given time, also offers classes in Polish, Czech, Bosnian, Serbian or Croatian. The department recommends that students begin to study at least one of the additional languages if they are considering graduate school. “I’m taking Polish now. It’s only a two-person class, so that’s exciting,” concentrator Jake Robertson ’15 said. He has found the professors to be particularly dedicated. “You have to really love it to devote your life to it, so all the professors are really passionate in what they study and what they teach, and about their students who are also interested in it, and they make you love it,” Robertson said. “I know all of the professors; it feels like a family. Everybody is interested in what I am doing.” Due to the small size, students who are interested in studying topics beyond Slavic literature may have difficulty finding a thesis advisor. However, Robertson chose an advisor in the sociology department who focuses on the Gulag. Overall, the small size fosters a community that extends beyond the academic sphere. “The professors will come to my [theater] shows and send me an email that says, ‘Great job!’ and ask me when’s my next show,” Robertson said. “They actually care. That’s nice.”

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