Sunday, July 19, 2009

Poli sci and department sizes

Via Henry Farrell and Chris Blattman, an article showing consistent disparities across disciplines in student-faculty rations (technically majors-faculty ratios), with poli sci consistently turning up as an extreme case of too few faculty for too many students, followed by econ and psych. As Blattman puts it, this has direct bearings on "why your economics and politics professors seem to have so little time for you."

I was going to post that, in addition to the explanations discussed in those two posts, there was likely to be convergence in absolute department sizes-- certainly, once a university has determined to maintain or create a department (thereby getting into the measurable pool in the first place), there's good reason not to follow a strict proportionality rule that allows faculty size to fall to 1 or 2. You don't want a single sabbatical to destroy the department's course offerings in a year, for example. This will skew the results away from proportionality between enrollments and faculty sizes. But then I clicked through and read the paper itself, and it covers this under "minimum effective size." I would add to the paper's discussion that there's also a considerable degree of organizational isomorphism-- the kind of thing that is a "department" has a size that's somewhat more than two and somewhat fewer than 100, and there will tend to be both functional and normative pressure keeping departments at within-a-near-order-of-magnitude similar absolute sizes, regardless of student enrollment. This, again, means that low-enrollment departments won't be allowed to shrink too far-- and high-enrollment departments won't be allowed to grow too much.

The paper's got kind of a funny-- funny strange as well as funny ha-ha-- when its authors turn to explaining the apparent departure from the economists' prediction of faculty sizes that are proportionately responsive to student demand by saying that there might be politics afoot. Really! You don't say?


Matt said...

I'd be curious to know what percentage of the political science majors consider themselves to be "pre-law". Whether poli-sci is the wisest "pre-law" major or not is quite open for debate. My feeling is that it's certainly okay and can be good but that it's no special advantage. (I'm not sure that any discipline is in itself a special advantage as a "pre-law" major.) But, my impression, from looking at law-school entering classes (especially outside of the most elite schools) is that political sciences is the most common major for people wanting to become lawyers, and that this is one of, if not the biggest, reasons for the size of the major.

Steve Saideman said...

Yes, pre-law has much to do with it. It is also a comparably easy major--relatively little math involved. Some poli sci departments have a stats requirement, but this is usually less than economics or psychology.

Also, poli sci is attractive to those folks who are thinking about a career in government.

The other side of the equation is that administrations tolerate political science departments that are understaffed. English departments need small classes for seminars, for writing intensive classes, etc, but political science classes can have 400-600 students, as Jacob and I can attest.