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Major Sprawl

Campus | September 28, 2016


“Lots of things come together to create a sense of camaraderie,” said senior Cecily Lo. A computer science major, Lo explained that within her major, many factors align to foster a sense of community. Despite having mixed thoughts on the computer science community at Tufts, Lo affirms that there is undeniably a central hub for students in her major on campus—Halligan Hall. “I 100 percent feel like it’s the CS hub. It’s possible to do programming assignments remotely, but for some classes it’s really discouraged,” she explained. “People have definitely fostered relationships with the professors through being in Halligan.”

Unlike Lo’s experience, some departments on campus are less centralized than others. While disciplines like computer science, chemistry, and romance languages have buildings on campus in which they consistently hold their classes, many other departments don’t have such a luxury.

Ultimately, centralization is only prioritized for certain departments on campus due to university policies that are already in place. Classroom assignments, and centralization of departments in general, are decided by the university registrar’s office. When choosing where to place a specific class on campus, the registrar considers the technological needs of each class, the size of each class, and who has “ownership” of each building on campus.

Certain departments are given the privilege of holding most of their classes in the department’s home building—what the registrar calls the “home court advantage” policy. “Economics, for example, is in Braker Hall. We try to book as many of the economics courses within their building that we can,” explained AS&E Registrar Jo Ann Jack.

However, only certain departments can reap the benefits of home court advantage. The English department is based in East Hall, a building with very few classrooms, though there are over 100 courses being offered this semester. As a result, the English department’s classes are scattered across campus.

Another dilemma occurs when multiple departments are based out of the same building. In this case, the departments can rarely benefit from the home court advantage policy. Eaton Hall is exceptionally challenging—the building is home base for the American Studies, Religion, Classics, and Anthropology departments. Here, choosing who gets to reap the home court advantage is difficult. Jack explained that the departments in Eaton cannot have true home court advantage—it would require prioritizing one department over another. “We try to put as many as their courses in their building as possible, but since there are four departments that live there, they can’t all have home court advantage like Braker,” she said.

Jack noted that this is nothing new. Courses in the humanities are more commonly spread out than those in economics or lab sciences.

For the registrar, sometimes the home court advantage policy can make scheduling classes in their “optimal” rooms difficult. Jack and her team use a program called EMS (Event Management System) to run a classroom “optimization,” which assesses all of the rooms on campus and selects the optimal room for each course considering variables like class size and technology necessary. Home court advantage interferes with this practice—if EMS picks a room in Olin for an economics class, the registrar will assign the class in Braker instead if a room is available.

Jack explained that the home court advantage is often at odds with choosing the best space for a class. “I think it would help us utilize our space better if we could eliminate the home court advantage and actually put courses in their best fit,” she said. But she doesn’t expect this policy to change any time soon. “We’re not there yet. There’s a strong sense of ownership of buildings,” she said.

But not all buildings have one “owner,” and Jack acknowledged that some departments need home court advantage more than others. As a result, most of the lab sciences and engineering classes are housed in or near their home buildings more often than some types of humanities courses. “Physics has all kinds of equipment…so they obviously need a different kind of room than English 1.”

Faculty, students, and administrators can see the benefits of having a centralized space. Aside from the perk of walking shorter distances between classes, it creates a sense of connection among faculty as well as students of the same major.

James Glaser, Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, recognizes this benefit in housing departments together. “You want to co-locate people who might work together and have common interests,” he noted. Glaser said that this is especially potent in the sciences, where lab projects might find “synergies,” but is true of all departments and faculty.

Lo noted that when she’s coding in Halligan, it’s always easy to find a professor or TA in the building for extra help. “[Professor] Ming Chow who teaches web programming and security is so often on this one couch upstairs that people call it ‘Ming’s spot,’” she said. “So if you ever need help from him 99% of the time he’s there.”

Lizzie Boston, a senior majoring in history, said that she still enjoys her experience with the history department despite lacking a centralized space on campus. “I definitely identify with my major, but I’m not sure how strong of a community we have,” she said.

For the Office of Campus Planning, knowing which departments use which classrooms is key when they are assessing the space for renovations.

Between 2014 and 2015, the Office of Campus Planning commissioned the Learning Spaces Strategic Plan—an in-depth assessment of the classroom space on the Medford/Somerville campus and how to better utilize it. Since the findings were released, the team has been gradually working its way around campus to meet with faculty and administrators and decide how to properly renovate the spaces to suit each department’s individual need.

Lois Stanley, Director of Campus Planning, explained that it is critical to meet with faculty who teach in certain classrooms before deciding what to upgrade. “Miner had rooms that were upgraded this summer, so we met with philosophy and history, some of the more frequent faculty that taught in that building,” she said. “And then we truly tailor the upgrades per classroom. Sometimes we upgraded teaching technology, sometimes we didn’t.” Only by communicating with the faculty is the team able to know exactly what needs to change.

For departments that are less centralized, it is challenging to find all of the voices that might have a say in certain classroom upgrades. Stanley tried to mitigate that effect in her work—using a list of courses taught in the spaces for the past four semesters, she then reached out to those departments to have a say in the renovations.

But for departments that don’t have as much of a home court advantage, it can be difficult to tailor spaces exactly to their needs. “There’s a little bit of the luck of the draw going on because some departments are in buildings with classrooms and other departments are in buildings without classrooms,” Stanley said.

When departments lack regular spaces in which they teach, they are presented with unique challenges—having classrooms that will suit their needs and building a sense of connection within the department. Perhaps some of these will be mitigated with the classroom renovations that are designed to accommodate many modes of teaching, but there is still a sense of dissatisfaction with the lack of consistent centralization.

“I have been jealous of people who can go to Halligan,” Boston concluded. “It’s not only an academic environment, but a place to meet people, work, and build relationships. There’s really nowhere for history students to do that.”