So I'm taking that conversational Italian class after all. The catalogue description says it's open to anyone who has completed at least a semester of college-level Italian, but it's clearly imagined as serving Italian minors who want more speaking practice (and who are taking the course alongside a grammar or literature class).
For the first two meetings there were seven of us plus the instructor, and I was happy to note that my skills placed me roughly in the middle: there were a couple of minors who were better than everyone else, but there were also people who had only taken a couple of years of high school Italian or whose first exposure to the language was a semester or summer in Italy. Some had great accents and were prompt with basic constructions, but had limited vocabularies and didn't know much complex grammar; others were terrible, awkward speakers who--it soon transpired--actually knew a tremendous amount.
Then three people dropped. And with just four of us. . . well, my oral and reading comprehension are on a par with my classmates', but my verbal fluency is probably the weakest of anyone's. Extemporaneous speech has never been my strength, and even in English I'm prone to blurt and babble. But at least in my native tongue it's only the content that's insane. In Italian my mouth will just randomly produce the wrong phoneme or scramble a verb tense beyond all recognition. I make an ass of myself twice a week. It's awesome.
But this isn't really a post about that. It's a post about the four-person class, which this semester I also have the pleasure of teaching.
It's possible, I suppose, that a four-person class could be terrific, but it strikes me as a uniquely bad number: just big enough to be run as a regular class, but not big enough for it to work. Individual tutorials would be easier, since those can be adapted and adjusted to each student's needs and abilities. With four people, though, each student bears somewhere between three and ten times the responsibility that she would in an ordinary class--and unless all four are at the very top of their game, there are going to be problems. In my own seminar I find myself lecturing more than I do with a class of thirty, simply because I need to give my students a break.
The only upside is that I've been learning from my Italian instructor. Although our classes are very different, she's clearly having some of the same struggles, and handling them better. She's been mixing things up, trying different strategies, looking for what works.
Whenever she figures it out, I'll have it made.