How few is too few?

This is not really about the grains of wheat in the sorites paradox

Given then that one grain of wheat does not make a heap, it would seem to follow that two do not, thus three do not, and so on. In the end it would appear that no amount of wheat can make a heap.

No this is a very practical question: Some time ago I agreed to give a guest lecture. At some point the course convener mentioned in passing that there were not many in the course. Today I received an email saying that the “group” would be as few as 3-4 undergrads. So as I sit drinking late night coffee, ignoring other pressing deadlines the question arises – exactly how few is too few students?

Naturally I threw myself on the wisdom of others and via twitter and facebook was informed of horror stories and depressed lecturers – as well as appeals to duty, a Latin quote (Tres faciunt collegium), social etiquette and the value of the few students who actually do show up. The latter included the quote “History is made up of those who show up” and a inspiring link to the tale of the Sex Pistols first gig.

Naturally, among the ones who do show up may be the amazing rare gem who inspires me and changes the world. Unfortunately years of lecturing show these are incredibly long odds and I probably would be better of playing the lottery.

So knowing this, why am I in the kitchen drinking late night coffee and warming up my slides by writing this post? I wish I knew. Some sort of protestant (actually atheist) work ethic – the show must go on.

At least two of the comments mentioned leaving the lecture hall depressed. From experience I am pretty sure this will be the personal result of lecturing to the empty(ish) hall. But then again this would probably fit nicely in with the protestant ethic (damned if you do, damned if you don’t).

Actually the best suggestion was not to cancel the lecture but turn it into a discussion. This is appealing except that since this is a basic theoretical lecture it will be just a lecture given sitting around a table in the cafeteria. Nice, but still depressing.

So back to the sorites paradox. If you remove one student from a lecture audience it’s still an audience. How many students must you remove for it no longer to be a valid audience?

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