Monday, January 16, 2006


Section Triage

As the semester starts, my chairs and I have to make the final calls on which small sections to let run, and which to kill.

It’s tougher than you’d think.

Ideally, it wouldn’t happen at all, since we would have projected absolutely perfectly what students would want, and the students would have signed up early, and paid their bills, and every faculty member would be full-time and self-motivated, and there would be peace on earth. In reality, we never quite get it right, students never quite behave the same way twice, and no matter what minimum threshold we set for class size, we have to make exceptions.

Every call is hard. Essentially, the VP sets a threshold that a section must meet in order to run. This threshold reflects, at some level, the very real resource constraints on the college. Then, we start making judgment calls about exceptions, and likely late enrollments, and faculty loads. Juggling that many variables requires a certain amount of guessing, some of which, inevitably, will turn out to be wrong.

But this is the only section of the course that meets in the evening! But this is the second semester of a two-semester sequence! But this is a graduation requirement! But these students always enroll at the last minute! But if this professor’s class goes, he has to bump SuperAdjunct, and we’ll never get her back! But we’re trying to establish a presence at Branch Campus! But all the other sections are full, and we need a place to put latecomers! But this is the only section that doesn’t conflict with another course/lab/requirement!

And on, and on.

What makes it hard is the aftermath. I’ve worked with students as they’ve tried to create schedules for themselves; it’s often a real challenge for them to balance school, transportation, jobs, sleep habits, and the realities of late adolescent life. To pull the rug out from under a student by cancelling his class isn’t exactly helpful; doing it more than once (as can happen to a student in a low-enrollment area) must be downright demoralizing. But we don’t, and won’t, have the resources to run sections in the low single digits across the board, and the vast majority of students stubbornly refuses to register early.

Looking back, I’m amazed at how my alma mater handled registration. (Keep in mind, it was small, wealthy, and residential.) Students would get the course catalog that listed every meeting time for two years. At a given point in the semester, we’d be issued little gray index cards that we’d fill out by hand, requesting classes. We would have several weeks to return the cards. Several weeks after that (!), we’d find out what we got. Staggering. Here, they get crabby if the web page is slow.

As a cc, we’re the college of last resort for kids who crashed and burned when they ‘went away’ to school, so they show up to us at the last minute. Many of our students are adults with jobs and families, and their work/transportation/childcare arrangements often only come together at the last minute. It’s just not reality to think that we could get most of the courses filled far enough in advance to make triage less frantic.

My inner libertarian put down his cigar and brandy long enough to suggest a price mechanism for rewarding early registration. The problem with that is precisely that it would exclude or punish the students who actually need us the most. We exist to serve the entire community, including those who show up at the last minute.

I’d love to see some numbers on how many times you can cancel a kid’s class before he walks, or how many good adjuncts never return after being bumped. I suspect the numbers are non-trivial, but they’re also inaccessible, and therefore largely disregarded. If we could somehow get a handle on the true cost of closing classes, these decisions might seem less arbitrary. Until then, it’s time to grit my teeth and frustrate lots of people.

I don't envy you this week.
take care.
What a timely post!

NWU does a fairly good job of making required courses reasonably accessible, but we can do that in part because of size. Our graduate departments have more serious problems on both sides of the size issue (we sometimes have more people enroll in our first semester than we have room for in one of our classes).

In English, at least, we can pretty much offer faculty members a late first year writing/comp course so that they don't lose employment completely. That also serves the students who're registering at the very last minute because they don't have the money or are waiting on aid.

Is there any way to take sign-ups without making students pay up front?

That paying before you register thing is just a nightmare for people with low incomes or financial aid difficulties.
Not just a community college issue, btw.

My argument--and my practice when I was deaning, but which the upper admin did not like--was to use an average class size criterion as well as some others. If, in the business school, the average class size was OK (which I defined as about 27 for undergrad classes and 18 for MBA classes--remember, that's the average, not the minimum), I'd let about anything run.

We're now under an institutional policy of 12 for undergrad classes and 8 for grad classes. I regard this as madness.
Wow! Blog posts colliding in the blogosphere.

Bardiac, our institution allows for promissory notes to help students who haven't got the funds or financial aid yet. It helps.

And, doc, some of my "political capital" that I talk about in my post about this topic is that almost all of the other sections are full at a class size that is above what the other campuses run. So.....average class size is......
This was really interesting to me, since I'm an adjunct who just lost one of her classes due to low enrollment. I'm only ever teaching at this school tho, so I won't be heading for the hills, but I can see how frustrating it is from all sides now. Thanks for the perspective!
This is a very interesting topic. It reminds me of two awful experiences during my 5th -- and final -- year of my undergrad work. I was no slacker, always taking at least three credits over the limit, and my advisor and I carefully worked out a five-year plan that would allow me to earn two majors, a minor, a semester abroad, and two terms of internships, all required for my degree programs. (I never took a single class "just for fun.")

Some of my required classes were offered only once every TWO years. This took some very careful planning. The advisor and I took a huge sheet of paper, charted out every semester of college, and started filling in the blanks to make it all fit.

The cancellations almost ruined it. One term a required class was cancelled due to lack of enrollment, so I was instructed to take private lessons from the adjunct prof instead. He could only fit the independant study in during summer term, so that's what I did. It cost me an additional $600 because the university wouldn't honor its commitment to offer a class I needed to graduate.

When it happened a second time, I went to the dean and explained that I had a problem -- the university had promised me a class, cancelled it, and then told me to make it up with private study during the summer. I didn't have an additional $600, so I told her that I'd do the extra work IF the university would foot the bill. Since I had that whole five-year-plan schedule in my advisor's handwriting, the dean was kind of stuck. So this time, she simply waived the requirement.

This meant that I am not capable of teaching a specific subject, even though I got a teaching certificate from my state that says I can teach it.

This situation was bad both for me and for the adjuncts whose classes were cancelled. And ironically, even with my extra $600, they would make less teaching me privately than they would have made teaching the class. (I didn't know that at the time, or I'd have made cookies or sent a thank-you card to the prof who agreed to teach me that summer...)
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