Wednesday, March 28, 2007

More Full-Timers, or Smaller Classes?

Yesterday's IHE had a report on a session at the CCCC conference dealing with class sizes and grading loads for composition courses. The conference apparently has promulgated a guideline – based on what data, I don't know – stipulating that no faculty member should have more than 60 composition students in a given semester, and fewer than that if the students have remedial needs.

Well, that would be nice. It would also be nice to have a higher percentage of full-time faculty. But I'm afraid it's one or the other. We have to choose.*

The only way to reduce class sizes, given the very real fiscal constraints most community colleges face, is to hire more adjuncts. Divide the same number of students by more sections. This would represent a boon to the existing full-time faculty, whose workloads would decrease but whose compensation would continue to climb. It may or may not represent a boon to the students, since they would have (at least the potential for) more attention from their instructors in class (even if not necessarily at office hours, since some adjuncts use that time to drive to other gigs). But it would worsen the already-appalling exploitation of a generation of instructors.

Alternately, we could convert some of those adjunct positions to full-time positions, and make up the difference by increasing the workload for the full-timers. This is the strategy Proprietary U used when I was there. I once taught a section of Composition with 38 students, and frequently taught sections in the 30-35 range. (This, at a college where the teaching load for f-t faculty was 45 credits per year.) Did the students get the same level of personal attention they would have in a section of 15? Nope. I did what I could, given what I had to work with, but I'll admit assigning fewer papers there than I did at Flagship U, where the sections were capped at 22. PU made a judgment call that the trade-off was worth it.

I can envision arguments for either strategy. The advantage of the 'increase the adjuncts' strategy is that it would lead to relatively affordable smaller classes. The advantage of the 'work the full-timers to the bone' strategy is that more full-time positions would be available, staffing would be easier, and students could find professors more easily. In terms of student outcomes, I could imagine it going either way, though my hunch is that the educational advantages of smaller sections would trump the educational advantages of more office hours. But that's an empirical question, and presumably testable. I'd like to see a head-to-head comparison with actual data. Has anyone seen anything like that? (This would be a very interesting, provocative use of 'outcomes assessment,' actually.)

Administratively, the 'work the full-timers to the bone' strategy is much easier. It helps deans dodge angry questions from full-timers in other disciplines, wondering why their classes are so much bigger for the same salary. If a Psych professor has 5 classes at 35 students a pop, and her counterpart in English has 5 classes at 20 students a pop, I could imagine the Psych professor raising some difficult questions. The fact that most of us have chosen the other way – keep comp classes smaller by hiring more adjuncts -- suggests that we're actually trying to attend to students' needs, as best we understand them, given limited funding. And we answer those Psych profs as best we can.

(Aside: this is the real reason that “Writing Across the Curriculum” stays dead. If we were to reduce sections of everything to the size of composition classes, we'd go bankrupt post-haste.)

One of the great frustrations of administration is that people don't often connect the dots between arguments. The same people who argue passionately for reducing the adjunct percentage also argue passionately for smaller classes. Short of a massive infusion of cash from some unspecified benefactor, the contradiction is simply prohibitive.

Which would you choose?

* I can already anticipate the self-righteous flaming. “No, we don't. We just need more money! Maybe if we cut those bloated administrative salaries!” Spare me. If there's a viable political strategy to increase public aid to public colleges, then by all means, I'm for it. But cutting oversight won't do it. If anything, when increased funding does come through, it usually comes with strings. Admins attend to the strings so faculty don't have to. The fantasy of the unrestricted blank check is just that – a fantasy. Here on earth, there are costs of doing business. Besides, below the VP level, many of these salaries are a lot less bloated than you might think.