Monday, August 20, 2007


Creeping Incrementalism

Over at Bardiac's, there's a thoughtful post on the frustrations of dealing with an administration that makes every class section just a little bit bigger every year. It brought back memories.

At Proprietary U, as the tech boom crested, there were students crawling out of the woodwork. It was a constant struggle to find places for them all, especially given their work schedules and lab constraints. The class schedule was built on a 'cohort' model, but students came in with so many (and so varied) transfer credits that the cohorts blew apart upon arrival. So no matter how much we planned, there would always be a few bottlenecks in the schedule. Given limited time and faculty, sometimes the only way to get them in was to raise course caps. Over time, course caps originally understood to be 'exceptional' became the new 'normal,' allowing the new 'exceptional' to be just a little higher. The cycle repeated a few times before the tech boom crashed and 'too many' students quickly became 'too few.'

From an administrative perspective, this is a very easy mistake to make. Enrollments are never constant, and even if the totals are fairly stable, the distributions aren't. So there are always some anomalies, and you just have to accept that as a cost of doing business. (At my cc, for example, there was an abrupt and very brief burst of interest in a very off-the-beaten-path foreign language a couple of years ago. After a year, the demand settled back to its usual level. I suspect sunspots.) At any given moment, it can be hard to tell if a given bottleneck is the result of an anomaly, or a fundamental and sustainable change. In the absence of good information, it's easier and cheaper (in the very short run) to treat it as an exception, and to cobble together cheap work-arounds.

The problem is that switching from a cheap work-around to a serious solution – that is, going from stuffing a few more students into each class and maybe adding an adjunct to actually making a full-time hire – is abruptly expensive. The need can creep up on you, but the cost hits you all at once. And if you hire a full-timer and turn out to have guessed wrong, you're in budgetary hell for a long, long time. So at any given moment, the temptation to wait for greater clarity – that is, to wait for the problem to solve itself somehow – can be great.

Compound that with larger statewide budget cuts, as is apparently the case in Bardiac's neck of the woods, and the burden of proof for a new full-time hire is that much worse. (Add tenure, which prevents you from cutting full-time faculty in areas with low enrollments, and you have to be just that much more parsimonious everywhere else to make up for it.)

In that kind of situation, the administrative challenge is especially nasty. You need enrollments to keep the college financially viable, but you don't really have the space or staff to handle them. (If you hired, you'd defeat the goal of financial viability.) You'd like to be able to promise anybody who helps you out a quick return to normalcy, but that's contingent on external factors beyond your control. If the situation has been going on for a while, chances are that some folks have already been burned by doing favors, and the “tough budget year” mantra has been spoken enough times that it has lost all credibility.

This is where I differ somewhat from Bardiac's recommendation. She asks for an administrative mea culpa. I understand the temptation, but it wouldn't be true. Is it my fault the state is running a deficit? Is it my fault that previous administrations hired badly, or that student demand fluctuates, or that the cost of health insurance is rising faster than just about anything else, or that some classes have lab constraints and some don't? Besides, in some environments, volunteering to take blame is a textbook way to get fired.

My move in this case – and I'll admit that it requires a certain kind of environment to work – would be (has been) to put it all on the table. If I just blame the faculty for being selfish, nothing good happens. If they just blame me for not magically pulling wads of cash out of my ass, nothing good happens, either. If we all come to grips with what is actually happening, then there's at least a chance of developing a healthier approach. Some folks will simply deny reality or retreat into indignant-narcissistic-accusatory mode, but many will respond to respect with respect.

In my perfect world, that kind of conversation would lead to strategic, rather than incremental, choices. If the downward fiscal trend looks likely to continue, then continuing the patch-here-band-aid-there approach is nuts.

My guess is that the administration that resorts to the death of a thousand cuts is trying to avoid what would inevitably be a tense, emotionally-charged confrontation. That's understandable on a human level, and certainly wise when the challenges at hand are temporary. But when it becomes clear that the challenges aren't going to go away anytime soon, there's a basic choice to be made: either water down everything you do, or do fewer things. The longer you put off that choice, the more you find yourself backing into the former. It sounds like Bardiac's administration is trying to make its problem the faculty's problem. I understand the temptation, but it's a terrible move.

I think your approach sounds good, and as an adjunct, I can say that any respect that comes my way will be aprpeciated and reciprocated.

At the same time, what I don't get and can't tolerate is when departments rely heavily and consistently on part-timers for classes that always fill. I'm not thinking about the classes where administrators are making calls on whether there will be growth in student interest in the coming years; what about composition courses? I don't feel respected when I am repeatedly asked to take in extra students and am expected to take my courses seriously (and also to take blame for every upper-class student who can't write) when overall the implicit message from the administration is that they're not that important or worthy of a full-time position.

I'm not sure if Bardiac was speaking of full-timers rather than adjuncts, but as an adjunct I made it my personal policy never to accept extra students and never to take on advising or committee work that I wasn't being paid to do. It's a policy that has served me well in grad school and has helped me to value the work I do, which is an important part of learning how to work in the profession. I think for full-timers, working together as a team is important with these issues, as someone pointed out in the comments at Bardiac.
I just read Bardiac's post and am disgusted by the lack of adding a class and hiring an ajunct. I have seen departments hire temporary full-times for a semester by just adding a class to their schedule. I have worked at public, proprietary and private colleges and it amazes me how disorganized all three are when it comes to scheduling. I have only come across one Math dept. that has their schedules planned out a year to two years in advance. As an adjunct I hate never knowing if I will have a job from semester to semester.

I found your comments interesting regarding the tech. boom and how it affected enrollment since I have worked for a school that relies heavily on the development of new programs to increase enrollment. The dot-com bust really destroyed computer tech and science enrollment at some colleges near me. It is important for universities to keep improving their offerings which benefits both students, the university and business seeking employees while still nourishing the basic academic offerings. You can't run a college based soley on short term trendy programs.
Is there a reason you can't have a 10-month full-timer without the promise of a contract renewal?

Or hire a full-timer who has multiple areas of expertise so if the newly popular courses become less popular, the faculty member can then teach something else instead.
In our system, any time with a full-time load counts towards tenure.

Whether to our credit or not, we haven't adopted one-year positions, like many schools.
This topic hits close to home for me.

I just spent the past 1.5 years as an adjunct for a new department that is understaffed. Nearly all the lower level, required classes for the major are being taught by graduate student adjuncts. We get paid a portion of the salary of faculty with full-time contracts and/or tenure, and we often were told we were expected to "weed out" the students who were not qualified to be in the program.

It burned me out.

My required non-Composition writing class jumped enrollment by 50% (from 20 to 31). Many of the students didn't do their work, and many of them needed to be "weeded out" for that reason. Those who did their working the early part of the semester started goofing off by the end because they saw their friends also goofing off (without realizing their friends were failing).

In the end, I got HORRIBLE course evaluations filled with out-right lies designed to make me look bad. It was obvious by the poor writing who wrote these screeds, but I simply could not face them for another "go around" when they re-took the course.

It's provoked me to quit my grad program and actually start looking for other employment. This seems to be the state of the university system nowadays, and if I am going to be poorly compensated with neither respect from students nor administration, why would I want to put myself through this for the rest of my life as class size escalates as student quality fluctuates? (Which also begs the question: Was there ever a reliable skill-base before? I suspect there was since many people in my parents' generation didn't even graduate high school and went on to live fairly successful lives.)

It's all so disappointing. If class caps were kept, maybe more of the problem students would be distributed among a variety of classes instead of getting bundled together onto one overworked (and probably underpaid) instructor.
At my CC, caps are set through the curriculum process, which is faculty driven. By contract, instructors can't be forced to take more students than the cap. However, almost everyone, full and part time alike, overenrolls their classes--space and equipment permitting--by at least a few.

Interestingly, some years ago (before the current contract) an administrator unilaterally raised the cap on comp classes by several students. We came in and checked our enrollments one day during open reg and there it was. The general response was something like "Fine. Cap is 30, I usually take 35. You've raised my cap to 32? That's exactly how many I'll take. No adds." Average class size actually dropped. Guess what? Caps restored the following semester.
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