Friday, March 19, 2010



"Should master's programs train their students for the number of students they would have in an ideal world or the number of students they will have in this era of expanding class sizes and bulging enrollments at community colleges?"

The latter.

This piece about the programs that grant master's degrees in composition raised a crucial, if underappreciated, issue. And it's certainly not limited to writing programs or English departments.

I've seen any number of programs/initiatives/interventions over the years that accomplish wonderful results when a tremendous amount of resources are spent on a single, small group of students. If we could get every class size down to 15 or less, with supplemental instructors and dedicated advisers and ample money for extras and plenty of course releases to keep the faculty fresh, then yes, we could improve student success rates markedly. For reasons of their own, certain foundations (cough Gates cough) love this kind of thing. Pouring improbable amounts of money into tiny pilot programs can get you some impressive percentage gains.

But you can't scale them up. They're not sustainable. While they may make everyone involved feel good for a while, they're ultimately beside the point. Any intervention that requires tripling our costs per student is not to be taken seriously, even if it works on a pilot basis. That's especially true when the grant expires, and the project either moves to internal funding -- the budget that just keeps getting cut -- or dies. If you're serious about sustainable collegewide change, projects like these are just irrelevant.

One of the comments to the IHE story used a nice metaphor. Instead of thinking of community colleges as just like every other college but a little bit worse, think of them as creatures unto themselves. Just as a doctor in an ER must work differently than a doctor in a surgical practice, so too must a professor in a community college work differently than a professor at a tony SLAC. That's not because ER doctors are worse; it's because the demands of the setting are different. As with the ER, community colleges need people who work well in this distinctive setting.

In the context of teaching writing, it means learning how to grade productively when you have four sections of twentysomething each. (I personally think that any college that packs forty students into a composition class should have its accreditation revoked, but that's me.) In the context of teaching, say, math, it involves learning how to teach around phobias, language issues, and rustiness. In the context of teaching almost anything we offer, it involves projecting a certain comfort level with students whose personal styles will be wildly different from your own, and whose roughness around the edges can be bracing.

It isn't just about stamina. The stamina metaphor implies doing the same thing you did elsewhere, just a little more slowly. That's missing the point. It's about studying in a systematic and serious way the most productive ways to prioritize. If you can only spend 15 minutes per paper when you grade, what's the best use of that 15 minutes? Many people recoil at the question, but failing to ask it is failing to come to terms with the reality of the college. Worse, personal observation suggests that people who don't think seriously about the adjustment eventually just give up, and revert to multiple-choice testing. The "how best to use 15 minutes" question strikes me as empirically testable, and the (potential?) results strike me as obviously useful.

I say all of this while freely admitting that I am not up to date on the latest research in the teaching of composition. If it's already there, then great. But I don't get that impression, and composition is only one example.

At least the composition programs are asking the question; full credit for that. I'd love to see other disciplines do something similar. In my scholarly discipline, the attention paid to teaching is minimal, and often openly contemptuous. My dissertation advisor was blunt in telling me to spend as little energy as possible on teaching, since as he memorably put it, teaching "doesn't count for shit out there." I wanted him to be wrong, but he wasn't. And even reducing it to "teaching" is misleading, since teaching two classes at a selective liberal arts college is a very different undertaking than teaching five classes at a community college. You can't just copy and paste. What "teaching" means varies drastically by institutional context; it would be nice if new grads were prepared for that.

I understand the argument from 'appeasement,' the one that says it's wrong to capitulate to harried conditions. But I think the 'capitulation' view takes too much for granted. Given that reality is not optimal, and is not likely to be anytime soon, can we do better than we're doing now? It seems like a fair question to me.

It's a hell of a lot more useful than yet another boutique project that won't scale.

I teach at Dongguk University in Seoul. Meaning I teach writing to students who are writing in their second language. My classes routinely contain 40 students.

This is not pedagogically ideal, of course, but it is what I have. So I do grade quickly, in 'waves,' and often in class.

First I teach the importance of drafting/re-writing (and a lot of very mechanical approaches like the 5-paragraph essay). Then, I work that drafting/rewriting approach in the classroom. At each step of a writing assignment the students have to bring their work to my desk, and I quickly mark their biggest issues and tell them what they are. I do this for topic sentences, then support sentences, then each paragraph and finally the essay.

This is all, of course, after teaching the particular writing skill, but it allows my students to talk to me in class, and get at least three feedback points after the assignment is given.

When students go home, they can send me their work as a Word file (sounds simple, but in Korea they use Hangul Word Processor) and I will comment it. By spreading my input out this way, grading becomes much easier - I have an idea what they have done long before I get the final product, and the final product has been repeatedly re-written.

This results in much better papers, which also ALWAYS makes grading easier.

Also, I beat them ;-)
I'd like to point out that the audience for this particular blog post is graduate schools. Instructors at individual schools should, I think, fight tooth & nail to keep their class sizes down. Some people (cough administrators cough) might take this budget opportunity to see exactly how much work they can squeeze out of their faculty in the long term. But we, as faculty, can't stop the long-term budgetary bleeding just by working harder. In the long run it just hurts the students.
Dean Dad, are you *seriously* describing smaller class sizes for composition instruction as a "boutique project"?
If Trevor is a full-time professor in English at a CC, I want to know where he works so I can apply there. After 10 years in the business, I have never heard of any CC (and I have attended many national conferences inside and outside my discipline) decreasing class sizes for any reason other than "boutique projects" that, as DD says, are not scalable or sustainable long-term.

In my limited experience as a FT faculty member in English, I think administration where I work responds to a set of crappy funding conditions that dictate doing more with less. As DD says in another post, keeping the doors open and the lights on short-term demands enrollment growth, but the long-term consequence for that growth in a system designed to exist on public support is that the institution will need more money than taxpayers are willing to provide. The public in my community simply does not understand why their state and county taxes (which are already onerous by national standards) should increase to support the local or regional CCs at times of record enrollment. The short-term solution to this problem, and the easiest one to enact, entails an annual creep in seats per class. I would love to hear about another realistic solution, because this one sucks for both students and faculty!

Moreover, if I were an administrator at my CC, the best case I could make for increasing public funding to my institution would be to show state and county officials exactly how much the public uses the services my institution provides. In other words, I think the best argument my administration has to get more funding and halt the creep in class size is precisely the enrollment increase that keeps driving class size up. Political train-wrecks and a loss of federal stimulus dollars impede a strong argument in that direction, at present, but I am sure that there will always be an excuse not to put more money into educating the poor…
Continued from previous post:

Nonetheless, the bottom line for teaching comp and lit FT at the large regional comprehensive CC where I work is that new hires rapidly abandon their liberal pretensions, stop complaining and get to overwork (or get out, although that’s rare). Since that overwork entails a 5/5 load and about 150 students per semester (at least to start), we try to help our junior faculty adapt their (usually) inadequate graduate preparation and rather over-developed and misaligned sense of priorities about teaching to an environment quite different than the one they were likely prepared for in graduate school.

Many of our applicants for junior FT faculty positions, and therefore many of our junior faculty, come from MA and PhD programs where graduate students teach one or two lower-level theme-based undergraduate composition or literature classes per semester or per year. A few of them, typically the ones who target CCs as a career option in graduate school, seek out adjunct work at CCs or the like while finishing graduate school. These candidates are, in my experience, relatively rare in the CC world (at least in my discipline) and highly sought after. The much more typical job candidate (and therefore more typical junior colleague) comes with little or no CC experience and a sense of entitlement about what they will teach and to whom. Such an attitude needs fairly rapid adjustment and lots of hours of mentoring. I blame the elite and semi-elite graduate programs from which these folks come for most of these mismatched expectations.

In a field in which there have been 200 to 500 applicants for every FT position for well over a decade, how is it possible that the majority of applicants for FT teaching positions seem to believe that they are the ideal candidate for one of the 20 or so jobs open in their particular specialty (on a national level) and refuse (out of either ignorance or a misguided sense of idealism) to market themselves otherwise? Really, how many openings exist annually for teaching Shakespeare’s cosmology, the post-colonial female travel narrative or the construction of patriarchy in Victorian drama? More to the point, perhaps, how do such signature projects (that earn MAs or PhDs) align with the current needs of undergraduate students, CC or otherwise, if at all?

It seems to me that most of the graduate schools in English that my CC deals with are doing a huge disservice to both their students and the undergraduates that their graduates end up teaching because these programs remain out of touch with both the job market realities in English and the pedagogical realities of undergraduates (CC or not). These institutions seem to produce graduates who expect and demand low teaching loads in their specialties and know little to nothing about teaching composition or general education classes in comp or literature. Worse yet, in a job market that should and (hopefully will) curtail future enrollments in grad Eng, graduate schools still typically offer little to no preparation in teaching the courses in the discipline most in demand and no guidance whatsoever in the practical matters pertaining to surviving or thriving with a large teaching load.
Continued from previous post:

Astute readers might well ask about the extent to which my department favors hiring applicants with PhDs to teach at a CC. The answer is that for every FT opening, we entertain hundreds of applications, well over half from PhDs, and we interview applicants whose mix of education, experience and desire suggests the possibility of teaching success at the CC level. We do not have a bias that I am aware of for or against PhDs per se. Recently, we have hired more junior faculty with doctoral degrees, but I think that indicates only that the number of PhDs (and ABDs) in our applicant pool has grown over the years to the point where it far outnumbers applicants with only MAs.

I defy any of DD’s readers to find a field in which graduates (a) are educated so highly in such esoteric specialty areas; and yet (b) remain so out of touch with the job realities of the discipline they are attempting to enter.

Regarding guidance on how to handle large teaching loads in English, we have found that some CC-oriented professional organizations are helpful in this regard. Nonetheless, we would love to read more research/attend more conferences that helped us be more effective in dealing with this problem. Most of the 40 or so FT professors in my department have learned largely from their mentors and by trial and error. A more studied approach would certainly be welcome and long overdue!
Speaking of spending energy on learning pedagogy in grad school, what do you think of the career prospects at the college level for someone with a doctorate in Math Ed instead of pure math?

I'm debating a career switch from high school math to college math, and I know I'd rather spend several years of my life researching how to improve retention rates in College Algebra rather than learning the details of Category Theory, but I also want a real job at the end of it. It seems like a CC would appreciate the person who did the ed research, but I'm not sure if "couldn't hack the real math degree" snobbery would get in the way of getting hired (it's more a case of interest than ability with me, for the record).

What do you think?
Anonymous 3:56, 3:59, and 4:00:

Surely some of the hundreds of job applicants at your CC come from the hundreds of adjunct faculty members teaching there. They know what the workload is.

So why all the kvetching about naive young grad school students, their "liberal pretentions," and their unreal expectations?

Just wondering.

I'll second what Anonymous said in response to Trevor, but try to keep it a lot shorter. ;-)

Yes, Trevor, Dean Dad is entirely serious in his description of any project that is based on the premise that our institution will spend its entire budget in 5 months and then lose its accreditation because it has gone bankrupt. It is not even close to being sustainable.

If the budget balances with N students in the classroom, it cannot balance with N/2 students in the classroom.

I will add (succinctly, because I blog anonymously) that our CC goes to great lengths to minimize the number of students in composition classes but don't get to the desired size despite those efforts. They are significantly smaller than regular classes, and the cost is made up with efficiencies (meaning more bodies) in the classes that give only m.c. tests. (Our developmental classes are smaller than the regular ones, but probably not small enough for that task.) There is little room to cut those further, particularly under our current budgets.
To Phillip -
I think you misread "many" as if it meant "all", and might not realize how many adjuncts do not apply for full time jobs. And Anonymous may also have been talking about the shock that new adjuncts face when they enter a CC classroom from a more elite teaching background. I won't hazard a guess how many of them are too weak in arithmetic to figure out how teaching one section during grad school scales up to teaching 5 sections full time!

To Anonymous at 9:24 -
Look at the "Jobs" category on my blog for some insight. If you don't have the required hours in graduate courses in mathematics, that EdD will not help. No "math ed" classes count towards the required skill in the content area. Other than that caveat, an MS is just as good as a PhD (in math or math ed) or EdD at our CC. But please keep in mind that we want someone who can apply that education research in the classroom, not someone who can do the research itself. (That was the point being made about composition in the IHE article.) Our ideal candidate is someone who teaches well, whether they can articulate where the magic comes from or not.

You might want to teach a class at night or in the summer (if you have the credit hours) just to get a sense of what it means to teach somewhere that thinks extra credit is the devil's tool and expects you to fail 40% (or more) of your class if 40% (or more) fail to demonstrate the basic skills needed to move on to the next course.
To anonymous @9:24

Math Ed: ditto what CCPhysicist says.

Make sure that you have, at least, 15 credit hours in math and 30 is better. That opens the door to teaching at a CC or in a university mathematics department.

That said, if you want to land at a university (4 year) a math ed degree is a much better ticket than a math degree. There are actually fewer math ed phds than jobs available in any given year and, as a result, there are always searches that go unfilled.

This is not true in math.

It's worth noting: Don't get an EdD in math ed unless it's from Harvard. Get the Phd. Consider ones housed in a math department if you don't already have a masters in Math.

Look at (to start):

Portland State
U New Hampshire
Arizona (either ASU or UA)
Wester & Central Michigan
I've worked at places where people with EdDs in math-ed (without graduate course-work in math) were in tenured positions in the math department. Different institutions have different interpretations of the accreditation guidelines (as the rules are pretty vague).

When class sizes in composition reach the level of class sizes in freshman math, then we'll probably see the success rates in comp approach those in math. A well-done College Algebra course would have far more grading than freshman comp -- which is why you typically see mediocre results in large College Algebra classes.
The CC closest to me just bumped their comp caps from 25 to 35 this semester because of the CA budget crap. I sure as hell hope that they will eventually cut it back down across the board and not just through some "boutique" program!
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