Thursday, December 02, 2010


Ask the Administrator: Partial Pay for Small Sections

An occasional correspondent writes:

I have been offered a course at a reduced rate because the enrollment is not 100%. My objections to this go beyond mere self interest (I think). Here are some potential issues:

#1: Instructors have little control over enrollment, but do have some. For example how many students pass a 100 level course has a direct impact on how many students move on to a 200 level course we might teach. If our rate is based on warm bodies might not an instructor be tempted to pass students just to increase enrollment in a higher level course?

#2: Advising, in either an official or unofficial capacity can only be affected by an instructors financial interest in the outcome of what classes a student signs up for.

#3: Is it really less work to teach a smaller class? Same commute, same lecture, same lesson prep, etc. At best there's some reduction in the amount of grading. I like to think we'd all give 100% for 50% pay, but there's some risk there. There's a message being sent by the college if they know it or not.

Obviously I can just turn down the class, but then I'm the guy that turns down classes... they will find someone to take the class and maybe that someone will get the next class at the full rate.

It’s a great question, since there are arguments on both sides.

Point three, above, gets details right on both sides. Yes, all else being equal, the grading for a small class is less work than the grading for a large class. (That’s why we cap sections for English Composition lower than for, say, Intro to Psych. Grading all those papers takes serious time.) But most of the other time and work is still there. The preparation is substantially similar, the class time doesn’t change, and so on.

Points one and two strike me as applicable mostly in smaller schools. They don’t apply very often here, though they could in some settings.

From an administrative perspective, small sections raise an obvious concern and a less obvious concern. The obvious concern is cost. If you only get three or four students in a class but you pay full freight anyway, you bleed money. If that class uses a classroom that otherwise would have held a much larger section, the opportunity cost is significant. (Yes, even last-minute sections can fill when the demand is high enough. It happens every semester.)

The less obvious concern is precedent. Every department or program has favorite courses (or favorite instructors) that it would love to run with low numbers. If I say yes to the history department’s pet project, then I have a hell of a time saying no to the psychology department’s pet project. Multiply that by departments across campus, and the logic behind bright-line minima starts to make sense.

The argument for pro-rating pay in low-enrolled sections is that it gets around the ‘precedent’ problem. If you’re willing to accept half of your usual salary to teach a smaller section, then I have an answer for the next department asking for the same thing. Assuming that there’s some sort of minimum beneath which people just won’t teach, this lets the market decide.

Of course, it still fails to address the opportunity cost problem -- itself a deal-breaker on my crowded campus -- and the plausibility of expecting the same level of effort at a pittance.

My college doesn’t pro-rate; either the class runs or it doesn’t. That necessarily means that certain classes simply don’t run, or at least not very often. Every semester we have multiple ‘triage’ meetings in which we try to guess which sections will hit the magic number that time.
This is a necessary and unavoidable side effect of endorsing the full-pay strategy. If your program is chock-full of required classes but doesn’t have enough students to run them, then your program either changes or dies. We can have full pay, or we can have lots of tiny sections, but we can’t have both. We’ve chosen the former.

Whether it makes sense to say ‘yes’ in your case depends on any number of things. I don’t know how staffing decisions are made at your college. It may be that turning down a class would be held against you, or it may not. I’d pay more attention to whether this class makes sense for you. If it’s something you’ve taught before, and the timing works with whatever else you’re doing, and you enjoy it, then I’d say go for it. If it’s a new prep, or an awkward time, or otherwise unpleasant, and if you can afford to, I’d turn it down. Obviously, your mileage may vary.

Good luck. It’s an unpleasant situation, though I can see how it happened.

Wise and worldly readers, what’s your take on partial pay for small classes?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

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