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.