Friday, January 26, 2007

Workload Equity and the Popularity Penalty

Since we have increasingly limited resources, fluctuating student demand for different courses, and a unionized faculty, one of my semesterly battles involves finding ways to balance teaching loads.

Some of that is done for me by the contract. The contract specifies the ratios of lab to lecture for load purposes (don't ask – it's incredibly complicated, based mostly on who was on the negotiating team that year), so I don't have to reinvent that wheel. The contract also has a provision by which 'independent study' courses are compensated at a fraction of a credit per student. Over the years, this provision has come to be used to run some very small classes.

Running small classes is a financial problem for the college, but it can't always be avoided. With a few exceptions, we generally require any given section to include 12 students in order to run. (Exceptions include nursing clinicals and a few courses with very specific lab needs.) But sometimes you get stuck. For example, some of our majors require two semesters of a language. If we ran, say, Russian 1 in the Fall with 15 students, we're pretty much honor-bound to run Russian 2 in the Spring, even if only 8 or 10 come back for it. In some of the smaller majors, the upper-level (that is, sophomore) level classes are graduation requirements, so we run at least one section of each, whatever the size.

Equity issues abound. The composition and speech courses, for example, carry much lower caps than do the psychology or history courses. We justify the discrepancy by pointing to the different amount (and nature) of grading; since composition courses usually require more student writing than history or psych courses, the argument goes, it's as much work to teach composition to 22 students as it is to teach psych to 35. (This is why 'writing across the curriculum' died on the vine. Importing composition-level grading expectations to psych and history would require drastic reductions in psych and history class sizes, which would be financially prohibitive for the college.) But there, too, the college has a long history, and most of the faculty have accepted that difference simply as a fact of life.

The judgment calls come with the tiny classes. What do you do when, say, four students sign up for a class, and it's the only section?

The per-student rate for running it as an independent study is low enough that most faculty won't bother for fewer than six or seven students, since they still have the same amount of time in class and prep work. Yes, the grading load is lighter, but depending on the class, that may or may not compensate adequately for the reduced pay. If the class was supposed to be part of a professor's regular load (as opposed to an overload), the professor has to pick up another class to compensate, which makes for some very cranky faculty.

There's also the “I saw with my own eyes” problem. Last semester one sharp-eyed professor cornered me, asking why her classes were stuffed at 35 students a pop when just down the hall she saw a colleague teaching (a different course to) a group of five. I assured her that the colleague was only getting the independent study rate, and that we only ran the class because the students needed it to graduate, but I could see the explanation didn't really satisfy her. In a way, I couldn't blame her. It's harder to learn 35 names than 5. Multiply that out by five sections per term, and the differences become astronomical. (Of course, nobody gets 5 sections of 5 students, but emotional impressions are strong.)

The other side of the equity dilemma is the popularity penalty. Professors who become popular with the students find their sections perennially full, which increases their grading load. Professors whom students avoid like a bad smell wind up with fewer students, and therefore lighter grading loads, for the same salary.

Our student turnover is high enough, and ship is tight enough, that we don't have too much of the popularity penalty problem. I saw it at Proprietary U, though, since the student grapevine there was more fully developed. There was one professor in particular who achieved a sort of rock-star status among the students, which meant that his classes were always stuffed to overflowing. He complained regularly that he was effectively penalized for teaching well, which was pretty much true, since the increased grading load was uncompensated. Out of a desire to even out the workload a bit, I tried scheduling him one semester in the death valley time slot, where sections go to die. It didn't help. Students still poured in, only with more of an attitude. That experiment lasted exactly one semester.

From an administrative point of view, the popularity penalty is hard to address. I like to hear that students like their classes, and the soulless bean-counter in me can do the math well enough to realize that the books balance better when the classes are full. That said, there's something perverse about the better teachers having to do more work for free, and the dregs getting a free ride. (At Flagship State, where I got my doctorate, I knew people who openly admitted using the first week of class to scare students away so they wouldn't have to grade as much. That always bothered me.) Professors who earned reputations as ogres, for whatever reason, usually enjoyed much smaller sections, and therefore lighter grading loads. Other than tight control of logistics, such as we have here, I'm not really sure how to work around this.

Has anyone out there found a fair and intelligent way to offset or prevent the popularity penalty?