Monday, March 11, 2019

Asking the Right Questions

A thought experiment:

One full-time professor teaches five sections of twenty-five students each.

Two adjunct professors teach one class each, also with twenty-five students per section.

In this scenario, the “student:faculty ratio” is 175/3, or about 58 to 1.  But the average class size is 25. If you try to infer average class size from the student/faculty ratio, you will get it wildly wrong.

I bring up the thought experiment because it helps explain what makes me uneasy about the numbers in the new American Academy of Arts and Sciences survey of humanities instruction in community colleges.  A line like “Philosophy appeared to have the highest student-faculty ratio among the humanities disciplines examined here, with approximately 50 students for each faculty member…” could mean many different things, or nearly nothing.  What it almost certainly does _not_ mean is that the average size of a philosophy class is 50. But of course, the first two comments on the IHE story about the survey immediately leaped to the conclusion that the faculty/student ratio is the same as the average class size.

The report doesn’t appear to make an argument; it seems intended to create a baseline against which future surveys can draw longitudinal data.  That’s valuable in itself, and you have to start somewhere. But false precision is a real danger.

The adjunct/full time divide is an obvious place to start.  Just defining the terms can be a challenge. If a full-timer teaches a section as overload, does that count as full-time (because taught by a full-timer) or adjunct (because taught outside of load)?  If a dean teaches a class, is that full-time (because she’s full-time) or adjunct (because it’s outside of her regular job)? In places where full-time faculty and staff do significant overload teaching, the way you answer those questions makes a material difference in the numbers you reach.  In a national survey, you’re probably getting numbers counted differently in different places. That’s a lot of statistical noise for a seemingly straightforward question.

Before making any inferences about the strength of the humanities at community colleges, it’s also helpful to distinguish gen ed requirements from electives.  English composition, for instance, falls under “humanities,” and it’s required in nearly every degree program at the college. But inferring high intrinsic student interest from high enrollments -- when those enrollments are required for every major from Auto Tech to Women’s Studies -- risks a basic category error.  Some students are happy to take it, and many more develop an appreciation for it once they’re there, but a non-trivial number take it because it’s required.

I saw the difference when I moved from Massachusetts, where the state doesn’t require a speech course as part of general education, to New Jersey, where it does.  Requirements drive enrollments. If you don’t believe me, sit in sometime on a faculty discussion of a proposal to change gen ed requirements. Faculty in affected departments see the connection immediately.

If it were somehow possible to isolate distribution requirements from electives, we’d get a truer picture.

That said, it’s also true that the humanities are much stronger at many community colleges than the popular discussion acknowledges.  To listen to politicians and commentators, you’d think that we do nothing but STEM and workforce preparation. But that’s simply not true.  We have students who come here to be artists, or who discover a love for art once they get here. We prepare students for transfer, which means giving them a broad base of courses at the start.  And we have faculty in the humanities doing innovative work within the admittedly significant confines of heavy teaching loads. This is college, after all.

So, kudos to the AAAS for starting to establish a baseline, and for calling attention to a much-neglected, but crucial, part of what we do.  I’d just advise being careful about which questions to ask, so we don’t inadvertently play into negative and false stereotypes.