Thursday, August 16, 2007

Rock Meets Hard Spot

I work at a public university in a state which has seen economic rough times more than good of late. We've made a lot of cuts at the university, and they've hurt. We've raised class sizes, put off building maintenance (and actual building). We've cut tenure lines and hired adjuncts. We have some great adjuncts, but they're not paid adequately and we don't ask them to do committee work and such (though sometimes they do anyway). We're not in an area with a lot of grad programs, so we can't just hire someone ABD to teach a class twice a week, either. People pretty much have to be living here or move here to teach for us. The area doesn't attract a lot of random PhDs.

We've pushed enrollments to the point where we edging into less effective teaching (or gone over the edge). For example, if research were to show that the ideal class size for teaching first year composition or writing is 15-20, then once you push over 20, you're likely to be educating each of those 21+ students a little less well. Our regular first year writing classes run 28-30 students; we all think this is more than ideal, but it's the balance we've managed to work out given budgeting and such. Physically, 28-30 people is fine in some classrooms, but very tight in the space of other classrooms. Science labs only have so many lab spots; computer labs only have so many computer stations.

Grading changes drastically when you add extra students to a writing class; that's obvious. It's less obvious how class activities change. I can still run a pretty good class discussion up to about 35 students (our lit class enrollments); much beyond that and my class discussions are less and less effective. Even at 35, a student who doesn't want to be noticed doesn't get called on much, especially if there are a few engaged and energetic students in the class. But if you want to do presentations of any sort, adding students makes that less and less manageable. Some group work seems to go well with any size class, while other sorts of group work don't.

(Classes that are too small are another issue, one that I've not come up against much.)

What I'm trying to get at is that we're running pretty lean.


We faculty folk got an email the other day, informing us that X first year students didn't attend summer orientation and so haven't registered, but all the classes of appropriate levels are full.

We're not an open enrollment university, so these students didn't suddenly decide to enroll at the last minute; the admissions folks have known the numbers since they got letters of intent way back in late spring. Thus, even if these X students had gone to orientation, classes would have filled up before the last X students in orientation got a chance to enroll.

In other words, someone didn't plan well way back in spring to reconcile the numbers of students with the classroom seats we need for those students. And, of course, those students don't just take one class, they average something between four and five classes a term. So that's 4X seats we need. And they should have known that last spring.

You know, last spring when they could have tried to hire on some extra adjuncts? Last spring when they could have offered instructors already on the payroll an overload class for extra pay?

But those solutions cost money.

So instead, this email asked us all to open our lower level classes for just one or two extra students. If everyone just adds a few spots, the email pleads, these students will have plenty of room.

Remember, though, we're already at (or beyond) the upper limit of class size for effective teaching; we've been there for many years. Each student I overload at this point likely makes the class less effective for every student. So it's not just a matter of my being willing to do extra grading work. It's a matter, to use the administrative lingo, of student outcomes. And it's all about students, right?

Want to guess how many times I've gotten similar emails?

Here's what I've never seen, though:

I've never seen an administrator stand up and say, "I'm responsible for making sure we have enough seats for all our entering students, but I didn't do a good job."

And so I've never seen an administrator stand up and say, "I didn't do my job well; here's how I'm going to do this job better next year. You can hold me accountable."

I can't say how much I would admire and respect an administrator who stood up and took responsibility and who then took responsibility for changing things so we don't do this every year.


  1. That's horrible! For both the students and the instructors. It is absolutely ridiculous to have that many students in a composition course. Most (in English, anyway) know that teaching composition is one of the most work-intensive (for instructors) courses on the curriculum. Those classes need to be small so that instructors can provide effective assessment of student writing.

    I am sooo sorry you are having to put up with such completely inept administrators. I think those admins should be the ones to explain to students why they can't get into the classes they need/want.

  2. How awful!

    We aren't allowed to have any overages, because our contract stipulates that 100% of tuition for each overage goes directly to the instructor...

    That may be the only way I'd consider adding a couple of extra students to each class. I could then take the proceeds and buy myself some therapy at a spa and have plenty leftover for pizza at the end of the semester.

  3. Well, let's see. I've been on the payroll at my first job for 2 days now, and I've already been asked to pick up *two* extra classes this semester. Which are paid at the unbelievably low adjunct rate ($1800 for a three-credit class).

    In all fairness, one of these requests came to me two weeks ago, but still.

    I know that things come up, but jeez! To me, this smacks of understaffing. Or maybe I just scream "pushover" and everyone's trying to pawn their classes off on me?

  4. Ouch -- I can't imagine having thirty students in a comp class. That's awful.

  5. I had 30 students in a writing class this past Spring 9not Comp, but I used a Comp syllabus as the base for the course...). At least 10 of them did practically nothing and then bitched about the grading. If I had been able to drop them, EVERYONE would have had a better experience with the course.

    This is a shame. I feel for you. It seems things are getting worse all over.

  6. I think it is important to recognize that this is a systemic problem that is a direct result of factory-style education for future cogs in the late-capitalist economy. On a personal level, I am very fortunate to teach at a private college where I will have twenty students in each of my writing classes. And (sorry to say this jb), but we pay adjuncts $5000 / 3 credit class. We can do this because it costs $30,000 a year to attend. The United States no longer believes in public education. That contract is broken. There have always bee elite & semi-elite institutions for the well-off, but for about a century -- the 1880s to the 1980s -- Americans saw it as being in their self-interest to give the next generation an opportunity for quality higher education. Not any more. The irony here, for me, is that I would never have been able to even go to college if I were graduating from high school now instead of in 1969. I received my undergraduate education one great land grant public university & my graduate education at another. It is to weep.

  7. This one hit close to home.

    It sounds like your administration is falling for the "creeping incrementalism" fallacy -- the idea that last year's increase is this year's baseline, so as long as you never raise the cap by that much in any given year, all is well. It's easy to mock a claim that adding one more student will cause a drastic drop in quality, so if you add one a year, any given year's complaint seems silly, even though the cumulative impact over time is huge.

    It's a failure to reconcile 'short-term' and 'long-term.' And it's maddeningly common.

    The limited defense I'll give of my admin brethren is that predicting exact enrollment numbers is unspeakably difficult. There's always some random fluctuation, and it isn't evenly distributed across the institution. If overall enrollment is steady or climbing, you'll have occasional bottlenecks, no matter how good you are.

    But it sounds like what you're dealing with is more than the random signal noise. My condolences.

    I once taught a composition class with 38 students in it at Proprietary U. Creeping incrementalism can creep incredibly far.


  8. Anonymous9:19 AM

    Bardiac, this same email came my way two years ago. We in the department said, "Okay, raise the caps. Next year, they must go back to the original cap at 25." And it worked. The history department received the same email and didn't make the same demand. Their cap remain at the elevated 30 level.

    Stand strong as a department. And when in doubt, check the NCTE website. There's a proclamation they've made about how many students should be in a composition class. They make a really compelling argument.


  9. That was a huge problem at the public university I was at for undergrad. In fact, registration was a race (at the time, by telephone) to struggle to be in the first X number of students to register so that you could be sure that you got the classes you need to graduate in your major.

    My major was molecular and cell biology, and unsurprisingly, it was never difficult to get into the developmental biology, physical chemistry, etc classes; but the introductory level courses were hell for most students to try to get into. Luckily, one of the advantages of being in the honors program (by way of a good GPA) was that you always got to register before everybody else.

  10. I agree with Roaringgrrl about standing strong as a department. In my department, we continue to fight this battle, and the results have been positive. It is a policy within the writing program for instructors NEVER to admit students over the enrollment cap into their courses, and what this means is that all such things go through the writing program director, so he has hard numbers for the administration about enrollment data. Last year, there was an unexpected enrollment spike and we accommodated increasing the cap for our comp classes for one semester. But again, because it wasn't happening on an individual basis, there were hard numbers with which the writing program director was able to then use to negotiate with administrators for this fall, and we're back to our original cap.

    We fight the same battle in our gen ed lit courses, too, and we fight it all year long, every year. It's something that stays on the radar even when it's not just before the start of classes. I think one issue is making sure that this is an issue that remains visible and that departments deal with in a systematic way.

    The result of this over the past four years at my institution is that enrollment caps in gen. studies lit courses have gone from 30 to 25 and in comp courses from 24 to 22. But it takes solidarity, vigilance, and organization at the department-level to make that happen, I think.

    Oh, and a trick for leading discussion in larger classes that I learned as a TA and that worked very well: The class had around 60 students. The instructor divided the class into 3 groups of 20, and each week a certain group was "on" for discussion. This meant that every student had to participate in at least 1/3 of class meetings, which may not be entirely ideal, but I think is better than having a full 1/3 of the class not participating at all, which I think can often happen in larger classes.

  11. I agree with Roaringgrrl too. My first thought was "say NO!!" and you can do that, but if everyone else says yes then you are setting yourself up for negative attention, I think. Definitely try to stand together as a department.

  12. Anonymous7:36 AM

    This story just burns me up as I have experienceds similar situations. What really needs to happen is the administration should add a class and hire an adjunct. I one had two classes combined in a computer class. I was paid the same, offered a TA and had to use a microphone in order for the students to hear me above the whir of 36 computers. I will never do that again. Individual attention was not possible very often and I relied on my TA heavily. How did it happen? I was young and new at teaching at the college level and had no union since it was a for profit.

    I have to say, though sutdents can be relunctant to register when required. Why, I have no idea, but I have seen it in the public universities I have taught. This is one thing I hate about teaching adjunct, you never know if you will have a job semester to semester.

  13. I enjoy reading articles on this topic because it reminds me that our college is really well managed at every level. (Some of the things you write about start at the dept or Dean level, not upper admin, because I know a bit about what is done to plan for next year at our college.) We are far from perfect, but one measure would be that our President does take responsibility for the hard calls.

    One problem I now understand a bit better is that there is a huge difference between admitting students and having them actually show up. Even a small change in the show rate will translate into a lot of sections of freshman comp, and a college under financial stress can't afford to err on the high side. Worse, a larger fraction will attend when jobs are scarce, and more will choose a nearby school to save on housing.

    What I don't understand is the aversion to opening new sections with adjuncts, unless they (or the classrooms) are just not there. It does not take that many students to cover the pay of an adjunct, and lots of other costs are fixed.

    I can think of one reason, however. I once taught a section that was opened up on the Friday before classes started. It was a disaster, with a fair fraction not even bothering to attend more than a day or two. Not surprising when the entire class basically decided "I think I'll go to college today".