The great start of the semester add code scramble!

Feb 02 2011 Published by under Academia, Personal, Teaching and learning

Yes, I'm resurfacing again! To the readers who sent emails asking if I'm OK and/or conveying that they miss my blogging and hope this semester is not kicking my butt like last semester, many thanks.

At my fair university, classes started a week ago today. This means in the intervening week, I have received approximately a bazillion email messages requesting an "add code," the numerical sequence with which a student not currently enrolled in one of my courses might officially enroll. To be fair, half a bazillion of those email messages actually arrived before the official start of the term last Wednesday. As well, a quarter bazillion such requests have also been made in person, whether in the first two class meetings of the section of the course that meets in three dimensions (as opposed to online) or in my prof cave office.

It's hard for it not to turn your head when everyone seems to want what you've got, but I know this popularity will not last. (In week 6, they're not going to write, or call, or come to office hours -- they never do.) Worse, I'm just not in a position to give all these desperate students what they want.

The course I'm teaching that's in such demand this semester is my "Ethics in Science" course. Some students want it because it fulfills an upper division general education requirement ("area V"). There are many, many other courses (in Philosophy and many other departments) that would fulfill this requirement.

However, in the current budget climate (scarier than thundersnow!) departments are likely offering fewer of these courses. The thinking seems to be that you try only to schedule courses you know will fill, and cancel anything with a "low enrollment" (which could be 75% of full). Predictably, this kind of course scheduling makes it harder for the students who need a particular kind of course to get it.

Other students who want to add my course need it because "Ethics in Science" is an official requirement for their major programs. Given that so far we've only been able to offer "Ethics in Science" spring semesters (because there are other things my department needs me to be teaching fall semesters), and that we haven't ever offered more than two sections of it in a given term, there's a growing number of people who need this course who keep not getting it and having to wait until 12 months later to try again. Needless to say, this is frustrating.

Make the sections bigger so they can accommodate more students? I'm already looking at sections of 40 to 60. That may not sound like a lot, but it makes it hard to have actual class discussions where all the students can participate, and it makes for a brutal grading load. (Funds for graders? May I remind you that my state's budget is not in good shape -- indeed, that our new Governor has proposed a budget that cuts $500 million from the California State University system, of which my university is a part?) Plus, there are fire codes. The other obvious solution to this imbalance of supply and demand, teaching more sections of this course, would require teaching fewer sections of some other course I teach for which students desperately jockey for add codes. In other words, it wouldn't solve the problem so much as move it someplace else.

Could this be a sign that we're trying to do too much with too few resources?

Anyway, since I'm sympathetic to the students' plight, I'm obsessively checking and rechecking the official enrollments of my classes. I'm carefully prioritizing the requests for add codes in terms of time-to-graduation (graduating seniors get priority over folks with senior status who won't be able to graduate in spring), major requirements, and such. I'm trying to respond with equanimity to the students whose emails become more demanding (to the point of being abusive), since I know that while they see the dire details of their particular situations they may be unaware of just how many other students are dealing with even more desperate situations.

And, perhaps foolishly, I'm going to dream of a not-too-distant future semester when all I'm dispensing is an invitation to intellectual engagement, not the numerical code that determines whether someone can start the rest of her life on schedule or has to keep circling the tarmac for another year.

3 responses so far

  • Tracey S says:

    Yay, Janet's back! Sorry you're so busy but happy you're so popular.

  • Pinko Punko says:

    A discussion with 40-60 makes it a whole different class. Maybe whatshisname can come by and play blame-the-prof for any complaints your students might have. Demoralizing.

  • Dave C-H says:

    You mention supply and demand. Can't you just charge for add codes? In fact, if you use the funds to buy yourself a telescope, you have the first week's discussion in the bag--no need to plan. It's the win-win of the invisible hand!

    Come to think of it...You mentioned grading load?