Wednesday, March 29, 2006

You Need That Class To Graduate

Hypothetical here (really -- not just in the sense where we pretend that reality is not). Let's imagine that you are an undergraduate student attending a university where you are required to take a certain class to graduate. This class is required of many majors and programs at your university. The department that offers it runs about a gajillion sections of this class every semester, and it always fills up. Every semester students tearfully beg to be allowed into full sections. Because this course is such a crucial part of the curriculum, the department that offers it has standardized assessments that are used in all the sections and that are graded by a committee (or, if you prefer, by a ScanTron machine -- depends on which discipline you are imagining).

Assume that all of the full-time faculty in the department are teaching at their officially contracted loads, and all of them are teaching real courses that are important for educating students in their discipline. Everyone has been asked about the possibility of teaching an overload; some have accepted and are doing so. Furthermore, assume that all of the money for hiring graduate students to teach is being used to get graduate students into the classroom -- many of them teaching this course. The department has also hired several adjuncts for the sole purpose of teaching Oversubscribed Class.

To make this scenario interesting, I'm not making the limited resource "money": I'm going to make it "qualified staff." So now we will assume that the Dean's office is sympathetic to student complaints that it is impossible to get into this class and has allocated money to hire adjuncts so that there are always enough sections of this class that no student is ever closed out.* Unfortunately, everyone who lives within commuting distance and who is qualified to teach this class has already been hired. (What about online, you ask? For the sake of this example, assume that it is impossible to have a nationwide team of online instructors teaching this course remotely.)

Which would you prefer? For the department to staff the class with less qualified instructors whose students would seriously risk failing the course but where every student who wants to has the opportunity to sign up? Or for the department to only offer as many sections as they can staff with qualified instructors?

*See, I said that this was truly hypothetical, not a thinly veiled reality. In my department we don't have the money to offer more sections of our popular courses, so the rest of the scenario doesn't apply to us.