The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"If we value the pursuit of knowledge, we must be free to follow wherever that search may lead us.  The free mind is not a barking dog, to be tethered on a ten-foot chain."...  ...Adlai E. Stevenson, Jr.

Commentary of the Day - June 14, 2008: The Shrinking Univers[ity].  Guest commentary by Carolyn Foster Segal.

Here is a lesson in how to make a small school even smaller.

I was nearing the end of a busy day of making the arrangements for the visiting writer for the fall and finishing my edits on a piece on sports team cuts at my daughter's university.  I had only one more task to go -- writing up a short speech for an award ceremony that I must attend in a few weeks -- to my delight and amazement I recently learned that I'm to be the recipient of the alumnae association's award for excellence in teaching.

When I took a break from writing to check my email, I discovered that the administration had contacted my Humanities chair and English program director about eliminating my 300-level English course for the fall.  It seems that the the enrollment currently is at seven, and the enrollment minimum has been raised from six to ten for the 2008-09 academic year.  (The minimum enrollment number is a bit like the stock market and hemlines -- it fluctuates wildly from year to year.)

My director had already written an elegant and eloquent response, in which, with a remarkable show of restraint, she patiently laid out once again all of the concerns that we have brought to bear on this subject over the years.  The fact is that all the college will save will be $3,000, or the price of one adjunct slot, since the idea is that with my literature course cancelled, I will "make up" for it by cheerfully taking on another one -- a service course in the fall -- or perhaps next summer -- or maybe even on Christmas Eve.

The "cost" will be far greater than the savings -- in terms of the ire of those seven students and the faculty member.  Aside from the extra prep for me (before the end of the spring semester, I had to choose my literature texts for the fall), there's the not-so-small issue of the education of our students.  In addition to the aggravating suggestion that our English courses are all interchangeable, there is the fact that we already offer very few 300-level courses.  I suppose that we might send our students further afield and advise them to take a course in Nursing; that would in fact seem equitable, since my schedule regularly includes a "core" 200-level film class that fills not only with English and Communications majors and film minors but a hefty number of nursing students.

We've proposed repeatedly in the past that the administration average the overall numbers for a department's courses; we've also asked that the administration consider the overall average of a faculty member's courses.  For example, if I teach 45 students in my evening film class and 18 in the writing-intensive 2000-year survey of fine arts, and we average those numbers with the 7 in my 300-level Modern and Contemporary Brit Lit course for majors, I have a lovely average of 23.33 students per course.  Note too that, with the administration's dogged refusal to consider anything other than numbers for individual classes, another faculty member might have only the bare minimum allowable enrollment in three classes: all three will run with a total of 30 students, or 15 fewer students than in my largest class.

The seven students -- junior and senior English majors -- who chose this 300-level course to supplement their required courses would find it (extremely) useful should they wish to take the GREs or the Praxis test.  It's also always nice to know how the story ends: arguably the literature of the 20th and 21st centuries is a pretty important part of the major (no one has proposed cutting the major -- yet -- although they may not have to; see below).  These seven individuals will not be the only students the cut will affect.  While the administration argued that no one has added the course in the last six weeks (in other words, since the registration for currently enrolled traditional students ended), it's still early in the game for a small college with rolling admissions, a college where transfer students and returning adult students often wait to register until the week or day before the semester begins, a college where "Lifelong Learners" outnumber traditional students.

Course cutting is an extremely effective way to make a small department even smaller, for the process is insidious, cyclical, and self-prophesying.  Freshmen and sophomores considering a major in English (or any other department where courses are regularly cut) will decide to not even bother declaring that major -- or perhaps even staying.  The fewer classes we offer, the less chance we have of the admissions office (ever) featuring our major.  The fewer classes we run this semester, the lower the demand will be in subsequent years.  Along with my director's and my arguments for allowing small upper level classes to run alongside our booming service courses, my colleagues and I have repeatedly asked members of the administration to help promote and support our writing programs.  No one will have to make an official proposal regarding the elimination of the major; it will simply fade away.

I'm not alone in the leaky little boat that academia has become in the last sixty years.  It's an interesting image: all of we underemployed professors, spending the academic weekdays sitting (dogpaddling) in meetings where we are told our colleges are in crisis, and then, after the first ten hours of the day, going off to teach our evening classes.  Eventually, when the majors have disappeared, we'll be led to the plank.

While my director and I wait to hear the verdict on my course, I have in fact come up with an idea for saving the British Empire: working with the administration's theory that all courses are interchangeable, we will lower the maximum enrollment in the film class from 45 to 42; then we will tell the three displaced non-English-majors not to worry: we have a course for them in British literature!  There are no films, and there are a few more novels, and there's a big paper on postcolonial and historical theory, but hey, it's a course -- a course. taught by the teacher of the year, doing what she likes best: teaching.

2008, Carolyn Foster Segal
Carolyn Foster Segal is an Associate Professor of English at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, PA.

The Irascible Professor comments: The IP, who served too many years as a physics department chair, is all too familiar with the situation that Carolyn faces.  Upper-division and graduate enrollments in physics courses often are small.  Here at Krispy Kreme U., where the bean counters reign supreme, there frequently is pressure to cancel classes with low enrollment numbers even though our lower-division service and general education courses have students hanging from the chandeliers and our average enrollments always are well above minimum requirements.  In the past reason usually prevailed, and we were allowed to offer low-enrollment upper-division and graduate classes that were "paid for" by the high enrollments in our lower-division courses.  However, the current California budget crisis is severe, and the pressure to cut those low-enrollment classes will be very high.  KKU may even have to add another associate vice-president or two to oversee the cutting.


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© 2008 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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