There’s an article in Access (the glossy magazine put out by our School of Journalism and Mass Communication) about why so few of our students manage to get their degrees in four years. Part of it has to do with the fact that most of our students work — many the equivalent of full time (or more) — and many have long commutes to get here. As well, many who start out taking courses at community colleges discover that some of those credits don’t transfer.
But a lot of the challenge, it turns out, has to do with lining up all the classes to fulfill all the major and general education requirements:
SJSU academic advisor and instructor Michael Randle, who has been working at SJSU since 1998, believes that understanding the requirements, knowing the prerequisites and organizing one’s priorities can help students graduate from SJSU in the time they desire. Randle, who teaches the lecture courses “Success and Science” and “Success as Transfers,” has seen a variety of factors that cause students to stay at SJSU longer than four years.
“Many need remediation (students do not receive credits toward graduation in remedial classes). A lot of our students work and because they work, they have very specific scheduling needs, which force them to take classes later on. Another factor is that when students devote their time to work, many don’t pass their classes and have to repeat them. Last but not least, some courses are only offered in a specific semester, forcing students to wait,” says Randle.
From a student’s point of view, that course you need which is only offered in a specific semester can be a real source of irritation. Why the heck doesn’t the school offer the courses you need more frequently?
Here’s some insight from the faculty end of course scheduling.
The “Ethics in Science” course I teach is a requirement for the chemistry major here. So far, it has only been offered in Spring semester, and this is the first year we have offered multiple (which is to say, two) sections of the course. If, for some reason, a chem major couldn’t enroll for the course (because of a schedule conflict or a missing prerequisite), he or she had to wait a whole year to try again to take it. If the course were offered every semester — in multiple sections, with a selection of days and times — chem majors would have no problem getting this required course out of the way.
However, to date I am the only person in my department who has ever taught this course. There is not at present an army of instructors we could unleash to teach as many sections of it as the students desire. In fact, as philosophy departments go, we do have a fairly large number of (very talented) instructors, but we wouldn’t want to assign this course (or any of our courses) to someone who did not have the expertise to teach the material well. The areas of expertise in our teaching staff encompass many different courses which fulfill major requirements for philosophy, major requirements for other majors (many of which are more populous even than chemistry), and a wide array of general education requirements. All of this is to say that if we completely directed our staffing toward making life easier (scheduling-wise) for students in one major, we would end up making life harder for students in other majors.
(Of course, we try constantly to broaden our expertise by taking on new projects. “Ethics in Science” will be offered next year while I’m on sabbatical, which means I need to pull together all my materials and some advice for the colleague who has stepped up to teach it while I’m off writing. It’s pretty clear that this pulling-together will be a very big project for me, and that the first outing with the course will be a very big project for my colleague.)
Maybe the department could hire a bunch more people with the expertise to teach the course? This seems unlikely in a year when our budgets are being cut. The other budgetary wrinkle is that increasing the number of sections of a course we offer does not always result in our filling those sections. Within the “resources follow enrollments” paradigm, a full section is good. A half-full section, however, stares up from the budget spreadsheet as a waste of resources. This means that three sections of 30 students is worse than two sections of 45. (A section of 12, by the way, would likely be canceled.) Sure, students might really appreciate having three sets of days and times to choose from, and pedagogically, the smaller class size has a lot going for it, but the three smaller sections are viewed by the people who have to watch the resources as a lost opportunity to teach a section of something else that would enroll 45 additional students.
Even there was sufficient demand that we could fill three sections of “Ethics in Science” each semester, it wouldn’t be likely that I’d be assigned to teach three sections of it every semester — there are other high-demand courses in my area of expertise (like “Philosophy of Science”) that my department needs me to teach. Most faculty members teach multiple courses that their departments offer, so their time and expertise are going to be spread around. While this decreases the scheduling options for the chem major trying to complete “Ethics in Science,” its a good thing for the student trying to find a section of “Philosophy of Science”.
Sometimes, for the good of our own majors and grad students, we even need to sacrifice high enrollments to teach undergraduate or graduate seminar courses.
Maybe the problem is that faculty don’t teach enough classes in a particular semester? On paper it might look that way, but students may not be aware of the other requirements of our job (like scholarly output and committee work). These other requirements eat up time — and they make a difference as far as how we are evaluated for retention, tenure and promotion. Faculty who devoted themselves entirely to teaching to the exclusion of these other activities wouldn’t get to stay in the teaching pool for very long … at which point, it might be a while before their departments hired someone else with the appropriate expertise to take on the courses these altruists taught.
Until we get to a stage in our budgetary thinking where smaller classes are tolerated, there are going to be real constraints on how often required classes can be offered. At this point, the best we can do is make sure students know how frequently or infrequently these courses appear in the rotation and hope that some advanced planning helps the students get the courses they need without too long a wait.