In which SciWo risks coming off as callous...

i-9dc84d4d9156dccb30d5f62466b4219a-swblocks.jpgIt has recently been brought to my attention that a subset of my department's graduate student population is unhappy with our course scheduling. Some of our part-time graduate students feel that we are not doing a sufficient job of offering evening courses to meet the needs of people who work full-time during the day and complete their graduate degree one course at a time. I imagine the disgruntlement has been brewing for a while, but I suspect things are likely to come to a head soon, so I thought it might be worthwhile to spend some time laying my thoughts out here before it comes up in more official venues.

I am against accommodating our full-time worker, part-time graduate student students by moving a significant number of our classes to evening hours. There I said it. I don't want to make life easier for someone who is working very hard to get through her education while supporting herself in full-time employment.

Sounds pretty bad, doesn't it? I must be a stereotypical uncaring out-of-touch professor who doesn't give a rat's ass about the hard lives of non-traditional students. Maybe I am, but before you reach that decision, let me tell you two things: 1) I worked 30 hours per week during my MS and I know how hard it can be to fit work around MWF 11-12 am classes, and 2) I have a non-zero number of graduate students who are working full-time and attending graduate school part-time and doing wonderfully. So when I say that I don't want to accommodate those hard-working part-time grad students, I know what the repercussions are for them. But I think this is a case where accommodating a minority's request would harm many more people than it would help. And if you think I have any credibility left on the subject, I encourage you to venture below the fold where I lay out my argument against night school graduate education in our department.

1) Our graduate program is not large enough to offer multiple sections of any courses. Moving a course to the evening to accommodate full-time workers moves it to the evening for everyone.

2) Some courses with outdoors labs cannot be taught in the evening without incurring significant safety risks or compromising the core goals of the course. And, because of #1, this affects the educational experiences of everyone taking the course.

3) Some of our graduate students have significant child and elder-care responsibilities. Moving courses to the evening either costs these (cash-strapped) students additional money and time with their families or prevents them from taking the course at all. My hypothesis would be that more current students would be inconvenienced by a move to evening classes than would be helped. A small informal poll provides preliminary data in support of my hypothesis.

4) For that matter, a lot of our faculty have significant child and elder-care responsibilities. Most of our children are in full-time daycare and if we were mandated to teach evening courses, we would have to find additional care for them and may not be able to see them at all on the days that we teach evening classes. While theoretically we could recoup that lost time by taking a morning or afternoon off, meetings will still end up getting scheduled in that time preventing us from doing so, and school-age kids aren't generally allowed to be truant just to hang out with Mommy the morning after she had to work late.

5) At Mystery U, tenure-track faculty are expected to be developing internationally renowned research portfolios. Part of the success of a faculty member's research depends on attracting top quality full-time graduate students on assistantships and promoting good interactions and collaborations amongst students. I am concerned that if we were to shift to a "night school" sort of schedule, we'd be less attractive to those really good students who would see us as less oriented to providing the full graduate school experience and more interested in raising numbers in classes. Also, good interactions between students become harder to promote if most people are just drifting in and out of the department in late afternoon and evening hours.

6) Everyone has access to our course schedule on-line. Any prospective student can check out what classes are offered when before deciding to apply. Or she can ask a faculty member whether we offer many evening classes. Those students who enter the program and then complain that we are surprisingly not offering night classes did not bother to do very much research. That does not speak well of their ability to succeed in graduate school.

7) I know of no employer that requires or pays for full-time workers to go to graduate school that does not allow some time off to attend courses.

8) If someone decides to go to graduate school part-time while working full-time, it seems to me that she is making a decision to invest in her future career. Such an investment comes with costs: tuition, fees, and maybe lost work time to attend classes. A careful investor weighs the costs and benefits before making a decision, and if she decides to proceed and enroll in our graduate program, she knows that the probable long-term gains outweigh the short-term pains.

9) I think three hour classes (the evening norm) are really hard to teach well, especially at the end of a long day.

I think any decision to change our graduate course scheduling should be preceded by careful study of its costs and benefits for all of the affected populations. In the meantime, I think we should continue to leave it up to faculty to arrange their class schedules wiki-style and make the decision that is best for their own lives, their sense of what serves the students best, and the particular curricular demands of the course. In this case, I am strongly in favor of the status quo.

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Nicely put.

Many of the same arguments can be made against the (for me) dreaded Saturday classes.

By Anonymous (not verified) on 14 Sep 2009 #permalink

Yeah, totally sensible. They recently extended our teaching day until 7pm at night. Thankfully due to sensible timetabling we don't have to teach undergraduates until 7pm but it was a close thing.

Sounds perfectly reasonable to me ... I don't think it's callous. There will always be someone who thinks any decision that makes their life unperfect will think a decision like this is unfair.

As a full-time university employee and part-time student in the program SW is a faculty member of, I have to say I'm in agreement with her.

I walked in with both eyes open and knew exactly what it was going to mean to my schedule.

I also know it's a young program with no call for evening coursework, so it hasn't really bothered me. I've balanced my time away from work by taking related coursework in other departments that are offered in the evening.

Finally, as someone who did the full-time student thing in a program geared for part-time and evening students, I can tell you it's frustrating. Particularly as someone who is much more of a morning person.

So, I agree and don't think it's at all callous, just logical.

I have a bit of a dissenting opinion. Whenever classes are scheduled, there are always going to be scheduling conflicts. However, in my master's program, the core required classes were always schedule from 5-8pm, on either Tuesday or Wednesday. The reason for this is so that there would be no other course conflicts for anyone (in terms of other courses students or taking, and in terms of teaching assignments). And I actually thought it worked out really well for everyone--in some ways, it was kind of a bonding experience, both with our students and with the professor. And while some students, and some professors, had children (we did get class cancelled one night because our prof's wife was going into labor), everyone was able to work out their schedules.

After moving from there to a new PhD program, my BIGGEST frustration has been trying to schedule classes, as there are MANY requirements, and inevitably, they are all during many of the same daytime slots (we are on a quarter system, and I think that is part of my the scheduling is so rigid). I think having an evening class now and then would provide flexibility for everyone.

However, I should add that I taught an evening class over the summer (5:30-7:18), and after that experience I do prefer teaching earlier in the day. However, if I were still taking classes, I think that position would have been great in terms of scheduling.

I have taught in a very reactionary program where we tried to accommodate student schedules: a student would complain, and we would start changing entire course sequences without considering the rest of the students. "The squeaky wheel gets the grease" concept. Each conversation needs the voice of reason (thanks SciWo) since making wholesale changes is "adapting", "changing"... but not necessarily a good idea. The points presented here are excellent, and kudos for presenting both sides of the issue!

Food for thought - the 2 semesters I taught (an overload) schedule primarily in the evening, I was dinged on my chair's eval for "not being in the office enough" since I was hard to find (since he left at 4). Being visible is often a valuable - but unspoken - requirement toward P&T.

A digression

I don't for a moment think you are being reactionary, but the last poster, KR, might like to know that they have been tripped up by a word that means the opposite of what you think it might.

reactionary |rÄËak sh ÉËnerÄ|
(of a person or a set of views) opposing political or social liberalization or reform.
noun ( pl. -aries)
a person who holds such views.

I think KH was bemoaning a reactive environment, or a knee-jerk response to a problem (although maybe reactionary and reactive come from the same source?)

Digression over.

At the law school I attended we had some courses always taught late because our faculty worked during the day. That's very different from SciWo-ology

In physics, there really is no such thing as classes catering to the working stiffs. This has been a great source of frustration to me. I made an (apparently) bad decision in my younger days to go in the military before going to school. But I love physics. It was my life's dream. But because of my "bad" decision, I ended up married and had a child before I could go back to school.

I am well aware that life is not fair, and my lost opportunity doesn't mean I should get special treatment just to go back to school. At what point though, are people like me a minority population? Especially as the cost of tuition keeps some point it won't just be us working schmucks that can't afford the time or money to go to school. Then where will administrators turn to fund their progams? I would submit that there would be a lot more people willing to become students if time and money were less constraining. (duh!)

Additionally, I would point out that there are more people out there than you give credit for who want to go to school for something other than a career. Anecdotally (I know, I know) in my case I don't want my physics degree for a career. I have a quite nice one, thank you. I want my degree for a whole host of other reasons, not least of which is simply the desire to learn.

I wonder though, how many of the barriers to education exist in order to filter out those who have pre-determined to be not worthy? Does that sound harsh? I certainly don't want to offend anyone, but sometimes discussions like these feel quite exclusionary.

I should correct my comment above ... "unperfect" is not a real word ... pre-coffee writing captured in the online machine forever!

This may vary considerably by field, but most of the universities my employer works with, as far as sending folks to grad school for the sciences goes, are absolutely overjoyed to have non-traditional students part-time, for the following reasons:

1. Part-timers or even full-timers being "sent" to grad school by our benevolent dictators do not receive any financial support from the university department. They pay their own tuition, and the company covers their benefits. In effect, the advisers are getting free technicians to run their experiments. This means that they can now afford to run, perhaps, more complicated C/N/S-worthy experiments rather than the Least Publishable Unit, because now they have more worker bees per project. Or, those free techs can be directed to work on riskier side projects to generate solid pilot data that may be used to support a grant application in the future.

2. Generally, if the employer is coughing up, then it's because the employer does something related. This can give the PI access to technology they otherwise would not have: While academics find it cheaper to pay a grad student or postdoc to run things with a paperclip and a ballpoint pen than to purchase the Hal9000 DataTron, employers often find the reverse is the case. So while a project may have been anticipated to require a year or two of data collection the old-fashioned way, it might take a couple of weeks on the Hal9000, and many employed folks can beg/borrow/plead time on Hal9000 after hours to run their own experiments. Plus, it's not as if the PI has to train the person to do this, their employer will train them on Hal's software. You can easily beat your competitors who are stuck on the old-fashioned way in the Great Publication Race.

3. Folks with more non-academic work experience tend to take a philosophical, long view of the work environment, and have developed a professional demeanor enabling them to work through conflicts calmly and with grace. Not always, of course, but in general. They seem to realize that a lab meeting is not an appropriate time or place to burst into tears, throw a temper tantrum, or discuss religion. In my experience at two Research I universities, this makes them ever so much easier to work with productively.

All the usual disclaimers apply, of course. But #1 & #2 read to department administrators as, "We would like to give your department some free money, because you're so smart, just for doing what you would normally do anyway. In return, could you see your way to scheduling some of these classes in the afternoon, say, 3-5 or 4-6? We'd be ever so $grateful$." You can see how saying, "No, thanks, I absolutely refuse" doesn't go over well, right?

Your reasons for resisting evening classes seem reasonable to me.

I've just finished up coursework in a primarily night course PhD program with frequent cross listings in two different professional masters programs (also geared towards night so they can have day internships). Even though I knew that was the schedule going in, it never got better in my mind. Furthermore, I cannot even begin to express how difficult making night courses were with a young child, particularly for the terms I was going it alone as a singlish parent.

That said, our program has had some luck with the 4-6:30 slot (I'd move it from 3:30-6 myself). Maybe play with the times?

We have a lot of non-traditional undergrads in my department, and we have similar discussions. I have argued that a fair number of our non-trad students are women returning to school after having kids, and that they benefit from a class schedule that fits into a school day. And in our case, the jobs students are working often aren't 9-to-5 jobs - the students are working the late hours typical of a service economy in a tourist town (waiters, bartenders, hotel clerks). We still have some students who would be better served by evening courses, but I think those courses would be a problem for a lot of other people.

Yeah, and many universities are now offering lots of online classes as part of "global campuses", so there are options for evening-only students beyond the local university.

As someone who up until very recently was working full-time in an unrelated profession and studying science at night on the side, I can't even begin to express how grateful I am that a few professors were willing to teach 6-8pm sections of general and organic chemistry, and that there were grad students willing to do 6-11pm labs or Saturdays. Sure, it took me two years to get through all that at one class a semester, but now I'm headed toward the career I really want instead of rotting away in some cubicle for the next 20 years.

Without that kind of flexible scheduling, I'd have had to essentially upend my life in order to find out if I really wanted to be a chemist. Thanks to the professors willing to teach nights, I got to figure it out without having to find a new job, or quit, or beg for a flexible schedule from my disinterested management. I got to save upending my life to pursue education in a different subject until I was sure it's what I want. That's the biggest benefit - you get the NonTrads who are really dedicated to jump in with both feet by allowing them to test the waters first.

By Dreaded NonTrad (not verified) on 14 Sep 2009 #permalink

As an aside, I wouldn't be willing to do evening classes as a rule. I don't have kids, I don't have family committments, but I do have a committment to myself to work reasonable hours, and a committment to my partner to spend some quality time with him each day.
Teaching in the evenings would be an addition to the day, in the same way that Sat and Sun open days are an addition to the working week - I don't get time off in lieu because of the 'as many hours necessary' clause in the contract. (note here that our support staff do get time off if they work outside of banker's hours)
Yes, those with family committments have good reason not to teach in evenings, but it shouldn't be the case that those without young or elderly families have take it on either. As those above argue - showing face is essential, as is being available for a couple of hours when mostly anyone else are.

I worked 1/2 to 3/4 time throughout grad school and had an internship and went to school FT. I didn't expect others to rearrange the world for me. I also taught in a graduate program that was all evening classes - and it attracted a lot of people who wanted a degree the easy way. They didn't want to take any of the undergraduate courses that form the academic basis of the careers they wanted to switch into. They just wanted to show up two nights a week for three years and be handed a degree. I am not saying that all part-timers are slackers. Of course not. I am just saying that this kind of program tends to attract people like that.

I should preface this by saying that I am a grad student in physics, and as a result can't speak to -ology, though I think the funding across most physical or life sciences is based on the same idea at my university. In any case, I am pretty sure that I am not even allowed to have a job that totals more than 10 hours a week outside school

The rational here is that the university is paying me enough to live on and as such, I should be focussing 100% of my energy on research. The average time for a student to finish a phd at my university is between 4.5 and 5 years of full time research, if a student had a full time job at the same time, I could easily see this being extended to 8 or 9 years. This is obviously a situation that the university is not particularly interested in, especially since government funding for grad students only lasts 4 years.

That being said, I know a number of people who have outside jobs, and I intend to get a normal job a bit later this year if only to provide myself a break from doing physics all the time. The department actually encourages grad students to become tutors, and even maintains a list of available grad student tutors that you can sign yourself up for.

When I was an undergrad, I took a few once-a-week 7-10PM courses. Half of the class on any given evening were already drunk off our asses when we showed up for class, and during the half-way ten-minute break, I have heard that some students would step outside and spark a doobie.

I know I'm late to this thread - simple correction - Amy VE of comment #5 is actually in *my* department, not SW's. Here endeth the correction.

Not every uni can be all things to all students. Offering evening classes is something that not all unis can afford to do, either because of $$ or staff, which comes back to $$ anyway. That said, while it may not make sense for SW's uni to do the evening course thing for at least some of the reasons she lays out, it doesn't mean graduate education in the evenings isn't sensible in all conditions. I have one whole graduate degree (non-research) that I earned solely through evening classes. It depends on the subject(s), the type of classes being taught, the resources of the university.

I will say, being alert and attentive for three hours in an evening course is not easy, especially as one gets older. Not my favorite way to learn.

I reckon night classes in structural geology, aquatic biology, and bridge-building would have highly entertaining field components.

Deduction: SW is not an astronomer.

I am fervently grateful for online classes right now, since they enable me to accomplish some badly needed training while keeping up with my other responsibilities.

The drawback, of course, is that they only work well for course material that isn't time-dependent, and any science that involves studying the natural world in a hands-on way is inherently time-dependent (birds only sing in the early morning -- plant surveys are hard to run at night -- etc.).

Still, it seems that making more of the "lecture" parts of classes available online has some potential for at least minimizing the amount of schedule-juggling a non-traditional student has to do.