Class Sizes Set to Increase as Professors Prepare to Decrease Course Load

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

As the Strategic Planning Initiative Draft works its way towards Board of Managers approval in the next few months, professors are preparing to lighten their course load. A key component of the Draft plan is a switch from Swat’s current 3-2 course load, where professors teach 5 credits a year, to a 2-2 course load, which would reduce the total number of courses being taught at any one time by as much as twenty percent. Though professors would only teach 4 credits a year, professors in favor of the plan are calling it “4+1” because, they argue, faculty who are less busy with course commitments will be better able to engage students.

Currently, most professors are required to teach five credits a year, with some exceptions, especially for those with extra duties. This means that professors who teach 2 courses in the fall must teach three in the spring. Under the proposed plan, every semester could be a two-course semester as soon as—depending on the department—the 2013-2014 academic year. This would be the first change since the mid-80’s, when Swarthmore stepped down from a 3-3 course load.

Decreasing professors course loads would come at a high cost. Many courses would be offered less often; others would be eliminated entirely. Across the board, class sizes would increase as the same number of students tries to fit into fewer classes. (If the student population increases in coming years, this effect will be exacerbated.)

As the college provost, Tom Stephenson, notes, new faculty will definitely be hired. Some departments, like Engineering, Biology, and Psychology, already earmarked for expansion, will see the biggest increases. On the bright side, more faculty means greater potential for course variety—that is, of course, if there are enough of them to offset the decrease in offerings. Regardless, any implementation plan that includes more faculty would be costly, and would require fundraising over the college’s current annual budget.

This is the bad news. But professors argue that the shift is necessary.

Several professors involved explained that across the board, they and their co-workers have struggled to maintain teaching excellence under the 3-2 system. Over the past fifteen years, says longtime English professor Craig Williamson, “teacherly responsibilities have increased, and are likely to keep increasing.” Williamson, who is coordinator for the Honors Program, believes he’s “always behind the game” when teaching three courses, and is “always able to keep up… [always] running an even-keel” when he teaches two.

History professor Tim Burke agrees: “One of the consistent things we heard [in Strategic Planning sessions] was that people felt a need for time in order to do what they considered to be the professional minimum… Not only are people doing more work in order to deliver excellent instruction, but some of them are plausibly close to the line where they can’t do that. If we’re so close to the edge, than that’s something to take seriously.” Linguistics professor Donna Jo Napoli agrees: “most of us are scrambling.” Professor Vollmer, too, stresses the urgency of a course load change. If trends continue, she said, “We have been running on fumes and have to look at the long-term sustainability of the teacher-scholar. In ten years I would no longer recommend Swarthmore to prospective students.”

According to Provost Stephenson’s, there’s been a constant “creep of time commitments.” President Rebecca Chopp insists there’s been an “acceleration of change and an expansion of how we learn, though the old isn’t going away. We spent a long time trying to understand” what the college needs, she said, and one of the conclusions was that “we’ve got to get more flexible” as conditions change. There’s been a subtle, fundamental, and inevitable shift in professors’ job descriptions, he believes, and by moving to a 2-2 system, this change will be addressed.

The “intensification” of professor responsibilities, as Burke calls it, includes a large variety of activities. In their newfound time, professors will be able to work individually or in small groups with students on problems, writing, independent projects, directed readings and theses, and they will be able to better act as mentors for students interested in their fields. Writing letters of recommendation and giving career advice to undergrads and alumni suck up a great deal of time, agree professors. Science faculty have seen a marked increase in summer lab work, which tends to be required for graduate school, and research is sometimes required, like for physics majors. Art faculty have expressed a desire to spend more time with students on studio projects.

“Faculty used to live in silos,” says President Chopp. “Now students are interested in community-based learning” and want their professors to have an interest in interdisciplinary thinking, global information flows, and the communication technology that comes with twenty-first century academic life. Professors with responsibilities to on-campus or national committees need time to do their work, and there is always the increasing pressure to respond to the now-24/7 deluge of emails and forum discussions. Professor Vollmer points to the constant drive to open academics to the global web of scholars that, coupled with the ease of sharing over the Internet, has added data reporting to the list of professors’ usual tasks.

Professors also may use their time to do more of their own research. But faculty firmly insisted that Swarthmore would not shift in the direction of so-called R1 research universities like Michigan, Berkeley, or the Ivy League. They suggested their research would largely be beneficial to their students. Whether it’s researching better ways to teach or simply traditional academics, faculty insisted that things learned outside of class would be brought into lessons. Professor Napoli, whose recent book on sign language lists former students as contributors, agrees that publishing is a necessary component of teaching. Professors have no need to engage in mainstream work—the kind that might draw others to teach at Johns Hopkins or M.I.T. in order to reap the benefits, suggests Napoli. Exposing students to research teaches them about real-world meaning and methodology, explains physics professor Peter Collings.

Professors’ own writings are often incorporated into class here, as students critique the works in progress and learn something about the academic process along the way. Williamson, who recently finished a new translation of Beowulf, explained that he sometimes brings his own translations of old English works into a seminar to let the students try their hand at the job. He calls it “interweaving the two realms” of research and class time.

Says Math professor Cheryl Grood, “I would be surprised if you found a faculty member that thinks, ‘oh, this is going to give me my little space to do my little thing.’ To many of us, in most of the things we want to do, we want to influence the students, inside or outside the classroom. It’s not like the faculty get to sit around and eat more bon-bons…” Burke stated that there’s been no whining—“very little of the ‘wah, I don’t have enough time to water my garden’”—during Strategic Planning discussions.

Professors also spend a great deal of time on the improvement and innovation of their own courses. This requires a large amount of reading, pedagogy research, lesson planning, and project design, including more complicated collaborative projects or those using the Internet. Dance professor Pallabi Chakravorty, on leave in India, said that developing courses based in part on her new experiences always “definitely enhances” her teaching. According to Chakravorty, teaching and research “are completely interrelated” and that time spent on her own, practicing what she preaches, fundamentally improves the time she spends with her students.

Burke thought the newfound time could be used in part like the famous Google 20% time, which allows staff to experiment on their own and play around with new ideas. By doing more creative, less structured work in their free time, he suggested, Swarthmore faculty would be working in a way more consistent with the liberal arts mission. “We really depend on our ability to innovate,” he says. “But we also count on that ability to preserve the circumstances of intensified contact with our students in a face-to-face way. [We don’t want to] schedule students out of our lives in order to manage the course load. At some point we stop being able to say we’re different than the University of Phoenix.” For his own part, Burke seems to practice what he preaches. He keeps Twitter open on his computer—to keep up on developments in his field—and he keeps a blog called “Easily Distracted.”

Williamson, who sits on the Strategic Planning Committee working group called “Missions, Values, and Goals,” believes a 2-2 course load will help Swarthmore become a better intellectual community. “One of our ideals here is to have a whole intellectual life together,” he says, and by allowing professors to have more productive and “fruitful” out-of-class work time, the “free-flowing collection” that is Swarthmore will be better able to thrive. Just as students “carry their discussions down to the dining hall or into a pizza party late at night,” he believes professors have a need and desire to carry their own teaching out of the classroom, unlike at other schools, where “intellectual life is cut, separated, and bound to one place [or time] or another.” He thinks the current 3-2 course load inhibits the collective intellectual experience.

Professors think the 2-2 course load will optimize students’ learning experience by striking a balance between in-class work and out-of-class work. Under 3-2, there’s not enough time for individualized work with students, but anything beyond 2-2—such as 2-1 or even 1-1, which is commonly found at R1 schools—would leave Swarthmore unrecognizable. 2-2, they claim, allows Swarthmore to achieve the best of both worlds. By the calculus of the Strategic Planning Committee, 2-2 is the desired equilibrium.

Despite the reputed advantages of the 2-2 course load, the reduction in teaching from each professor will definitively alter the setup of the curriculum. Those interviewed had no illusions about the necessary hiring and extremely likely class-size increases. The college will have to play what professor Napoli calls “a little bit of suck it up.”

However, she said that her department, linguistics, may not mind having fewer, larger classes. If “part of our mission is to disabuse students of their misconceptions about language,” then a fifty-person class may not be so much of a bad thing. For other small departments, like Dance, said professor Chakravorty, a switch to 2-2 may present an equally mixed bag. Williamson also figured that small-enough changes in class sizes would be a minor issue if professors could alter their teaching styles to match their audiences.

As professor Collings says, the next few years involve “many moving parts.” Indeed, he reports that at recent meetings, the Strategic Planning Committees have deemphasized the specific goals of the course load change, instead focusing on the mission of quality teaching. It seems such a loose approach that sets only a vague framework in stone helps to make the outcomes what Collings refers to as “a moving target”—something to be aimed for, but something that is constantly subject to change as new conditions and parameters are taken into account.

For example, contraction in course offerings may be reversed by an increase in faculty. Preserving the current 8-1 student-faculty ratio is a high priority for nearly everyone at the college.

Certainly many things will change, and it is all uncertain. However, the Gazette has a few rough estimates for the numbers that are bound to move:

  • A switch from 3-2 to 2-2 means a 20% reduction in course offerings.
  • This can be offset by a 20% average increase in class sizes…
  • …or by a 20% increase in faculty, though Collings suggests the faculty increase might not be that high and might only cover two-thirds of the curriculum hole
  • But if, as Collings adds, by the time the change is implemented, student enrollment may be as high as 1700, then there will necessarily be an additional 13% increase in faculty

An increase in the student population, if it occurs, will be intended in part as a source of revenue. Provost Stephenson concedes that the push to fund the faculty increases—in large part through unpredictable donations—will be a major reason the change will happen so slowly. The Strategic Planning Initiative includes an enormous fundraising effort, and the course load change is one of the main reasons. Funding is naturally the linchpin of the change, and both Vollmer and Collings soberly assert that 2-2 would be untenable unless the money is there to make sure all the other pieces fall into place. Vollmer states emphatically that “if we can’t do it well, we shouldn’t do it.”

Most of Swarthmore’s peer institutions, with the exceptions of Carleton and Grinnell, have already moved to 2-2. With Williams, Amherst, Wellesley, Middlebury, Bowdoin and others already operating this way, it’s easy to see the pressure the administration faces when hiring new professors. According to Burke, “we’ve heard from professors who’ve had to put on the big sell.” Provost Stephenson says his predecessor, Connie Hungerford, would consistently get questions about the course load from potential tenure-track hires. Though the allure of teaching at Swarthmore and the promise of a competitive salary generally eliminated the school’s course load disadvantage, he points out that a switch to 2-2 would be “a cheaper way to attract faculty.”

Grood points out that “what really forced us to confront [the course load] is the competition… there’s a sense of urgency because our peers are doing it.” However, “even if our peers were not doing it,” she believes, “it will, from a student perspective, be the right thing to do.” As Burke states, “it seems to be about our values; we’re not being a follower school.”

Provost Stephenson sees a long timeframe for the implementation of 2-2 system. The Strategic Plan Draft is slated to finish final comments and Board of Managers evaluation this winter; at that point a steering committee led by Provost Stephenson will convene to coordinate the course load shift. It certainly will not happen all at once. Particular departments will see the change before others. Part of this has to do with other complex changes to the faculty and academic structure: facility expansions, curriculum revisions, and new hiring will require a “phased implementation” over the course of several semesters. Though Stephenson hesitates to suggest when students can expect to see the effects, it “will not happen in the 2012-2013” academic year and might not be finished until as late as 2019-2020. President Chopp confirms that the college will still be in transition until at least 2015-2016.

Grood says, “It’s not like ‘whoo hoo! Four courses! It’s gonna be so much easier for us!’ because we feel passionately about the courses we offer [with 3-2] and the way that we currently offer them… it’s just a general balancing act, I think, and so the four-course load is seen not as a panacea but as something that will have some distinct tradeoffs. But the benefits, not just for faculty but really for students, will make it worth it.”


  1. Obviously it would be ideal, were funding not an issue, for professors to teach a 2-2 load and for new hires to maintain (or even improve) both the course offerings and the student-faculty ratio of those classes. Given that budgetary restrictions appear to prevent this from happening, I’m concerned that this move might really impact the classroom experience available to Swarthmore students.

  2. I am also worried about the impact this will have on the classroom experience, as the quality of the classes will diminish exponentially once the size of them increases. However, the possibility of more close student-teacher learning experiences through research, independent study, directed reading, etc. is a potential benefit, but it does not appear as if the infrastructure for it is fully in place yet. The whole vision seems rather fuzzy at this point, which makes me nervous about how smoothly the next steps are going to be implemented. Overall, I predict that the quality of the classes are going to be downgraded for at least the first 5-7 years that this plan is introduced. I am also not fully convinced that it is not at least partially due to the external pressure of other LACs going 2-2. Swarthmore does not have any difficulty attracting excellent candidates for faculty positions, and it is still considered a top-tier institution. However, it does seem to be a necessary change if faculty burn-out continues, and if the other institutions are doing it, theoretically it could help us maintain our competitiveness with other schools. The costs and benefits are probably even.

  3. “Professors think the 2-2 course load will optimize students’ learning experience by striking a balance between in-class work and out-of-class work.”

    Perhaps, but students will still have to take an average of 4 credits per semester, correct? It’s quite evident that the result of decreasing the teaching course load is a dramatic rise in class sizes, which can lead to awful experiences in classes that are supposed to be discussion-based but just can’t squeeze forty people into a reasonable circle in the Hicks Mural Room, for example.

    And if seminars, which are among Swat’s best courses offered, continue to have enrollment capped at twelve (and there are more students, and fewer courses offered), where are all the students simply going to fit? 50 students in Intro Ling and Intro Ed? 150 students in Intro Bio?

    All the faculty opinions were a great portion of this article. Now how about student opinions?

  4. I’m in a class with almost 90 people that usually has 30 and another with 60 that usually has 30. Neither are intro-level courses.
    The reason I came to Swarthmore was because I was promised small classes. This whole thing, with the huge classes for whatever reason it’s happening, is not okay. Not at all. If this is going to get worse, which a drop to a 2-2 system would obviously do, it feels a lot like Swarthmore going back on its word.

  5. I know there aren’t any student opinions in the article, so maybe that is a misstep on my part as reporter. However, I think it’s far more effective if you guys comment here instead of going through a long interview process with me. If there are enough thoughtful, awesome comments, then it is probably worth doing a whole article later about student opinions… which are bound to–totally legitimately–heat up over time.

    Thanks guys!

  6. The college is under financial stress, so let’s give the faculty a big 20% raise?

    The selection of classes is already limited.

    The faculty at Swarthmore already enjoy an amazing amount of vacation time + amazing fringe benefits + summers off + sabbaticals + 50% reduction in tuition for every child at virtually any private college in the United States (in case they can’t get into Swarthmore with a “faculty-kid edge”. These benefits are unimaginable outside of a college campus.

    Out in the real world where many of Swat parents work, if not unemployed or struggling to figure out how to meet their next payroll, many are at least a bit concerned about losing their job.

    Meanwhile, the taxpayer (aka Swat parent) is threatened with new and higher taxes at every level of government to pay for the overly generous salaries and benefits of government employees which politicians have breezily promised and left unfunded.

    How is this new grand Swat benefit for faculty going to play when these parents and alumni living in the cold real world are hit up for large donations to “support” Swarthmore and its academic programs?

    Swarthmore has no problem hiring well-qualified faculty. The real world market says Swathmore is not underpaying.

    Many of its students and families, on the other hand, are paying or indebting themselves to the tune of $200,000 per degree.

    To propose an enormous faculty benefit at this time (rather than being thrilled to have a well-paying, prestigious, and intellectually stimulating job in these difficult times) reflects an utter ignorance, hubris, and disconnect from the real world of Swarthmore faculty and administrators. This represents exactly what the 99% have a legitimate complaint about.

    A counter-proposal: since Swarthmore plans to offer 20% less education/classes, how about a 20% tuition cut to match?

    • Being a professor is a cushy job. When professors teach, they teach material of their choosing to stimulating students. Professors have great flexibility, so they can do much of their work whenever they want. In fact, the job is so cushy that many keep doing it even though they could enter the private sector tomorrow and raise their pay substantially. I suspect that most Swarthmore faculty members would say that they love their jobs, but this reduction in teaching loads still seems warranted. Henry Ford supposedly said that doubling the wages of his workers was the best cost-saving measure he ever implemented. Paying a factory worker or a faculty member is very different from, say, buying a car. If you bargain well and wring every last cent out of the car dealer, that does not impact how the car will operate. Do the same with faculty members, and their job performance will fall. (They are human, after all.) You can watch the rising work load of faculty members and say that they have a cushy job for which they should be grateful (and you would be correct). Few will leave in the short term, but hiring will become more difficult over time. At my R1 university, we have seen job candidates take positions at schools whose students were not of the same caliber simply because of a reduction of one course per year for three years. Swarthmore will begin to experience the same thing if it does not act.

  7. I think it is ridiculous how some faculty members and administrators are trying to spin this positively. This is about living up to our values? This is about innovative teaching and a bright new future? Let’s get real! I understand the need for a positive vision of the future, but sometimes dreaming is just an escapist distraction from reality. The generally sanguine tone of this article is bizarre given these sorts of quotes from professors:

    “We have been running on fumes and have to look at the long-term sustainability of the teacher-scholar. In ten years I would no longer recommend Swarthmore to prospective students.”

    “At some point we stop being able to say we’re different than the University of Phoenix.”

    “if we can’t do it well [meaning increased funding], we shouldn’t do it.”

    Students, alumnae, faculty, and staff are not involved enough in planning decisions, and this is in part because we hear that everything is going to be all right; that as long as we affirm some vague values, we can cede control to well-meaning professionals who will ensure continued “excellence” by applying best-practices from other elite liberal arts colleges. Most of us put too much trust in the ability of these administrators to prepare us for the future and adapt to change. As evidence of this, just read the draft of our “strategic” “plan” alongside the three above quotes.

    This proposed transition to a 2-2 course load should be a wake-up call for those students, faculty, staff, parents, and alumnae who haven’t yet figured out that the college won’t and can’t stay the same. It is too easy to pick a side on this issue and then forget about it a month later–let’s also use this as an opportunity to educate ourselves and others about what is happening to our school and how it relates to broader dynamics in higher education. We need to start coming up with our own visions, plans and strategies, innovative ones which we can organize around and push for.

    One place to start might be a serious, critical public conversation about the Strategic Plan draft. Read it, if you haven’t yet:

  8. Is it true that “an increase in the student population, if it occurs, will be intended in part as a source of revenue?” How insignificant would this additional revenue be in the large scheme of things? Are college financial planners really working so near the margin that the drastic step of significantly increasing the size of the college student body is necessary – even partially – for said purpose?

  9. I’m confused by the title. In my experience, it’s the size that decreases once the load has been lightened. Unless I took a pill beforehand.

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