More departments face over-enrollment as course loads decrease

The college is currently undergoing a gradual transition from a five-course professor teaching load to a four-course load. The transition is part of a three-pronged plan that, according to the college, will improve faculty-student engagement, increase opportunities for faculty to conduct research and increase the college’s competitiveness in the job market for professors.

But in the short term, departments already facing over-enrollment issues must deal with the effective reduction in course offerings caused by the transition.

The five-course load, also called a “3-2” course load, means that professors teach three classes during one semester of the school year and two classes during the other semester. The four-course load, also called a “2-2” course load, means that professors teach two classes each semester. Currently, around 25 percent of the professors at Swarthmore operate on the four-course load.

“A lot of our peer institutions, like Amherst and Williams, moved to the four-course load a few years ago,” said Thomas Stephenson, provost of the college. “My sense, talking to department chairs, is that they are far more likely to get questions from candidates about course loads than about salaries,” he said.

In December 2011, the college outlined its plans to improve the opportunities available to faculty and students in its Strategic Plan.

“[The Strategic Plan] was an attempt to recognize the many ways in which students wanted to engage with faculty, not only inside the traditional classroom, but also outside the classroom,” President Rebecca Chopp said. “Summer research, service learning, problem-based learning, lots of projects that simply couldn’t be fit into the normal classroom schedule.”

The second part of the plan is an increase in the number of tenure-track professors. The college plans to add 25 to 30 new professors over the next seven years. The addition of new faculty will involve applications by departments to the Council on Educational Policy (CEP), which decides the allocation of tenure lines. When a professor leaves or retires, the tenure line is placed into a collective pool. Generally, tenure lines are given back to the department from which they originate, but sometimes the nature of the tenure line changes over time.

“Very often, even though the line goes back, the proposal is a bit different, since knowledge has changed,” Chopp said.

Most of the additional faculty will be tenure-track professors, as opposed to adjunct or temporary faculty. The college wishes to continue to build its institutional strength through tenure-track professors.

“We are running against the tide in the profession in this respect, and I think we should, since this is how you get stable, long-term, quality teaching and how you build institutional continuity,” said Professor Tim Burke, chair of the history department.

The third aspect of the three-pronged plan is an increase in student enrollment. According to Stephenson, the college plans to add 200 students between now and 2020. While enough professors will be hired to maintain the college’s low student-to-faculty ratio, the increase in student enrollment coupled with the decrease in professor course load will cause a slight rise in the average class size at the college.

“Over the whole transitional period, we’re changing the course load, we’re adding faculty and we’re adding students,” Stephenson said. “The average class size will go up, but it’s very marginal. The current average class size is around 15. It is predicted to go up to around 16.5.”

But some departments that are already over-enrolled are feeling the pinch of the reduced course load.

“The imminent effect is almost certainly that there will be a squeeze on some kinds of classes,” said political science professor Ben Berger.

One downside to this transition is a temporary decrease in the diversity of courses offered. For instance, each political science professor conducts at least one honors seminar, and some teach multiple introductory level courses, leaving little room for mid-level and elective courses.

“Pedagogically, we are committed to having the right type of classes taught,” Berger said. “We don’t want to give up a staple class, and we don’t want to give up an interesting elective class. The faculty is very torn on this.”

Many of the classes in the political science department are already near full enrollment or over-enrolled, an issue that the course load reduction is likely to exacerbate in the short term.

“It is already at the point where you’ve got full seminars,” said Caleb Jones ’14, an honors political science major. “You’ve got some courses, like International Political Economy, where a lot of people were talking about trying to find other courses to take instead because they knew it was going to be too full.”

The political science department says that little can be done to combat the over-enrollment issues until it can hire more professors.

“We are well aware of student dissatisfaction with large class sizes and large seminar enrollments.” said Carol Nackenoff, chair of the political science department. “With the resources on hand, there is not a lot we can do about it, so we hope we will be able to get some additional resources.”

The computer science department is experiencing similar over-enrollment issues. It has seen a large growth in student enrollment over the past couple years, from 12 majors in the class of 2012 to 52 majors in the class of 2014. It is now the second largest major in the class of 2014, according to Registrar Martin Warner, but the number of computer science faculty has not caught up. The class sizes in computer science are already large, since mid-level courses often have 40 to 50 students and seminars have 18 students each.

“Part of the fun and excitement about teaching at Swarthmore is having small classes and getting to know your students,” said Lisa Meeden, chair of the computer science department. “I feel like it is much harder for a class of 50 students to have that experience, since you don’t get to know all the students as well as you do with 20 students.”

Interdisciplinary programs, such as cognitive science, may also feel the effect of the course load transition. Some professors in highly-enrolled departments also contribute courses to the interdisciplinary programs. The transition will result in one fewer class per year that they can teach, which often comes at the expense of the course taught for the interdisciplinary program.

“For me, personally, because our department is so busy with our own students and our own commitments, I can’t contribute very much to the cognitive science program,” Meeden said. “I do think that people in highly enrolled departments will find it hard to contribute as much to the interdisciplinary programs.”

Most departments, however, are not over-enrolled to the extent of the political science and computer science departments, and many professors recognize the long-term benefits of the course load transition.

“I welcome the change to a 2-2 teaching load because it will allow me and my colleagues to do an even better job in the classroom,” said history Professor Robert Weinberg. “Our energies won’t be as torn in different directions. During the semester you teach three courses, you need to juggle a lot to ensure that everything works.”

Meeden concurs. “I think the reason the college is doing [this transition] is to benefit the faculty in the long run, in terms of having a better balance between teaching and research.”

According to Berger, the nature of the profession has evolved over the past several decades, spanning many activities beyond classroom instruction. Reducing the course load of the professors allows them to focus more on the work they do outside of the classroom.

“We do lots of things outside the classroom: we advise activities, we might lead directed readings, the science faculty leads labs in the summer, there are conferences which we go to, as well as the publishing that we do,” Berger said. “We do a lot of committee work and quasi-administrative work.”

Some students in over-enrolled departments have felt the short-term downsides of the course load transition. But on the other hand, they understand the long-term benefits for the college.

“Moving to the four-course load, based on what I hear as a committee representative [of CEP], is absolutely something the college needs to do,” said Lisa Bao ’14, a computer science major. “But at the same time it is pretty obvious, looking at computer science, that it is barely possible for them to handle the current enrollments with them teaching as much as they can.”

Jones offered a bit of advice to other students in over-enrolled departments. “My advice would be to plan way ahead, just start trying to take every course you want as early as you can. We should all recognize that, from my understanding, the Swarthmore course load policy is out of line with other colleges that are already on the four-course system, so I understand why they have to do the switch, but I do hope they manage to address these concerns in the process.”

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