How cancelled classes waste time

Julia Mickenberg feels like she should have been working on her dissertation. “Progress,” she said. “That’s what counts. Progress.”
She thought she would be making progress as an instructor today, greeting students in American Studies 3111. But a combination of confusing University policies and last-minute frustrations has left Mickenberg feeling that the University has been wasting her time.
Last week, Mickenberg, a fifth-year doctoral student in American studies, appeared to be only one student short in her class. After two months of selecting texts, creating a course syllabus and publicizing American Studies 3111: “Creative Americans and Their Worlds,” Mickenberg awaited a decision from University College on whether the course she had prepared for would actually be offered.
The minimum number of students necessary for the course was 10; on Thursday, Mickenberg had nine, and more had expressed interest. The head of American studies had asked that the class be offered. But the deadline to meet the minimum had passed, and a decision on offering AmSt 3111 had to be made. Despite the enrollment figures, other factors were favored over student interest and staff preparation as University College administrators made their final decision.
University College cancelled the class. Mickenberg and her students were left looking for other options.
“It’s incredibly demoralizing,” said Mickenberg. “I got all these students who were interested, and it wasn’t because it was a requirement. They wanted to learn.”
Mickenberg’s learning experience is a perennial problem for University summer instructors facing restrictive course demands and a smaller student body. And as a strange mix of fiscal restraint and user-friendliness guides the course cancellation process, instructors can be caught in the classroom shuffle.
Summer sessions see a dramatic drop in student enrollment and course offerings. The slower-paced summer campus atmosphere appeals to students who can use the time to fulfill campus requirements or take elective courses not offered during the regular academic year. Architecture honors student Jeremiah Smith said he wanted to take a summer session course for enrichment. “I was looking for something that interested me,” Smith said.
But the smaller scale also means less financial support from enrollment. In an attempt to cut costs last year, summer session administrators implemented an enrollment-based policy on course offerings similar to the University College year-round policy. To keep a summer session course alive, 1000- and 3000-level courses now need eight students; 5000- and 8000-level courses need five. At University College, 10 students are needed for any course that isn’t offered several times a year.
The number of courses cancelled is relatively small. Last summer, about 4 percent of the University’s courses were cancelled. But the savings generated by the policy are substantial. The summer session department saved about $105,000 from cancellations last year — almost all of it in what would have been instructors’ salaries.
However, instructors are hit hard by cancellations. While students can take another course or no course at all when their courses are cancelled, and while administrators point at their savings as a symbol of success, instructors find themselves scrambling for summer employment. Contributing to the scramble is the cancellationn process itself.
In an effort to give students the convenience of enrolling in another class when their first choice ends up in the academic dust bin, the University announces cancellations to students and instructors about a week before classes begin. But students can register until the first day of class, and stragglers don’t count in the cut-off. That leaves the potential for students who wait until the last minute to register for class to meet the greatest inconvenience of all — cancellation.
That’s what happened to Smith, who found the interesting course he was looking for: American Studies 3111. The course, which was to deal with the work of artists blacklisted during the McCarthy era, was the only summer offering he wanted to take. “It was one of the few that even interested me,” he said. “There aren’t any options for me now.”
Smith said University officials should have waited until the first day of class to determine cancellation. “That way everyone who is interested gets a chance to attend the class, and based on that you can decide if it should be held.” Mickenberg agrees. “I’d like (the University) to stop telling students that they can register until the first day of classes and then tell us they’re going to cancel it five days ahead of time, because all these students have no way of telling.”
Not so, said Summer Session Director Jack Johnson. Students are told to register early to avoid class cancellations, and if there are compelling reasons for a course to continue despite low enrollment, he said it can get an exemption.
“If enrollment is at a point where it could go over, or if seniors need the course to graduate, we’ll grant an exemption,” Johnson said.
John Malmberg, director of the University College, said, “We do our darndest to carry every course that we can. We don’t go strictly by the numbers, but as times grow tougher, we have to be more selective.”
In the case of American Studies 3111, Malmberg said that enrollment figures were deceptive, as University College currently only counts tuition-paying students in its cancellation decisions (all students will be counted beginning this fall). Although nine students had signed up for 3111, only seven were paying tuition because two were Regents’ scholars. Mickenberg said she wasn’t aware of that distinction, or its effect on her course, until shortly before her course was cancelled.
For summer instructors, navigating the path to a successful course can be confusing. Bruce Campbell, a graduate student in cultural studies and comparative literature, recently attempted to teach “The Political Novel.” But when enrollment didn’t reach the minimum, he was left wondering how to predict what courses might be worthwhile to prepare.
“Graduate students learn as we go … we could use some advising on what classes fill enrollment, how to effectively advertise,” Campbell said. “The graduate student does that with little advising.”
Resources are available for instructors on how to effectively recruit and plan for low-enrollment summer classes, Johnson said. “We publish a list in the fall that goes back for the previous five years that indicates the enrollment for every course offered,” he said. Also, individual departments play key roles in setting summer offerings. “I can’t imagine a Ph.D. student making a decision about teaching a course without the involvement of the department,” Johnson said.
Better planning and communication between instructors, departments and administrators has already helped cut down cancellations, Johnson said, adding that he’s already seen progress in this area, with fewer cancellations this summer.
But these improvements weren’t enough to save — or prevent, if necessary — American Studies 3111. Until a more effective balance between student convenience, fiscal responsibility and instructors’ needs is found, frustrations like Mickenberg’s will remain. “I feel like I was being stupid,” for spending so much time preparing for a class that won’t be offered, she said. But like all educational experiences at the University, the instructor is only part of the lesson.

Alan Bjerga’s column will appear every Wednesday in the Daily beginning June 25.