Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Faculty members in my department traditionally have had the opportunity to teach one graduate seminar each year as part of their 2/2 teaching load. However, a consistent decline in the numbers of students admitted to our graduate program has meant that we cannot continue to offer as many graduate seminars as we used to; in addition, a reduction in the number of contract faculty available to the department has further meant that more continuing faculty members are needed to teach across our undergraduate programs. I have already started to experience backlash from my colleagues, who expect to continue teaching one graduate seminar each year, despite dropping enrollments in the graduate classes: for instance, in the last couple of years, several graduate classes have had to be cancelled for lack of enrollment, and I have been forced to justify to senior administration why our department has allowed extremely small seminars (often with only two or three students) to run. Can you suggest strategies for effectively managing my colleagues’ expectations while balancing the evolving needs of our department?Professor Rock-and-a-Hard-Place

Dear Professor Rock-and-a-Hard-Place,

This is a situation that many research institutions are facing as PhD programs shrink, either by circumstance or by design, and many people are feeling the pinch. For many faculty, one of the pleasures of teaching in PhD granting universities is the opportunity to work with graduate students. Despite the labor and responsibility, directing or serving on the committee for a dissertation is a way to remain up-to-date with current scholarship and trends in the field, and to have some small measure of influence on the next generation of academics.

But wishful thinking can’t change your situation. This strikes me as a topic that the faculty as a whole need to discuss and come to terms with together. The kind of one-on-one handholding of faculty and begging for resources from administrators as enrollments shrink that you’re having to do is not helping you or the department. Individual faculty are feeling deprived, and you’re losing credibility with senior administrators. You all need to work together to face up to this new reality.

If you have a graduate curriculum committee, this is work for them. Go to their next meeting and explain the seriousness of the situation: they’’ll be proposing guidelines for graduate course enrollments that the department will have to discuss and decide on. You need to make clear that change in the number of courses you offer is not an issue of “if” but of “when”: the debate is not whether to reduce the number or course offerings, but how to do it.

In preparation for presenting to the whole faculty, the committee should put together a chart that maps the decline in enrollments in unambiguous terms (there’s nothing like a downward line on a graph to communicate a dire situation). Ideally, their data will start a couple of years before the beginning of the decline, and then follow it to the present day. The committee needs to recommend a minimum number of students enrolled, below which number a class should expect to be canceled, and how often low-enrolled classes should be offered.They’ll have to have both macro and micro information; for example, are there some fields in which courses always fill? Side note: this is a tricky territory to navigate. Some instructors don’t enroll many students in their classes because they have reputations as bad teachers, bullies, harassers, or just super-tough. So the committee should keep its presentation fairly general, while acknowledging that fields that are the department’s strengths do tend to do better with student numbers. Part of the committee’s presentation should be strategies for raising the profile of the graduate program — maybe you can slow the drop-off in numbers through savvy promotion.

Again, in the ensuing discussion, the terms have to be clear. The department must reduce its graduate course offerings. It’s important to keep issues like field coverage in mind, since students have to take classes in their field. But the department can also think of workarounds like independent studies if a class is enrolling only one or two students. Keep a lid on the conversation — don’t let it slide into laments about the degradation of the humanities or the stinginess of your administration. This might take two department meetings: one for faculty to absorb this information and discuss, and another to move towards approving and/or amending the committee’s recommendations.

If they’re totally recalcitrant, you have the nuclear option: let the department know that if they don’t make a decision collectively, you’ll be forced to make it on your own, and set your own minimums for cancellation. Then stick with it, no exceptions. My hope is that it won’t come to that, and that faculty will recognize that whatever their personal desires to teach grad classes, this is where the department is now.

The Chair

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