Student Demand in Tension with Faculty Expertise

Each semester, we offer fewer upper-level courses, simply due to lack of demand. My question is not about re-arranging curriculum to create demand (which could be done), but rather about how to manage class rotation lists when there is dwindling supply. How do you recommend making and managing rotation lists for courses while honoring expertise? If, for instance, you have two people who specialize in Shakespeare, two who can and want to teach Shakespeare, but only have need for one section a semester, what should you do? Should faculty members have a say in where they sit on rotation lists, or should scheduling decisions be left to the chair’s office? If the former, often those with the loudest voices, or those with the most in-demand expertise (e.g. professional writing, creative writing) end up with all of the upper-level courses. If the latter, the chair is accused of not honoring expertise or of favoritism. Help, please!–Spinning Chair

Dear Professor Spinning,

Many departments are going through this same experience due to shrinking enrollments both in English and overall. Scheduling classes is the chair’s primary — and sometimes stickiest — responsibility, so it’s no surprise that you’re feeling the larger shifts in English departments on a local level.

I would not recommend that you let faculty members do more than request what they’d like to teach any given semester, which I’m assuming you already have a mechanism for. If you don’t have a formal procedure for course requests (that is, if faculty just email you their requests, or buttonhole you in the hallway), having a preference form in which faculty communicate their desires for courses and days/times helps you have all the information in one place and you can weigh student need and faculty preference all at once.

The most important thing here is to dispel any sense of inequity. Inevitably some classes are going to be in more demand than others, and faculty in some fields are going to have the opportunity to teach more upper-level classes than colleagues in others. Creative writing classes are booming these days, and you’re probably offering multiple sections; the eighteenth century novel not so much. But you can be transparent about your scheduling procedures to keep carping to a minimum. I’d suggest that you send an email out to your colleagues making your decision-making protocol clear. It will help you to be able to share actual numbers about enrollment patterns: which classes routinely fill every semester, and which can be offered only once per semester or per year; how many sections of each topic the department can support; and the overall enrollment and major numbers.

Writing this email requires a delicate hand. You don’t want to sound defensive, or like you’re dodging claims of favoritism. Rather, spell out clearly and directly what the needs of the department are and the trends in enrollments, and enlist your colleagues in the work of figuring out how everyone can teach on the upper-level, although some not as much as others. You might also put together a couple of potential semester schedules, with projected enrollments,  so faculty can see what the coming years could bring. Once you’ve sent out the email, you can decide whether you want to follow up at your next department meeting. If you do go down that road, you need to moderate the discussion carefully. Frame it from the very beginning as a collaborative project in serving the students and also offering as broad a curriculum as possible. The loudest voices don’t get to rule the conversation, and as chair you’re within your rights to let them know the this is not a situation in which might makes right.

Ultimately, your Shakespeareans are going to have to trade off semesters, while your professional writing faculty will be teaching more in their fields. It’s important that your faculty recognize that none of this is personal — it’s responding to student demand.

–The Chair