Friday, February 18, 2011

Recent developments

Breaking news: the administration has asked that our department cut six core mathematics courses from our fall schedule (including Calc I, Precalc, and STAT 185, our introductory non-calc-based statistics course) in order that we can free up people to teach in the Humanities program and LSIC courses (like the 179 I'm teaching right now).

Leaving aside the question of the relative value of the courses in question here (how much do we as a university value the Humanities program and our ILS Colloquia?), this is pure asininity, plain and simple. It's wrongheaded.

The effects would be staggering: already-huge sections of the classes mentioned above would get larger. We're already teaching with caps of 32 in Calc I and Precalc (effectively pushing numbers up to 35 or so for these courses when flexible instructors let a few folks in over the line) and 28 in STAT 185. The classrooms we're given barely hold those numbers, if they hold them at all. Cutting even a single section of Calc I would push numbers in the remaining sections up by about 5-6 students. We're now talking 40-person sections of Calc I and Precalc, and perhaps 35-person sections of STAT 185 (computer shortage is an issue there).

It is impossible to provide the meaningful student-centered instruction expected at a liberal arts institution in a course with that many students. My suspicion is that the powers that be who are mandating this move are operating under the impression that mathematics instruction is unidirectional and purely lecture-based. They run the danger of turning mathematics instruction at UNCA into something akin to the large-lecture methods employed at our giant sister schools down the road. Despite innovations like classroom response systems, this arrangement's still got nothing on one-on-one interaction between teacher and student.

Even from a simple human resources standpoint this move is silly: it takes faculty away from courses capped at 32 to courses capped at 22, at a time when we need to make the most of every faculty member's time and energy. Of course, in most departments this would be an even trade-off, since (according to a senior colleague down the hall who ran the numbers this morning) our department teaches more 30-plus-student sections than the rest of the university combined.

That same colleague and my department chair are now at a meaning at which they hope to try to reverse this request. I'll update later.


UPDATE: after further negotiations this morning, we've managed to keep Calc I and Precalc intact, compromising by scrapping one section of STAT 185 and taking on two sections of Humanities. We've also pulled one of the longtime administrators (a former regular member of our department before leaving us mortals behind) to teach one section of our Nature of Mathematics (the name for our "general education" math course). I'm actually very heartened by this gesture, for I know how busy this woman is anyway. I'm grateful to her.

This should be doable. Further bulletins as events warrant...


Unknown said...

The budget makes me sick if I think about it too long.. : (.

Jean Marie said...

I truly, truly, truly hate teaching huge mathematics sections ... I'm enjoying having Linear with only 36 student right now.

I wish you well at keeping class sizes down. It is a much more human environment for both teacher and students.

DocTurtle said...

@Jean Marie: what's small for you is huge for us...more power to you! I wish schools the size of TAMU could pull off small courses at the 100- and 200-level, aside, I'm sure, from recitation sections and honors classes. It would make a huge difference.

Brian said...

For any new gen-ed-level course we propose, the cap has to be *at least* 40 students. We're getting pushed to make our Calc caps higher (right now they're at 25; we routinely raise them to 30 after the initial go-round of registration, but that usually covers all the students). When we argue the merits of student-centered instruction, we get exactly 0 sympathy from all the departments (psych, econ, bio, chem, and others) that typically teach 80 in their intro sections. And, yes, this is a small liberal arts college. Right now our strategy is to figure out how to make some of our intro-level classes doable at larger class sizes so we'll be able to keep a decent retinue of electives at the sophomore-and-higher level, and hopefully even keep Calc from getting too big.

Anonymous said...

PS - that last comment was from Meredith! Hadn't realized I was signed in as the other user of this computer. :-)

Unknown said...

Why can't they cancel the Humanities classes - they are pretty tedious anyway. They present very little content on math and what they have is so generic that anyone could teach it so why not let the some departments with less real demand for their classes teach those lectures?