Spring: the season for dumba$$ ideas? (Or are they like little black dresses and never out of fashion?)

What is it about the opening tulips, the flowering crabapple trees, and the blossoming lilacs that makes university administrators spring their half-cooked “brilliant” and “revenue-neutral” (i.e. Excellence Without Money) schemes on the faculty and students?  Is it that they know we’re buried in end-of-term papers and exams that must be written and graded, and the last thing we need in our lives is more long meetings?  Last year as you may recall, Baa Ram U. asked us to consider the scheme of “concurrent enrollment,” in which high school history teachers would be permitted to teach courses for which we in the History department would give Baa Ram U. credit.  (The uni collects the cash, and we just provide the free credentialing service.)

This year, apparently one administrator has decided that we need to be more like prestigious, well-funded Ivies and elite SLACs.  Of course, it would cost millions if not billions of dollars to accomplish this honestly, but that’s not on the table.  (Duh!)  What is on the table is switching from a typical 3-credit course model to a 4-credit course model, which would mean that students would take fewer but more in-depth and challenging courses.  Now, this isn’t a bad idea on the face of it–except that to a faculty that hasn’t been able to hire for the past three years and which hasn’t seen a raise in that time either, it looks like it’s an attempt to effect a work speed-up:  on a 2-2 load the regular faculty would teach 16 instead of 12 credit hours, and I have no idea how on earth our lecturers (who usually teach a 4-4 load) would carry on with 32 hours a week (!) of classroom instruction.  I find it difficult to believe that it would take fewer than 8 hours to prep, grade, and conduct e-mail correspondance/hold office hours with students, etc.)

And if you seriously think Baa Ram U. is going to hold faculty credit hours steady (at 12 per year) and effect what would appear to the public to be  a reduction in the regular faculty’s teaching load (from a 2-2 to a 2-1) in this economic and political climate, there’s a Christo project on the Arkansas River I’d like to sell ya.

Unsurprisingly, there is no data from our “peer institutions” on 4-credit classes, because guess what?  They probably all recognize that it’s patently ridiculous for an underfunding large aggie to pretend as though it’s Swarthmore or Princeton.  I’ll tell you what:  as soon as Swathmore and Princeton and their peer institutions start permitting local high schools to give college or university credit for their courses, then I’m all in for the 4-credit switcheroo.  And monkeys might fly out of my butt.

Do any of you have experience with this kind of hinky scheme?  Tell me!

30 thoughts on “Spring: the season for dumba$$ ideas? (Or are they like little black dresses and never out of fashion?)

  1. BMU offers some 4 credit classes, but they usually mean a more extended discussion section run by a graduate TA. They seem to push the limits of undergraduates’ attention span to maintain a discussion for the extended time.

    The University does seem to like them and they do figure into their cost savings. How it does so, though, has never been clear to me.


  2. BMU actually came up as an example of a uni that does the 4-cr. thing, but from your description GayProf, it sounds like it’s only an option, not something across the curriculum.

    Of course, at Baa Ram U. we have all kinds of 1-, 4-, and 5-credit classes–baby language classes are 5, science courses with labs are 4 cr., and most PE classes are 1 cr. This is why this scheme seems so foolish, since for those who believe it makes pedagogical sense are free to offer 4-cr. courses if they wish.


  3. ha ha ha. My university is thinking about the same thing. And it has been framed as a way to reduce our teaching load (by one course, but really only 1 credit, a semester). I raised your concerns and several others, and am a little surprised that I haven’t heard many other people express concerns. All we’ve gotten so far is that this is an idea, with no details of how it would work in practice in terms of teaching loads (for full or part timers), total number of courses offered, impact on major or gen ed requirements, etc. etc. etc. Our administration doesn’t seem all that concerned with details though.


  4. The annual end of school year administrative madness takes many forms. My uni is trying to convert the entire schedule to 75 minute blocks, instead of 50 minute MWF blocks and 75 minute TTr blocks. The logic is that, since we don’t get raises, hires, or promotions, and the student body has increased by 25% in the last four years (which, without hires, means bigger class sizes), we can be bought off by converting our MWF classes to MW, thus giving us Fridays off. Except that there will be so many fewer class times offered that we’ll be teaching late into the evenings four days a week and incapable of scheduling departmental free blocks for meetings, which will then all be scheduled on Fridays. This is what happens in State schools, where the money people have the quaint notion that all academics do is teach.


  5. The 4 credit courses may help improve students depth and knowledge. I’ll have to agree that all the university wants is savings; I simply stayed out of the hoopla when it hit us 3 years ago.

    Once again, I don’t teach history (or a similar topic), but my belief is that we can achieve the same results with 3 credit courses. For that we have to switch from frontal presentation to more discussion based classes.

    Neither the big honchos nor most faculty are opened to that change.

    By the way, Christo is a genius.


  6. “We just provide the free credentialing service.” Who’s in charge of this (un)holy alliance? Does that mean that your department has to supervise teachers, administer tests, and all of that? For free? Sheesh!


  7. Undine–History is not participating, but apparently other departments and schools are. I’m very fortunate in that the majority of my colleagues and I have shared values, and one of our shared values is that our time and labor has value.

    As for Christo: I didn’t mean my comment above as a slam against him & Jeanne Claude. I actually thought the Central Park Gates project was beautiful. It was more a comment on how fraught the Arkansas River project is.


  8. thatsnothistory, all of my U’s classes have been moved to 75 minutes and the Friday afternoon we used to have blocked aside for meetings has been abandoned. There’s no meeting time set anymore during the week unless you schedule a fake class (like our thesis class which is mostly one on one with supervisors) and use that timeslot. Our admin’s trying to have all classrooms used at most hours of the day so they can convince the province to pay for another classroom building, or so I hear.

    Historiann? I hope they abandon transformation of four credit course out of three plan as a universal program. It will be a problem with some faculty who don’t want to rework their class or see the point of the extra in-class time, along with a whackload of many other problems. I am all for the experience of freshman seminars and other cool classes, but with the full recognition that requires more effort on the part of both students and faculty per course transformed!


  9. Speaking of dumb ideas to cut costs, does anyone have any experience with the Calibrated Peer Review system, in which undergrads grade/evaluate each other’s writing assignments?


  10. I think we should maybe go to the ancient Greek system, where a group of scholars would meet an instructor of record under hir own vine and fig tree and negotiate a fixed fee per credit hour, cutting the administerians out of the loop altogether. Or for some real ecucational reform, maybe what they were doing at the U. of Leiden in the Netherlands in 1719-1722, where an Irish student described “colledges,” using the word indistinguishably from what we now mean by “course.” As in: “Colledges began the 17 of Septr. and… when I had my health I never missed one Colledge…” or “…the colledges I took this year was one from Professor B. on universal History at 9 o’clock… another from Proffessour L. on Logick and a third from Pro. L. on Natural Phylosophy. Colledges ended about ye middle of June 1722…” or a “half colledge, (that is a colledge which last but half the year) on Pomponious Mela on Ancient Geography, & his half colledge on the most famous authors that ever wrote…” or–my favorite–“A Privatissimum Colledge is a Colledge that a professor gives at the most only to 8 studients, or he will give it to one or 2 or any number to 8, provided he is paid 320 Gilders…” I’m going to try to schedule a couple of privatissimums myself next fall. [All quotations from the “Autobiography of Pole Cosby,” J. County Kildare Archaeological Society, 5 (1908), 79-99]. If this system works we can tear down Old Main, plant more fig trees, and run the suits back to the Chancellor’s office up at the state capital.


  11. Janice–there are all kinds of other problems when you think about the kind of institution we are and the kind of students we serve. For example: we’re the kind of uni that people can attend while working and paying their own bills–our tuition is that low. A lot of our students are perfectly fine with taking 5-6 years to graduate because that’s how they want to do it. So requiring 4 instead of 3 hours in class each week may not be universally popular with our students, and worrying about our 6-year graduation rates might be barking up the wrong tree.

    In short, we can’t compete with both the University of Phoenix AND Princeton. I don’t understand why some administrators at Baa Ram U. refuse to focus on making Baa Ram U. a top-notch public Aggie, ’cause that’s what we could be with a few more faculty, more investment in faculty research, and efforts to reduce our class sizes.

    Anonymous: I’ve heard of something like the Calibrated Peer Review system, but I’ve never used it. I have my research seminar students read and critique each other’s work, but I assign all grades. (I think there can be value in ungraded writing assignments, and I think there’s research on that, but I’m skeptical of peer review systems in which grades are assigned.)

    And, CPP: I only saw photos and read some reviews. I thought it was a popular thing!


  12. What’s funny is that ALL our classes are 4 credit. At the lower division level, we have sections for the 4th hour. At the upper division level, the argument was made that the reading that students had to do in humanities courses was equivalent to lab time in the sciences.
    This is standard university practice, then, not an exception (though some programs also offer two credit courses). The decision was made before I arrived. So that’s just our norm. I tell students that they are expected to do two hours of work for every hour in class, and they look at me like I’m nuts.


  13. I don’t understand why some administrators at Baa Ram U. refuse to focus on making Baa Ram U. a top-notch public

    Hear, hear, Historiann! The continual drive to fix things, whether they are broken or not, is maddening. We’re going to win the future, globally and excellently, even though nobody can tell you what any of that means. Our administrators all talk about attracting “better” students and cultivating research relationships with corporate partners. I happen to think our students are pretty good already, thank you very much, and our faculty are already conducting interesting and important research. We’re just doing it on a shoestring and all those VPs with fancy salaries know they can’t personally live on shoestrings.


  14. “compete with both the University of Phoenix AND Princeton.”

    Bwahaha. Encapsulates the administrative mindset in one phrase.

    Calibrated peer review: a colleague of mine uses it. I never have. It’s one of those ideas that would work wonderfully in small Oxford-type tutorial groups with a highly involved faculty member to supervise and guide. Those are not the conditions we’re generally given. The way I’ve seen it used, to be blunt, is to reduce the faculty member’s grading workload on written assignments. I wouldn’t say that application is pedagogically sound, but your mileage may vary. And it does allow overworked faculty to assign written work and “grade” it in a way that’s viewed favorably by administrators.

    And while I’m being cynical, my take on the 3cr -> 4cr switch is that it’s an attempt by administrators to extract more money from students (tuition is generally per credit hour, right?), at the same time landing the faculty with unpaid expansion of workload if they take the extra credit seriously. There’s no cost in time or budget to the administration, except re-doing all the forms showing number of credits per course. So it’s a win-win-win for the admins, no?

    (I guess I should apologize for being so snarly. Sorry.)


  15. And, CPP: I only saw photos and read some reviews. I thought it was a popular thing!

    Obviously, aesthetic opinions differ, but as someone who has spent on average at least an hour a day in Central Park for over fifteen years, I found it to be a horrible disruptive eyesore. I hated it when it was here, and was relieved when it left.


  16. My employer—Monmouth College (IL)—just voted to switch to this (implementation circa fall 2012). But MC has 1500 students, projected to 2000 over the next 15 years. 4-4 (3-3 for faculty here) has some merit, but the results are not proven empirically. I know that Illinois Wesleyan and several other small ACM (Associated Colleges of the Midwest) have gone to this. Anecdotally, I know that some faculty like it (because it has reduced faculty prep at those schools). – TL


  17. My undergraduate college (mid-tier SLAC) offered 5-credit courses. Faculty teach a 3-2 schedule. So at 25 units per year, it sounds like it is heavier on paper than Baa-Ram U.

    On the other hand, the average class size was about 15-18 students. And there was very little in the way of publication expectations for faculty — 2-3 articles would get you tenure, though books were encouraged.

    Other non-quantitative considerations: quality of students (are you spending extra time trying to correct basic grammar?), extra-classroom expectations (are you expected to give out your phone number so distraught students can call you?), incidence of academic misconduct… the list goes on.


  18. In my experience educrats with bad intentions like to unveil their dumbest ideas in late April when faculty can’t mobilize opposition before they have to disperse. And CPP, you’re usually right but I thought bright orange banners in Central Park in NYC’s winter deadzone was friggin’ genius. Orange is the color most different from slushy steel gray.


  19. The admins at my alma mater tried to foist a 4 credit system on everyone shortly after I graduated, but thanks to faculty resistance, what they actually got was greater flexibility for courses to carry a variety of credit units, depending on how much time each department felt a course actually needed. My department shifted their junior and senior courses to four credits and left everything else alone, and it seems to work well. The science departments seem to have left the “intro for non-majors” courses at three, and moved the major courses to four. Browsing through the course catalog, it looks like there are still a lot of courses carrying three credits, but more than there were with 1-2 or 4-6.

    Maybe flexibility is a direction yall can push your admin in- take the momentum they already have and give them a little nudge.


  20. Many years ago, in an effort to reduce our teaching load, we converted our survey classes to 4 credits, so instead of 21 credits a year, we now teach 20. The upper level classes remained at 3 credits. It was a good compromise, and while we don’t technically teach a 3-3, it is is only 3 class to prep each semester, instead of the dreaded 4 class semester. What it meant in practice was that our upper level classes met 2x a week for an hour and 15 min. and the 4 credit classes met 3x a week for 70 min. It made thing difficult for room scheduling, but mostly I thought it worked well. Switching my medieval survey from 3 to 4 credit class gave me more time to give the same lectures, so more time for impromptu discussion or explanation, and it gave me more time for classes devoted discussion of a text. I had taught my survey previously as both a 2x a week and a 3x a week, so adapting wasn’t too difficult. Now the school is contemplating making all classes 4 credits, but it seems to be related to the problem of competing with both Phoenix and Princeton (I agree a great way to conceptualize the problem), and I have not idea how that will play out.


  21. Katherine and rustoninte–targeted decisions that are departmentally-driven seem alright to me. I’ll keep your examples in mind if we’re either strongly encouraged or force to offer 4-cr. courses.


  22. Janice, how is that working? The impression of most faculty here is that, if this thing goes through, it’s going to make our work lives even more stressful and our departments more dysfunctional. I’d be very interested to hear your experiences.

    ComradePhysioprof, I did see it, but as a tourist who visits the city every few years, not a resident. I liked it, thought it was fun and eye-catching, but most particularly as a temporary installation. If it had been permanent, I’d be completely in your corner.


  23. On my campus, moving to 4 credit courses has been made by individual departments over the years. I think it’s a good idea since it not only reduces our course load (our contract says 12 hours per semester not 4 courses) it also allows professors to cover more material and students to only take 3 courses and still be full-time. Efforts to do this university-wide have failed but I would like to see us move in this direction.

    re: “The Gates” — I visited in person and thought it was spectacular. Then again, I’m a fuckeasse from CT so what do I know?!


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