Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Minimums, Maximums, and Building a Rep

Both Bardiac and Dean Dad have had posts recently that discuss course enrollments. Enrollments are a tricky issue for many of us, whether the issue is that our courses are too full (and thus we get the many, many emails from students who want to be signed in over the cap) or that they're too empty (and thus face cancellation). Now, in a perfect world, I do feel like this wouldn't necessarily be the problem of individual instructors. In a perfect world (at least my perfect world) I wouldn't have to sing for my supper to get students to sign up, nor would I have to be a big meanie who rejects those who beg for me to let them enroll once the cap is met. But the reality is that this does fall to me in my imperfect world, and it's something I'd not really even considered before landing in a tenure-track job. Actually, I had a conversation with a colleague who is less far along on the tenure-track than I am about this very issue today, and this colleague is particularly frustrated by how these issues are playing out for her. So I thought I'd do a post today about this thing of attracting (and then repelling, if necessary) students.

I think where most of us have the most difficulty in this area is with what Dean Dad called "pet courses" and what I'd call "courses in one's field of specialization." Service courses, regardless of instructor, tend to fill. But what about those courses that don't fulfill general education requirements? What strategies can one employ to make sure that those courses "make," not just because they are fun to teach, but also because they are really important to one's professional development?

How much does a flyer really help? Hmm. Well, I think that depends. In my department, we make flyers for all upper-level courses and they go on a bulletin board outside the office before scheduling begins. This is a relatively new practice, and honestly I think the nicest thing about it is that one gets to see all of the cool courses that are being offered all in one place. Does it make a huge difference in terms of attracting students, though? Well, I think that it really can be a benefit for new instructors who don't already have a fan base (as I like to think of those students who follow me around from class to class) and I think it can be a benefit for courses that are brand spanking new and that have absolutely no word of mouth. But is an advertisement going to make your class hit the enrollment minimum? On its own, probably not. Because students make their schedules with a variety of considerations in mind, including things like the instructor, the time of day or the days of the week on which the course meets, workload issues, etc. Ultimately, students don't only choose their classes based on their intellectual interest in a topic or on the pizazz of a sheet of paper.

More important, then, than one's ability to hawk one's wares is often one's administrators' ability to come up with a rational and workable schedule. A few years ago, my department did an overhaul of the upper-level schedule to make sure that too many competing courses weren't running at the same times of day or that we weren't too overloaded on particular days of the week. We also rationalized course offerings so that there was a better range of content from semester to semester. As far as I can tell, this has hugely improved the chances of all faculty's upper-level courses making their enrollment, but it has been especially beneficial to newer faculty members.

This, too, is HUGE. Now, in my department we do not make students meet with their individual advisers each semester. And the kind of advising a student gets within the major can vary pretty widely from one adviser to another, as some tend to suggest to their advisees that the advisees should enroll in their own courses (which I suppose is one way to meet one's enrollment minimums, although that leaves a bad taste in my mouth so I don't tend to do it unless my course really is one that the student should take, and if a student has already taken one course with me I discourage them from blindly following me from course to course), some don't really look much at what the student plans to take and just ok whatever they do, whatever. But all is not lost. One thing that really helps is developing relationships with your colleagues and talking to them about what you're planning on teaching so that they think to suggest your course to their advisees. But again, remember that at least in my situation, not all students are getting advising every semester with their individual assigned adviser.

BUT we have started doing this GREAT thing in my department that has helped a LOT with attracting students to courses. We've started holding general advising meetings each semester for all majors and minors, and at those meetings, each faculty member who will teach an upper-level course has the opportunity to introduce themselves and to talk briefly (although some don't keep it brief enough) about what they'll teach in the upcoming semester. This had a dramatic impact on my enrollment situation. One of the problems at my institution is that students tend to take one class with a faculty member and then they stick with that person if they like them. If you're new, that can mean that you're on the chopping block every semester because you don't have enough word-of-mouth to attract students. What standing up and talking for three minutes did for me is that it let students get a sense of my personality and it made them think that the crap I teach might actually be interesting to them. Before we did the meetings, I had no platform from which to do that to the audience that I'm targeting. (We also do other things at these advising meetings, like break-out sessions about study abroad, or applying to grad school, graduation requirements, etc. so the meetings meet a lot of needs in a very short period of time, which is also a great thing.)

Now, for a new faculty member, this is tricky, and it's tricky for a lot of reasons. One, you're a nobody. People don't know you, and so it's hard for word to get around about you. Two, you probably are getting acclimated to the culture of the institution, so in your first semester or two, you might have difficulty in figuring out where exactly to aim your courses. I know this was a problem for me, coming from my graduate institution (an R1) and ending up at a comprehensive. Three, sometimes it can feel like one is being advised to "be nice" in order to "get students to like you" and that can feel like a path that compromises one's beliefs about one's role as an instructor or about how a class at the university level should be run. What I've found, though, over the past four years, is that even if one gets off to a bit of a rough start (as I did), all is not lost. In part, this is because I really became much more comfortable in my teaching persona, and I think that my comfort and confidence in that has really helped. Second, the students who did like me in spite of the amount of work I expect or whatever really did spread the word to other like-minded students. What this has meant for me is that when students enroll in my courses now, they do have a much better read on what they're getting themselves into and so there's not as much buyer's remorse on their parts. Also, I do tell my students about upcoming courses that I'll be teaching, so I start the ball rolling (I hope) with getting the word out about my courses.

Course Design and Curricular Need
I think that this is why I resisted Dean Dad's terminology when he described such courses as "pet courses." To me, a "pet course" would be one that serves no curricular need but rather that just plays to the interest of the instructor. One of the key things for me has been trying to play to my interests and expertise while still hitting the mark in terms of how those interests and areas of expertise fit into the broader curricular needs of students in terms of requirements. I'm not teaching any single-author courses, folks, and I'm not proposing courses that can't count for some sort of requirement. Maybe when I've been around here so long that I have a fan base in the hundreds I will do that sort of thing - maybe I'll attract them on personality and topic alone - but I'm under no illusions that such a thing is yet possible for me.

But so yeah, I think that those are the key factors in getting people to sign up. Not all are in the individual faculty member's control, but some are. As for what happens when all of that works, though, well, that's another can of worms. That's when the barrage of emails starts, the phone calls, etc. So how does one say no?

Well, I've done it enough times now that I've got an answer memorized. It goes something like,

"Dear Student,
While I'm pleased that you are interested in taking the course, I make it a policy not to sign students into my courses once the enrollment cap has been reached. I encourage you to keep your eye on the course for any openings, as usually there is some movement in the enrollment after the first class meeting. Good luck with the upcoming semester!"

And that's that. And yes, it sucks to turn them away, but if they really want to take a course with you, they somehow find a way to do so, I've found. Maybe not in the semester in which they'd originally wanted to take a course with you, but sooner or later. And so that's the final piece in having consistent enrollments: saying no to those ones who try to get in over the cap in such a way that they try, try again.


St. Eph said...

One more note on word-of-mouth advertising: tell your grad students, grad students you see in the kitchenette, grad students you find anywhere. Especially if they're teaching or t.a.-ing. I've found myself doing a surprising amount of informal advising of students who want another perspective on classes and think grad students have some kind of insider or unbiased knowledge. (Oh, little do they know.) I usually recommend based on reputation or personal familiarity with faculty, but when I know a little something about a particular class, I'm delighted to spread the word.

And I'm not sure what category this would fit under, but I'm fascinated by how a course title can skew enrollment in various ways. I gave a clas the subtitle "Culture and Gender in [My Field]" and wound up with one, single, solitary boy-person, surrounded by fifteen girl-people. Something about "gender" seems to shoo away male students. The next time 'round, that course will be called "Culture and Sex." I'm hoping this re-balances the gender distribution to something closer to the norm (which is still heavily female-skewed, but not so dramatically).

Dean Dad said...

Totally with ya on the importance of scheduling courses so they don't compete with each other. In grad school, they had an annoying habit of scheduling grad seminars at the same times as the undergrad classes for which we were supposed to t.a. Naturally, the resolution was to blame the graduate students for, I don't know, being subject to the laws of physics.

My use of "pet course" wasn't intended to connote "vanity project" -- those don't get approved in the first place at a cc -- but a course that's identified with a single instructor, and for which that instructor has a special passion. The 100-level courses can usually be taught by (nearly) everybody in a given department, but the upper-level courses are sometimes unique to a given instructor.

From an admin perspective, a single-instructor course is riskier, since you can't add a shadow section if it gets too big (those pesky laws of physics again), and if it's too small, someone has trouble making load.

That's not to deny at all that those single-instructor courses can be incredibly refreshing to teach, and can be wonderful experiences for the students. It's just to say that they're higher-maintenance and higher-risk than the plain vanilla intro courses, where enrollments have established trends and you can swap out instructors if you have to.

Lesboprof said...

Great suggestions, Crazy. I wish I had done a little more sales for my current course. I like a bigger grad course, but I am getting used to a smaller group.

Robert said...

I was privileged to design and conduct a 3 course sequence involving an introduction to UNIX, Shell programming and UNIX system administration at a community college from 1989-2005.

The Introduction course became required, and the other 2 remained electives.

Despite being only an adjunct instructor, I was the only one capable and willing to teach the courses. Full time faculty didn't/couldn't invest the time and effort to learn about this operating system to the depth that was needed until this decade began.

At the community college level, these courses, as a sequence, provided a salable skill to students, which they could use to get a good job upon graduation.

I prevailed on the school to offer the course once a week at night for 4 hours, rather than their standard 2 hours twice a week. This permitted me to teach multiple sections on different nights, if the demand was there. At the high point in the late '90s, I was teaching 2 in-person sections of the Introduction course and an online version (which used Unix tools to teach Unix) in a single quarter. I was busy. :-)

What made this possible was that I was also a member of the Department's advisory board made up of a mix of unpaid members of private industry who could forecast their companys' needs and let the department know what new courses would be needed and what older courses could be deemphasized.

The Board provided considerable outreach, via flyers, ads, free seminars, posters (and eventually a web site) to the community as well as by faculty members advising their students who were already in a 2 year degree program.

It was also helpful that no other community college in the area had courses like these.

One excellent consequence of this has been that a small percentage of my students got jobs at the company I work for (my day job) and I have had occasion to work with a number of them as colleagues. Quite the instant karma!

As a computer scientist, I'm not usually this verbose. :-)

Dr. Crazy said...

DD: thanks for the clarification. See, here's what I'd say, though: I'm not sure it's good to have courses on the books that can only be taught by one instructor. Rather, I'd say that there should be some sort of umbrella name/number that could be used by multiple people should the need arise. So, for example, instead of a course on "Walt Whitman" on the books, that only one faculty member would teach, you might instead have a course called "American Poetry" and when the Whitman person taught it then it could be about Whitman, but when the feminist person taught it then it could be about women poets, or when another person taught it then it could be about the Beats. That way, the problem with not being able to add another section is solved, and also the broader topic of the course can give traction for enrollments where a more specific title, like "Walt Whitman and Poetry of the American Civil War" might not appeal to as many students, and definitely couldn't be covered by another instructor if the Walt Whitman person for some reason couldn't do the course.

Shaun Huston said...

I'm currently in my second year of a two year term as a department chair, and one issue related to enrollment that I have yet to understand (maybe should be posting this at Dean Dad's place) is why enrollment has to be a course-by-course question. Every term in just about every department in my division there are courses that enroll at or even above their caps and there are those courses that enroll below their caps, maybe even at sub 10. Why can't enrollment be considered more globally, which is to say that expectations are set for a department's entire schedule rather than breaking it down by individual classes? Presumably, at some level, if a department is teaching enough student credit hours to "justify" their existence why should it matter how those hours are distributed? As Dr. Crazy suggests, there many reasons for a course to exist, and not simply because a lot of students will sign up for it.

Dean Dad said...

Dr. C -- We have something like that, called "Special Topics." The problem is that the four-year schools don't accept it in transfer.

Dr. Crazy said...

DD: See, "Special Topics" don't tend to transfer, but if you set up a curriculum that is beneath the surface topic-driven but that in the catalog has a more specific agenda (and you could even work to align this with course offerings at 4-years that your CC feeds into) then an argument can be made for transfer credit.