Friday, August 17, 2007

Maxed Out

Every other year I teach an "elective" class that is specifically for freshmen, on an interdisciplinary topic that combines my interests in science, history, and culture. Typically, 2-4 of these freshmen classes, which are distinct from the giant 100-level intro courses, are taught each term. I like all the classes that I teach, but this is one of my favorites.

Over the summer, I have been somewhat obsessively monitoring enrollment in my course. Because it is a freshman course, most of the enrolling occurs over the summer rather than in the spring as for other fall courses. A month ago, I was very pleased to see that my course was full. Every time I have taught the class, it has filled to the maximum number of students allowed, but every term the numbers and topics of these courses change, and there's always a chance that a more thrilling course will come along and capture enrollment.

My reasons for being curious about the enrollment are not entirely pure. My particular freshman class is always given lowest priority by the department administrative assistant in terms of time and classroom. In fact, this year (as well as 2 years ago), I wasn't even given a classroom in the department. The other 2 freshmen classes this term, both taught by senior male faculty, meet in classrooms in the department. One of these classes currently has 5 students enrolled and may not be taught, and the other has 8 students. I am not glad that the other courses have such low enrollment, but I may bring it to the attention of my chair (if he has not noticed on his own) that my course has filled yet again.

A similar situation happened 2 years ago. My course filled but a senior professor's attracted only 2 students and was canceled. The department chair at the time mused to several people, including me, about how strange he thought this was. He wanted to know what it was about my course that made students want to take it. Hmm. I don't know. Interesting topic, perhaps? He decided it was a random event with no obvious explanation, but it wasn't the first time my course filled and now it has happened again. Methinks there is too much data for the Random Hypothesis to be viable.

In any case, I have been working on my syllabus this week and getting excited about teaching this course again. I am not ready for summer to be over, but there is much to look forward to in the new term.


Fourier Analyst said...

Ever notice that the "male" professors seem to be so out of touch with the student body proper, while the "female" professors seem to always retain a down to earth connection with the "real" world? This seems to be the case across the board in almost all the academic subjects. Good for you and good luck in getting your classroom assignment. Next time you have enough ammunition to "remind" the admin. ass(.) that you should be assigned a classroom!

BOB! Your Life Preserver said...

More power to you. These are the classes I seek. Interdisciplinary is the way I tried to teach. It can be done, even with the 3 R's. Maybe then it would be harder to achieve "No test left behind" in our public schools. Check our my new blog on this: Wish me luck.

Terminal Degree said...

Maybe the students just LIKE you better? :) Or the advisers helping them register for classes have heard good things about you?

Ms.PhD said...

Well, if your class is good, it must either be because you're lucky or you're cheating, right? Same as mini-golf.

This post cheered me, though, since I would love to teach a class like this someday. It's exactly the sort of thing I wanted more of in college, but no one taught where I went to school.

But I'm guessing you didn't teach this class as a new assistant prof. At what point did they start to let you teach something like this? Did you have to propose it yourself and did they say yes right away? If not, how did you convince them?

Oh and btw, some of my favorite classes in college were the ones where we didn't need any AV equipment and just held our discussions outside, sitting in a circle on the grass. That felt like academia in a totally different way. Maybe not having a classroom gives you that kind of freedom and advantage to meet in a less stifling location, I don't know?

Sean Carroll said...

The downside of pseudonymity: I would love to hear more specific details about the topics covered in your course!

TW Andrew said...

He wanted to know what it was about my course that made students want to take it.

Uh, you're enthused about the course, and students talk?

Chase said...

I actually find the previous comment quite true. As a freshman myself, I've been told that consistently more female professors are asked questions during office hours than male ones.

I never really gave any thought as to why, but perhaps it is again this foolish sexism that our society has regressed into. Perhaps student find male professors more "intimidating"? Although I'd beg to differ. I've had my fair share of female teachers who can be just as intimidating, never mind the subject or the gender!

Ah well. And they say feminism is dead. Well my fickly friend, if feminism was dead then there wouldn't be anti-feminist pro-traditional roles papers popping up ever 5 minutes! You don't actively fight something because it's dead, you actively fight it because it's fight back...damn hard.

Anyway, you sound nice. I hope you get that classroom assignment.

Yvette said...

I agree with the observation that female profs are usually more outgoing, but I think this is more a reflection of the fact that girls in science tend to be more outgoing than the guys, and it just snowballs. Explanation: if you take two broad categories of "not at all social/ never talks in class or to other students" or "anyone else," I have known many a gent who fit into the first category but never met a girl who did. Girls might be shy, but it's not like they're phantoms never talking to anyone, so I figure this base level of sociability and people skills makes itself known even more down the line.

Stephen said...

In 1980, three of us wrote a program to schedule students and classes at our school. There were lots of ways you could give it hints so that disasters could be avoided. But none of them were "this prof has seniority".

Some of the hints were "this prof can't get here before 10 am", and "this prof prefers mornings". One might suppose that these things could be abused, but there'd be a paper trail, and obvious at that. While rooms were generally assigned in the same department, they didn't have to be. If the max was 30, you got a room that holds 30.

But a course could never be bumped. Highest priorities were that a room could not have two classes at the same time, and a prof could not be in more than one place at a time. Eventually, it gets down to students with conflicts, and the number of those was minimized to a very good approximation.

It took 45 minutes of compute time to generate an entire (2500 student) school schedule. It's hard to imagine, but on today's computers, it would be less than a second.

I don't know if such programs exist these days. There's no reason they shouldn't.