September 10, 2015

Adding and Dropping Classes: Another Lesson in Social Structure and Social Institutions

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

Without a doubt, for me the most challenging part of being a college professor takes place during the first three weeks of the semester, part of what is known as the “Add/Drop Period” at my university. I get dozens of emails asking to for a spot in my classes—even when the class is closed—and have to explain to frustrated students why I can’t add them to a class.

These challenges result from the difficulty many people have in understanding social structure and social institutions. On the surface, although seeking admission to a course seems like a transaction between individuals—an individual student seeks a single spot in a course—this process is not as much about individuals as it is about broader institutional forces.

We take for granted that large, industrialized societies are characterized by large, bureaucratic institutions, but seldom are we trained to understand how these institutions operate. Often, we must learn as we bump up against the rules that might frustrate us at times, but make sense for the institution on a larger scale.

Social institutions like universities often attract prospective students (and attain high rankings) if they have low instructor to student ratios. Attending a class that has fewer than 20 students is more appealing to many people than attending a class with 200 or more students. Part of our institutional goal is to provide liberal arts courses where students interact with faculty a great deal in the classroom and ideally on research projects as well. So the institution has a broader purpose in mind when setting class size caps.

As I recently wrote, choosing your classes also provides a lesson in social structure. Students pick classes largely because they meet particular requirements built into the institution. But sometimes people put off taking required classes until the end of their college career. Many seniors email or come to class wanting spaces in closed general education (GE) classes, and seem desperate and frustrated when they can’t be added, even if a class is full.

Because these GEs are taken mostly by freshman, the registration process is set up so spaces open up to coincide with new student orientations; only a few seats are made available at the time when seniors register earlier on. Seniors who have put off taking GEs often don’t realize the way the registration process works for these classes, and ask the professors to override the course caps to let them in.

I regularly receive several emails over the summer like this, but instructors are not part of the registration process, at least not before classes begin. Since many experience professors as all-powerful in the classroom, they might be under the impression that it is just a personal decision that I can choose to make. “But another professor signed me into his class,” is a common refrain I get when telling someone a class is full. We often see ourselves primarily as individuals, but institutions are made up of many individuals, often with similar needs.

Most students get this as far as others are concerned, but often have a hard time accepting this when they are the ones hoping to add. I create a wait list based on the structure of the institution, giving students who need that specific class to graduate priority. For many students, the institution enables them to take the class to fulfill a requirement, yet for others the institution requires that they take a specific course. Students who have less of an institutionally-based need for a course are often disappointed, and yes, occasionally get angry at me if I will be unable to add them.

So why can’t we just add as many students as the room will hold? Some institutions might do this, filling classes to standing room only. Many of our large lecture classes require students to join discussion sections that have smaller class sizes. These discussions are led by teaching assistants (TAs), who are usually graduate students working on advanced degrees.

Because graduate programs are evaluated in part based on the length of time it takes students to complete their degrees, the institution has a big incentive not to overload TAs so much that they can’t complete their own work. So in part we keep to designated class caps to avoid taking advantage of TAs.

And the same goes for professors. In research universities, like the one where I teach, most faculty are expected to conduct research and publish, and teaching duties are only part of what professors are contracted to do in most institutions (typically 40 percent to 80 percent of a full-time faculty member’s work time is spent teaching, depending on their specific contract). We are also expected to participate in department and university-wide committees, as well as in regional and national organizations related to our disciplines. So limiting class enrollments is also meant to protect the instructor’s time as well, so that we can perform other expected tasks.

Other types of educational institutions—such as community colleges—have other structural constraints and institutional pressures regarding course enrollment. Budget cuts impact them particularly hard and in some cases student frustration stems from being unable to enroll in any classes at all, and sometimes they struggle to maintain full-time student status and the financial aid that comes with it.

Understanding how and why institutions operate the way they do is an important lesson for any student. It can also help you understand why a professor might not be able to add you to their course.

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