Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Blog LXXXIII (83): Stuffing the Ballot Box

Back in Blog LX (60), I said students vote with their feet. Now some people ignore that fact at their own peril. The attitude is “I know what they need to know.” And there is a lot of truth in that statement. The problem is the students still vote with their feet. Sometimes that vote is because the instructor has a reputation as a poor teacher. At other times, it is because the course is offered at an inconvenient time. Most troubling is when the topic is important, but difficult.

You can make an argument—and it is a good one—that as a nation we have a crucial need to have more people study Arabic and several other foreign languages. The problem is they are not popular classes, even if they are important. This article “Should Class Popularity Determine Its Success?” that appeared in the January 23, 2011 issue of the Albuquerque Journal raises some real questions about important classes that fail to garner strong enrollments. The article focuses on language instruction at the University of New Mexico, but it raises important issues that historians need to consider. The reporter was James Monteleone, a staff writer for the Journal. At the end of the article, I offer some observations on what you can do to stuff the ballot box:
You won't hear many sitting around the University of New Mexico's Student Union Building chatting in Chinese. Or Arabic, or Russian, or Greek, for that matter.
That's because few students are studying them.
Although each language is taught at UNM, along with eight others, the courses are consistently among the university's lowest enrollments.
Students at UNM last year enrolled in more than 631,000 credit hours, excluding health sciences courses.
Popular subjects, such as English, mathematics, psychology and communications/journalism, each attracted more than 36,000 student credit hours for the 2009-10 academic year. At an average of three credit hours per course, those departments each hosted at least 12,000 students.
While some of those courses' popularity is because the departments teach classes required by a variety of majors, UNM's technical fields have also drawn high enrollments as students increasingly pursue high-tech careers.
However, 18 UNM programs enrolled fewer than 1,250 credit hours last year, according to university data compiled by the Journal. At that rate, a department would host no more than seven, 30-student classes each semester.
Nine of the 12 foreign languages UNM teaches are among the university's lowest enrollments. Two additional low-enrolling programs - modern languages and comparative literature - are included in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures.
Classes in Arabic, for example, drew just 180 credit hours last year, equal to about 30 students each semester; the Greek program taught 258 credit hours, totaling fewer than 50 students each term.
Recognizing that even the least attended courses bear a fixed cost, UNM has said everything is on the table when it comes to cuts.
UNM employs 13 tenured and tenure-track faculty in the Foreign Languages and Literatures Department. While that total includes two professors who teach Russian, which had only 513 enrolled credit hours last year, most tenured faculty teach the more popular French and German courses.
Unless tenured faculty can be cut by UNM, cutting programs will not save significant instructional funds, said Curtis Porter, the provost's associate vice president for planning, budget and analysis.
And, so far, UNM has said tenured faculty are off limits.
Other low-enrolling language courses, like Greek and Chinese, are taught by adjuncts, who can be cut at any time but work for lower wages and limited benefits.
Struggling Languages
Although language study was once the focal point of university studies, some language courses now enroll students each year by the dozen rather than the thousands.
"Areas that have been traditional mainstays of education, going back to the original (university) foundation in languages, it was fundamental to the way we thought about education for hundreds of years," said Wynn Goering, a vice provost. "As those enrollments fall off, those are where the really hard choices come now."
It is particularly difficult to measure the success of languages based on enrollment, said Natasha Kolchevska, chair of the foreign language and literatures department. Classes must be smaller than many college courses to ensure students can be part of a dialogue with their teacher.
She believes studying language is a critical piece of a college education and cutting that curricula because too few students enroll defeats the purpose of an academic institution.
"It is part of being an educated person, to have some languages and cultural skills or knowledge that goes beyond your own little corner of the world," she said.
Critics, however, question whether it's necessary to offer a dozen languages when most draw few students. While courses in Spanish, French and German report strong enrollments, Arabic, Navajo, Chinese, Greek, Latin, Russian, Italian, Japanese and Portuguese don't.
Among those are languages deemed more difficult to learn for English speakers, such as Arabic and Chinese, meaning the dropout rate is high, Kolchevska said.
UNM is the only university in the state that offers more than one semester in most of the low-enrolling languages courses, and the diverse offering is critical to UNM's identity as a state flagship university, she said.
For most of its foreign languages, UNM offers at least five semesters of instruction.
"I would certainly want to say that it makes sense for us to be investing money in things like Arabic, given the importance of Arabic today. ... I just think any good university ought to be teaching Arabic, and probably more students ought to be taking it," said Richard Wood, president of the Faculty Senate. "I'd say the same thing about other languages and some cultural studies programs."
Also, some of the offerings support academic goals, while others are necessary for UNM's long-term development, Goering said.
For example, Portuguese is critical to the goal of emphasizing Latin American studies, he said.
Given New Mexico's connection with the Navajo Nation, offering that language is important, despite the fact Navajo courses have fewer than 525 credit hour enrollments, he said.
"Shouldn't somebody be teaching this critical heritage language for our state? We keep coming back to, 'Yes. We should,' " Goering said.
For now, the University of New Mexico is committed to teaching these classes. Good for them, but that commitment might not be there at another university where you are teaching—so what do you do?

My answer stuff: the ballot box. There are ways to make sure students take your classes. This approach is something that can be really helpful if you have no reputation on campus; perhaps it is your first or second semester teaching. It can also be useful if you do not have a great reputation. Student recommendations and gossip only goes so far.

What does stuffing the ballot box look like? Create flyers advertising your class and put them on the trees, bulletin boards and kiosks. I created about half a dozen for a class I was teaching on World War II and plastered them all over campus. These flyers had images of the book covers, and had provocative questions like: “Pearl Harbor: What were the Japanese Thinking?” At the University of Texas at Austin, the history department had a systematic approach. There was a bulletin board in one of the main hallways where professors put short descriptions of their courses. Of course, that was before the internet, today the department has a section of their web page with these descriptions. Here is one for a class on the Civil War:
OVERVIEW. This course investigates the political, military, constitutional, diplomatic, and social aspects the American Civil War and its aftermath. It seeks to provide students with an understanding of the background and purposes of the war, the strengths and strategies of the combatants, and the reasons why the war took the course that it did. The destruction of slavery is a central focus of the course. The last third of the course takes up the history of Reconstruction, concentrating on how the various plans of the victors affected and were affected by the lives and aspirations of the vanquished and the freed slaves.

EXAMINATIONS AND GRADING: In addition to the final examination (which will be comprehensive) on Friday, May 14, from 7:00 to 10:00 p.m., there will be two midterm exams--on Monday, March 2, and Wednesday, April 8, at the class period. Each of the midterms will count 25% of the course grade. The final examination will count 50% of the course grade. The exams will consist of short-answer and essay questions on the material from the classes and readings (including any handouts that may come your way from the instructor). Enrollment in this course constitutes a commitment on your part to be present at all of these examinations. Exams will not be given ahead of schedule, nor will any make-ups be given, for any reason.

BOOKS: The following paperbacks should be purchased:
James McPherson and James K. Hogue, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction (4th edition)
Allen C. Guelzo, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America
Gary W. Gallagher, The Confederate War
Michael Shaara, The Killer Angels
Albion Tourgée, A Fool's Errand: A Novel of the South during Reconstruction
 CLASSES: Each class will consist of a lecture of 50-60 minutes, followed by discussion among those students who wish to stay. You may record the classes if you wish, but no laptop computers may be used or open during the lecture.
Another thing to do is to pitch your classes to your existing students. That was a popular approach at the University of Southern Mississippi, where everyone in the department used the same textbook for the two courses on world history. The pitch was also quite simple: you need to take both courses and we use the same book for both, so take the second half next semester and get more bang for your buck. Another tactic, is to make yourself available to student groups that have a like interest. For example, if you are going to teach a class on Japanese history, you might want to visit one of the weekly meetings of Anime Club (Japanese-style animated films) and see if you can give a five minute talk, or even incorporate some anime into your class.

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