Where is class gonna be?
December 3, 2008 1:21 PM   Subscribe

Who decides when and where (and which) classes will be held in a typical public, American University?

I am frustrated with many aspects of my University's class schedule and have been for years. I want to know more about the typical process for assembling this schedule, specifically when multiple campuses are involved. It's a state school, but not the Big One.

There are whole departments that never hold a single class on my campus (we have 3 different ones). I have been asking around and emailing various people but I have not had any luck in getting answers as to why, and how I can get this changed.

I have been working with the Student Senate, who put me in touch with a Campus Rep. She has not been very forthcoming, and told me I must go to the other campuses. I have told my teachers that I appreciate them holding class on my campus.

Is my adviser the person to ask? Each department head? The Office of the President?

posted by soelo to Education (24 answers total)
Best answer: Everywhere that I have taught, tenured faculty have had enormous influence on when, where, and what they teach. Untenured full-time faculty and adjuncts usually teach where, what, and when the department chair or dean decide. The course list originates in the department, but there is usually a department on campus (typically in the registrar's office) that actually schedules the courses into specific classrooms.
posted by hworth at 1:36 PM on December 3, 2008

Best answer: Prof here, pals around with the department scheduler at our state college (which comes with a second branch campus).

Here, it works like this:

--Department i.d.s the courses to go on the schedule according to a number of factors: major requirements; for some courses, rotation schedules; departmental "service" courses for general education (e.g., History 101, College Composition, etc.); faculty availability; distribution of lower- /upper-division and field courses to keep faculty happy. (In my department, we have very little say in what courses we're going to offer any given semester--we're told to suggest a range of courses we're willing to teach, but that's it.)

--The department then works out which courses can be offered when, which is trickier than it sounds when you're talking about 100 + courses and faculty who may have day/time issues.

--Then, somebody else, like the registrar's office, sticks all these courses somewhere. It may not even be a person in charge of doing the sticking, but a computer. (This may lead to all sorts of unintentional comedy, like the time my father's campus started scheduling courses in bathrooms and janitor's broom closets.) Because my campus usually has faculty offices in the same buildings as the appropriate classroom buildings, most departments teach in "their" building.

It sounds like your school has assigned some departments to a particular campus in order to alleviate space issues.
posted by thomas j wise at 1:40 PM on December 3, 2008

Typically classes are assigned to the space which best meets the needs of the department, the teacher, and the majority of the students. I cannot see any reason whatsoever to change that just to become more convenient for one student. If there are a lot of classes that you are missing out on due to your choice of campus then perhaps you should consider switching campuses?
posted by BobbyDigital at 1:46 PM on December 3, 2008

I think thomas j wise's last point is particularly important - it may be that the department is assigned a building on a different campus, and has no assigned "space" on your campus.

Is there a Dean of Students (or equivalent) at your college? Usually it's a high-ranking dept. tasked with facilitating annoyances like yours.
posted by muddgirl at 1:46 PM on December 3, 2008

It sounds like your school has assigned some departments to a particular campus in order to alleviate space issues.

It also really helps people majoring in a subject if all their classes are on the same campus.
posted by smackfu at 1:47 PM on December 3, 2008

To be clear, the Dean of Students probably can't solve the problem, but he or she will know who to talk to, and what needs to be done. You may be given the burden of proving that there are enough students who want/need to take classes in that department.
posted by muddgirl at 1:48 PM on December 3, 2008

Response by poster: Typically classes are assigned to the space which best meets the needs of the department, the teacher, and the majority of the students.

It sounds like that may or may not happen, depending on the school. Are there any particular ways that schools try to determine what the needs are for the majority of the students?

I just want to put my two cents in, not change the entire schedule. There are other students in my classes that feel the same way. We all have our preferred campus, usually due to time constraints.
posted by soelo at 2:36 PM on December 3, 2008

I'm not sure how it is in Minnesota, but here in N.C. the 16 campuses of the state university system operate independently, so what courses are offered at each campus is a 100% local decision. There's no cross-checking done at all when it comes to course scheduling.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 2:38 PM on December 3, 2008

A university with multiple campuses will hold classes for each major on the appropriate campus for that major. If you're experiencing consistent difficulties after sophomore year, then you're likely living on the wrong campus for your major.

Freshmen & sophomores can encounter occasional difficulties in core requirements too because their fellows prefer the more flexible schedule on another campus. For example : You're liberal arts campus might schedule different majors required classes differently, allowing students to try more than one. However, this noble goal might prevent math, physics, and chemistry from filling any classes there, i.e. even if there are enough students, there might not be enough for any fixed time slot, meaning most liberal arts students must still choose the math, etc. on the science campus.
posted by jeffburdges at 2:57 PM on December 3, 2008

Some courses have particular classroom needs (labs, computers, other equipment) that are too expensive to duplicate in too many places.

I suspect that much of the scheduling at a school falls into the "we've always done it this way" style of problem solving: History 200 on Tuesday mornings has always been taught in that lecture hall, and that's where it's going to stay, regardless of the fact that the space doesn't fit the course anymore, or that 99% of the history majors usually live on the other side of campus.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 3:03 PM on December 3, 2008

Response by poster: Just to clarify, this all one school, three different locations. Also, there is no on-campus housing at all. The average student is 31, two-thirds of the student body is part time, and most take classes at night, after work. Most of us are trying to avoid turning a 13-hour day into a 15 hour day by adding an hour to our commute each way.

I am most surprised about General classes, like the two basic math classes that everyone needs. I would think there would be plenty of students for those classes no matter where they are held.
posted by soelo at 3:11 PM on December 3, 2008

To answer your question, each department has an undergraduate vice char who decides what courses should be offered where. You could ask this person to query the registration database for number of students from each campus by time slot over the last few years. If they see time slot X has many students from campus Y, then they'll consider holding a class there & then.

However, this may have the unintended long term consequence of decreasing the average teaching quality received by students on campus Y because the assignment will often pass to instructors not professors, and those students may exhibit less motivation for that subject anyway.
posted by jeffburdges at 3:33 PM on December 3, 2008

Best answer: The reason why Metropolitan State does not offer courses at Minneapolis is for the following reasons besides those listed up stream:

1) MCTC does not like certain lower division courses being taught in competition with their sections;

2) A majority of students do not like paying for the parking ramp at MCTC or downtown;

3) Rooms are allocated per night/per hour(s) chunk/per location/per department and the courses you want may, frankly, not have the room allocations for Minneapolis but have room in either the Midway or St. Paul campus to take place;

4) If it is a technical course that requires a lab there may be more lab space available in either of the St. Paul locations;

5) The MEC building is Metro but that houses the College of Management and if your courses are not under COM then they may not have the space to give nor time slots

These are five reasons off the top of my head.
posted by jadepearl at 3:39 PM on December 3, 2008

I see, you're talking fairly low level courses likely taught by instructors anyway. You could ask the undergrad vice char in the math department. But they might simply not have any instructors willing to teach on your campus, especially if they're trying to help other departments by hiring non-math graduate students as instructors.
posted by jeffburdges at 3:43 PM on December 3, 2008

As far as meeting student needs, the various departments have numbers on how many people have declared particular majors, so they know how many seats they need to offer in which required courses over time. Which professor is stuck with teaching what require courses is a matter of departmental politics, which can be ugly and is almost always baroque. Electives are a different matter entirely, and subject far more to faculty interest/whim. The relevant department administrator then sends a list of courses to the university registrar, who cobbles all of those lists together into a single schedule. This also involves a lot of horse-trading within and among departments to get desirable classrooms and times.

If you're frustrated, there's a distinct possibility that everyone, including the administration, is too, but that the current schedule was the best solution they could come up with given their own constraints. So by all means, complain to someone, but understand that odds are pretty good that someone with more clout than you probably already asked for whatever change you'd like to see.

It sounds like you're in a largely non-traditional program. Two things here. First, non-traditional programs pretty much always get last priority after all the traditional programs have expired. But second, because you're looking at mostly evening classes, the number of available timeslots is already significantly reduced. So the flexibility available to the university is probably pretty constrained.

On the other hand, universities often have people in non-faculty positions who would have been fired decades ago for sheer incompetence were they employed by a normal business, so it's also entirely possible that a simple, polite complaint to a person in authority can get something fixed.
posted by valkyryn at 3:46 PM on December 3, 2008

At the major state university where I was a departmental academic advisor responsible for scheduling classes, we entered our class data into a system run by the registrar's office. This system then generated classroom assignments across a very large campus; graduate and upper-level undergraduate classes tended to be close to the department's home building on the assumption that senior faculty would be teaching those classes and either didn't want to (or physically were unable to) hike across campus. The things our grad students and adjuncts taught - general courses and the lowest department-specific courses - could be, and were, scheduled anywhere there was room for a 35-person class or a 140-person class. It was tremendously difficult to shift rooms, since teaching space is almost always filled to capacity during peak hours, and in the evenings there are safety considerations along with the desire to light/heat/cool as few buildings as possible. There are also disability issues, as in "I have a student this term who is in a wheelchair and you have scheduled me on the fourth floor of a building without a ramp."

On our campus, there was a very senior person in the registrar's office who was in charge of this process; the departments could make requests but I can only remember one or two times when I was successful. (The asshole faculty member who knew of his room assignment in April for a September class, and yet did not bother to tell me he didn't like it until September? He was not one of the successful ones.)
posted by catlet at 4:06 PM on December 3, 2008

Best answer: I'd say ask the administrative staff about scheduling. Teachers usually show up where they're told, much as students do; senior members might get "better" courses, as in more interesting ones, but the specific campus / building / room is part of an admin puzzle.

Who puts out the course catalog for your university? The registrar's office is typically the clearing house for this kind of data. They should therefore be able to give you better clues as to how the process works. The other route would be to ask department chairs. They are the ones who usually run interference with the university administration on behalf of their teachers.

I've taken classes on "commuter" campuses after working a full day at a demanding job, so I can understand wanting to take core courses at a campus that's familiar and accessible. Then again, professors similarly want to teach somewhere "easy" and familiar (they might work other jobs, too). Good luck; hopefully you'll find altruistic people who want to make the system work as well as possible, for the benefit of multiple constituencies.
posted by woodway at 4:18 PM on December 3, 2008

I schedule English classes across four community college campuses. It's an amazingly complex task once I factor in faculty and room availability, technological needs, enrollment trends, student demand, and then every other department's considerations of these same factors. Then, just as thomas j. wise noted above, someone in scheduling will decide to swap classes around on me at the last moment for some reason that may never be explained.

And since it's such a headache to make any changes, we tend to roll the schedule over from semester to semester based on what's worked in the past. If I know I have a room, a person able to teach in it, and students willing to take it, I don't change anything. I do check to see if classes are filling to capacity and I need additional sections, and my dean will occasionally advise me to change the schedule based on demand. These requests sometimes come from student feedback, but more often they're from the upper ranks of administration who are tracking college-wide or community trends. Offering sections at new times or campuses can be risky because I don't know if I'll get enough students to justify shifting our very limited resources away from a sure thing. So once a schedule gets in place, it's hard to move it.
posted by bibliowench at 4:22 PM on December 3, 2008

Supply and demand are important factors. And not just student supply and demand, faculty supply and demand as well. If you don't have a sustainable program in a particular field, you may not have faculty to teach the number of students who want those courses as an elective or even courses they need to meet a requirement. Departments need to deal with promotion and tenure issues, adjunct faculty issues, funding for grad students and TAs for large courses, all those staffing factors against the market demands the students apply. Class scheduling really reflects an attempt to balance the needs and desires of the students, with competing faculty interests and staffing levels. It's not easy or rational with all those factors. Where I work there are over 40K students competing for courses. I'm glad I don't have to coordinate that number of schedules, trajectories, and undecided futures, not to mention faculty egos and their petty turf wars. I'm not trying to make excuses but as a logistical challenge, I'm frankly impressed they pull it off.
posted by Toekneesan at 7:17 PM on December 3, 2008

Add me to the people saying "timetables usually roll over from one year to the next".

I gather the computer system can generate an all-new timetable if you like, but there are sometimes kinks in the resulting timetable that the computer doesn't account for properly. The current timetable has had those kinks ironed out.

For example, I've seen engineering courses scheduled in arts department seminar rooms where the tables are in a circle and the blackboard is the size of a postage stamp. It's pretty hard to detect problems like that on the computer system - unless the computer knows the difference in room layouts.

And of course there's any number of constraints on what you can schedule where - the first year undergraduate classes with 200 attendees can only fit in one or two lecture halls, students can only walk between classes so fast so you can't send them right across campus, you want everyone on the schedule to be able to take any combination of these electives, these language courses and these courses from other departments, everyone needs a free slot to get lunch, nobody wants the 9am or 6pm slots the students like to skip, that professor has commitments off campus on those days... in short I can understand why they use the same schedule every year.

That said, it can't hurt to ask. They accommodate a lot of constraints, maybe they can accommodate yours too.

Most of us are trying to avoid turning a 13-hour day into a 15 hour day by adding an hour to our commute each way.

The professor at the other campus might use exactly that reason to turn down your request.
posted by Mike1024 at 12:52 AM on December 4, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone who named specific job titles that would be responsible for this.
Thanks to jadepearl for giving me some reasons, and to others for speculating reasons.

All of these reasons explain why there are fewer classes offered on one campus, but they do not explain why there are exactly zero offered. It makes me laugh when I see them brag about how "convenient" they are for working adults.
posted by soelo at 12:25 PM on December 5, 2008

Okay, now I am confused. There are Metro classes offered at Minneapolis from the Metro side of the house but you state "none" which courses or subjects you are talking about?
posted by jadepearl at 8:20 PM on December 5, 2008

Response by poster: Math, Art, and Chemistry specifically.
posted by soelo at 7:17 PM on December 6, 2008

Chemistry is not offered at MCTC from Metro due to lab space, as far as I can discern. Which is why Metro is pushing for a science building. Classes are constrained completely by lab space and access to labs by students.

Many of the Arts courses over a certain level or topic are taught in the Fine Arts Studio which is the only available space for such courses being made available unless it is a course that can be held in an arts center focused on that particular class's topic e.g., papermaking at the Fiber Center. The Art department is only one resident faculty and has no majors only a minor.

Math, probably, is not offering many sections at MCTC at the lower division because that would be in direct competition with the MCTC sections. If MCTC teaches a particular topic/level Metro will not offer a competing course at MCTC. An example is how you do not see lower division writing courses at MCTC coming from Metro.

The same issues listed above are still pertinent such as, the room allocation/limit placed on departments as well as a majority of students preferring the two St. Paul campuses for parking and safety concerns.

The usual suggestion is to get your AA/AS which would satisfy the lower division requirements at a 4 year state school like Metro and then complete your major at a 4 year.
posted by jadepearl at 3:33 PM on December 7, 2008

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