Administration aims to reduce course compression, may revamp schedule

Josh Goodman

In an effort to reduce course conflicts, Whitman administrators and faculty are considering several changes to the way courses are currently scheduled.   The possible changes, which include a more even distribution of when courses are scheduled throughout the day and a switch to Monday-Wednesday-Friday and Tuesday-Thursday classes only, would create additional course time slots and reduce the number of course sections offered during any single given scheduling block.

While the implications of the schedule changes would result in fewer conflicting classes during the same scheduling block, they would also lead to an increase in the number of classes during unpopular time slots.

An encouragement to reduce course compression: the phenomenon of more classes being offered at popular times such as 10a.m. than at less popular times such as 8a.m.: is already underway.

“Everyone wants to teach at 10 and 11 and 1 o’clock,” said Registrar Ron Urban. “We’ve been encouraging the faculty, when the class schedule is built in April, to be a little more diverse in their plans.”

Over 35 three- to four-credit courses are scheduled this semester in the each of the 9:00, 10:00, 11:00, and 1:00 time periods.   Forty-two are offered in the Monday-Wednesday and optional Friday 1:00 time period, the most popular.   Only eight are scheduled in the 8:00 Tuesday through Friday time, while 28 and 25 are scheduled in the Monday-Wednesday and Tuesday-Thursday 2:30 time periods, respectively.

Reducing course conflicts means scheduling more classes during the underutilized times, such as 8:00 Tuesday through Friday and 8:00 Monday 9:00 Wednesday-Friday, which has only 12 courses.

While Urban recognizes that 8 a.m. courses may not be the most appealing to students, he believes that students can come to recognize their value.

“I look at the sciences and people sign up for 8:00 classes, and they attend them.   I think if the expectations are clearly specified . . . people will rise to the occasion,” he said. “The academic culture can change if we will ourselves.”

There are already rough guidelines for how many courses to schedule during a time period within any given department.   Departments with seven or fewer courses may offer only one per period, those with eight to 14 may offer two during a time slot, and those with 15 or more may offer three.   Exceptions are sometimes made for multiple sections of introductory courses and for language courses at different levels.

Those guidelines, however, don’t always prevent departments from exceeding the limits.   This semester, the Department of Politics is offering three courses during the Monday-Wednesday 1:00 time period, despite offering fewer than 15 courses overall.

Aaron Bobrow-Strain, assistant professor of politics and chair of the Department of Politics, said that though the person who created the schedule for this year is on sabbatical, members of the department aim to reduce scheduling conflicts.   He, for instance, moved his Political Ecology class from its normal Tuesday-Thursday 1:00 time this semester so that it wouldn’t conflict with Theories of Empire.

Another way to reduce course conflicts, and to simplify scheduling, is a revamp of the course schedule as a whole.   This involves having 50 minute Monday-Wednesday-Friday classes and 75 or 80 minute Tuesday-Thursday classes.   Switching to this schedule, which would not occur for at least a couple years, would end the practice of certain courses meeting at different times on different days.   It would also create one or two additional time periods, presenting greater opportunities to spread the distribution of course times.

“Right now what we have are these kind of odd time slots,” said Neal Christopherson, director of institutional research. “A lot of our course times that meet in the morning have an optional fourth day, as well, and so it’s not 11:00 Monday-Tuesday-Thursday, it’s 11:00 Monday-Tuesday-Thursday-Friday, with Friday being an optional day.”

That creates a conflict:   a Monday-Tuesday-Thursday class at 11:00 does not interfere with classes outside that time block, but when the Friday class is thrown in, it overlaps with another scheduling block, the Monday 10:00 Wednesday-Friday 11:00 period.   Most morning scheduling blocks have an optional fourth day and the conflicts that follow.

While the proposed switch to a streamlined schedule would avoid such conflicts, it would also eliminate the fourth and occasionally fifth class of the week, something foreign language professors often rely on.

“Increasing contact hours seems to be the trend in language teaching circles, especially in the first and second year classes,” Akira Takemoto, assistant professor of foreign languages & literatures–Japanese, said in an e-mail. “At the beginning, students learn best when exposure to the target language is more frequent.”

Jack Iverson, assistant professor of foreign languages & literatures–French and chair of the Department of Foreign Languages & Literatures, added that most institutions of higher education nationwide have four to five hours of instruction per week for beginning and intermediate foreign language classes.   Iverson said a three-day-per-week schedule would “diminish” students’ ability to learn a foreign language and that the department would be forced to find other ways to provide contact hours.

ASWC Vice President and Student Affairs Chair senior John Loranger said he supports any move that gets more students into the classes they want, but feels that rearranging the schedule does not solve the underlying problem of this year’s 17 percent reduction in course sections.

“In our eyes, fixing course compression addresses some of the issues that the five course load shift created, but faculty hires have to be the ultimate solution to get back to the amount of courses offered,” he said.

Junior Philip Hofius, however, was skeptical that spreading out courses to underutilized times would be beneficial at all.

“I don’t think that would work very well,” he said. “The reason there’s so many classes at the times there are now is because that’s when people work well.”

While there may be encouragement from the registrar and others to add more 8:00 and 2:30 classes and reduce course conflicts within departments, concrete steps towards changing the college schedule are at a preliminary stage.

Provost and Dean of Faculty Timothy Kaufman-Osborn said in an e-mail that he recently asked Christopherson, the Registrar’s Office and WCTS to create a method for “understanding the distribution of course offerings across semesters, available time slots, etc.”   From there, Kaufman-Osborn and others will have the information they need to make any necessary adjustments.

While the overall course schedule is not a current agenda item in faculty meetings, Kaufman-Osborn “suspect[s] that we will need to return to it again in the near future.”

And while no changes are set in stone, Urban is confident that whatever happens will benefit the Whitman community.

“I’m pretty optimistic that what changes will be introduced will make the system better,” he said. “I think it’s better now than it was five years ago, and it will be much better in five years than it is now.”