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Cuts, closes, and balances in CS for Spring 2020, revisited

Topics/tags: Grinnell, followup

In a recent musing, I discussed some of the challenges that Grinnell’s CS department was likely to face as we dealt with the cut, close, and balance stage of Grinnell’s registration process. While, for the most part, we are able to get through cuts, closes, and balances in CS relatively smoothly, we did hit one somewhat large stumbling block. It’s a complicated one and may require some back story. The basic issue is that under-enrollments by a few students (e.g., 15/20) can create as many problems as over-enrollments (e.g., 25/20) [1].

That seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? Here’s the thing. Our curriculum is a finely balanced thing. We graduate approximately sixty CS majors each year. With eight regular faculty [3,4], we can offer three sections of each of our required 300-level courses each year. That is, we have three sections of CSC 301, Algorithm Analysis (capped at 20), three sections of CSC 341, Automata, Formal Languages, and Computational Complexity (capped at 20), and three sections of CSC 324/326, Software Design (capped at 16/6, with an anticipated combined enrollment of 20). So, if a class is under-enrolled in one semester, it is likely to be over-enrolled in a future semester. To prevent future over-enrollments, we need to find a way to get more students to take the course now.

Now, things aren’t quite that simple. For example, we encourage our CS students to study abroad. Many do. Some even study abroad in locations that allow them to take CS courses. If students are in such situations, many want to take a course that helps them make progress in the major. In those cases, we encourage them to take a course equivalent to CSC 341, which seems to be most similar from institution to institution. We’ve also had some take CSC 301 equivalents abroad, although the content of those courses varies more. And, once in a while, a student identifies a course that we can consider using as an equivalent to CSC 324.

In addition, sixty majors each year is an approximation. While our enrollments seem to have stabilized at the size, we might have a few more or a few less. If we have a few more, we might need to over-enroll some of those required 300-level courses a bit. But we want to limit over-enrollments.

So then the question becomes: If we have fourteen open slots in CSC 301 and CSC 341 this semester, what obligation do we have to make sure those slots get filled now so that we don’t have fourteen students we have to find slots for next year? Or, in colloquial terms, how much can we kick the can down the road?

Suppose we want to deal with the issue now. The next question becomes how we address the issue. We can gently encourage our students to take CSC 301 and CSC 341 next semester. We can identify students who are able to take the courses next semester, and kick them out of over-enrolled courses. But if we kick them out, do we kick them out of required courses (which they will have the opportunity to take at another date), or elective courses (which they don’t strictly need to take)?

As I said, it’s a difficult issue. I’m not sure we ever came up with a definitive solution. We may be trying a combination of things. If you are a CS major, and you can take either CSC 301 or CSC 341 next semester, I encourage you to do so.

Why did I write this musing? I share the issue with you [5], in part, so that you understand the kinds of issues faculty (and department chairs) can encounter and how seemingly straightforward situations can have unexpected complexities.

I had also hoped that musing about the issue would lead me to a flash of insight on how to deal with the issue. Unfortunately, I have no good solutions. But I do remember enjoying games of kick the can when I was young.

[1] Under-enrollments by many students (e.g., only 5/20 enrolled) are a different kind of problem. In many cases, if a course has fewer than six students, the Dean [2] will cancel the course and try to shift the faculty member to another course. Of course, that’s not as easy as it sounds. It’s rare that under-enrollments and over-enrollments pair naturally.

[2] Or at least the prior Deans.

[3] A regular faculty member is one for which there is an assumption of continued employment (often predicated upon successful reviews). If I recall correctly, the majority of regular faculty are either tenure-line faculty or senior lecturers.

[4] We have eight regular positions if you include the position for which we are currently hiring.

[5] Whoever you are.

Version 1.0 of 2019-11-24.