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Scheduling fall terms (#1089)

Topics/tags: Grinnell

As I’ve mentioned recently, Grinnell has released its primary plans for Fall 2020. We’ve been warned that they may change as the situation in the country, state, county, and city [1] change. But for now, it looks like we’ll split the 14-week fall semester into two 7-week fall terms [2], we’ll start with a small on-campus population of approximately 500 students, we’ll do regular testing, and we’ll employ a lot of safety measures, including significantly reducing in-class sizes, staggering class times and mealtimes, and limiting student contact outside of their scurries [3].

We’re now at the point at which we have to convert the semester-based fall schedule to a term-based fall schedule. The revised schedules are due tomorrow. Well, parts of the revised schedules are due tomorrow. We need to indicate which term each fall course goes in (Fall 1 or Fall 2), what structure we want for the class (5x65, 4x85, 3x110, 2x170), and what time of day we want to offer the course (Morning, Afternoon, or Evening). I seem to recall that we are now using Block for that later concept. The particular times for each course will be determined once those schedules are in.

To help with that, the Registrar and some folk from the Department of Mathematics and Statistics designed an optimization algorithm for converting the semester schedule to a term schedule by placing each course in one of the two terms. Given the assumptions it made, it did a pretty good job; right now, it looks like we can maintain 90% of student registrations while leaving each student with no more than two courses per term [4]. That’s important because (a) students will still get to take most of the courses they signed up for and (b) we can attest to authorities that students have appropriate course loads for the fall. It’s probably important for other reasons, too. It’s also an unexpected result; the first guess was any reasonable algorithm would fail at the task.

As incoming Department Chair, I’ve taken on the role of massaging the pre-seeded schedule into one that will work. What do we need to do as a department? The easiest part should be figuring out times of day and class models. We haven’t gotten feedback on what we’re supposed to do about our with lab classes, but I’m assuming that we can add a 170-minute lab to each course labeled as such [5].

Then there’s the more complex issue, that of teaching load. When we were first asked to comment on the switch from semesters to terms, one of the first comments I submitted was (approximately): Faculty should not be required to teach two four-credit courses in one seven-week semisemester [6] since that’s equivalent to four four-credit courses in one semester. It looked like folks agreed; all the initial guidance said (approximately) Faculty will not teach more than one four-credit course in each term. I always read that as more than six credits in each term, since we needed to be able to spread things out across the year. So, for example, a faculty member might teach a four-credit course and an accompanying two-credit lab, or perhaps a four-credit course and a separate two-credit course [7].

Then we got the seeded schedules. And we found that many faculty had been slotted into two four-credit courses in the same term. For example, I was scheduled for both Tutorial and CSC-151 in F1 and nothing in F2. Another colleague was scheduled for Tutorial in F1 and one course each in F1 and F2. Yet another was scheduled for two different courses in F1 and a repeat of one of the courses in F2. I was pretty sure that we were told that one of the optimization goals was to combine multiple sections of the same course by the same faculty member in the same term, but that doesn’t seem to have been a high-priority goal. It certainly didn’t happen here.

We were told that we could make modifications to the seeded schedules, but we were also warned that each change would likely affect the quality of the placement. We had previously been told that we could request course reductions to keep faculty load reasonable. Suddenly, we were being told that these overloaded terms were necessary. A lot of faculty pushed back; in normal times, a four-course semester is horrible. When dealing with the complexities of significant course changes and online teaching, it seems like a two-course term will damage faculty well-being and will likely ensure a less good experience for our students.

Here’s one example of why the experience will be less good. I’ve been talking with the other faculty on the Scheme Squad about CSC-151, our introductory course. We’ve regularly heard that one thing that helps students through the course is the relationships they build with faculty. Those are harder to build in an online environment, so we were talking about scheduling one-on-one fifteen-minute meetings with every person in the class during the first week of class. Conflicts during pair programming also come up more in online classes, so we were planning to have students reflect on their own and their partners’ work in pairs and then discuss those issues weekly or biweekly. That adds fifteen-minute meetings in at least three more weeks. With twenty-four students in the class [8], that’s another six hours in those weeks. You might be able to add those six hours [9] if you’re teaching one class, but you are unlikely to find time for them when you’re teaching two classes.

In my role as department scheduler [10], I looked for a way to reduce course loads or at least course preps. By turning three sections of 24 students into two sections of 36 students [11], cutting two-credit electives [12], cutting our non-majors course [14], and cutting one section of Tutorial [15], I was able to arrange for a four-course load for each of the pre-tenure faculty and a 4.5 load for the tenured faculty and one of the more experienced pre-tenure faculty. And then there was one case in which the only thing we could do was move both sections of their course to the same term. I sent the request to the Dean [16].

Then the Dean sent out a memo with new guidelines for course reduction requests. It suggested a variety of options. It also noted Any requests for course release must include details of impact on curriculum. Only in exceptional circumstances will an entire course release without any load redistribution be considered. I’m pretty sure that we’ve redistributed load within the department: From twenty-four-person courses to thirty-six-person courses, from two-credit electives to four-credit electives, from CSC-105 to CSC-151. But we also relied on dropping a Tutorial, which no longer seems to be allowed. So I’m rewriting the memo. Whee.

I’ve also been told that some departments are finding it impossible to cut out two-course terms. I believe that’s true for some of the smaller departments, and I feel sorry for those departments. But, just as I was told An alternative is to switch instructors on either the introductory classes or the tutorials, since these are courses that all/most faculty in the department can teach [17], I believe that many departments could free slots by increasing course capacity in multi-section courses, which is what we were told would likely have to happen if we cut sections.

In many ways, I’m fortunate as CS Department Chair-Elect and Department Scheduler. I don’t have to deal with a lot of labs that the algorithm ignored. I don’t have to deal with other hidden work that the algorithm ignored. While it will be a pain to redevelop our classes for the fall, we don’t have to deal with, say, labs or studios that now hold 1/3 the number of students. I feel very sorry for my fellow Chairs (or Chairs-Elect) who are worrying about all those issues; in comparison, ours was probably straightforward. In addition, the CS faculty have been cooperative and collaborative in thinking about changes [18] and I have way too much experience dealing with schedules. [19]

Next up: Sending out the new memo, finalizing the schedule, and then moving on to individual and collaborative class prep for the fall. Book orders need to go in soon, too. At some point, we’ll need to figure out whether the courses will be online or in-person and, if they are in-person, where we can teach them. We all need more online training. And we need to identify software that works and get it through the approval process. Fun fun fun [20].

Postscript: My colleagues’ commitment to our students and to the institution shines through in this whole process. We are all [22] on nine-month contracts that ended in mid-May. Yet faculty are still doing training for online teaching, participating in meetings, responding to requests to update the schedule, reworking classes almost from scratch, and so much more. It’s a lot of unpaid labor, and it’s labor we do because we care. While it’s not paid, I hope that it ends up being compensated in other ways, say through successful classes, reasonable workload (for ourselves, our students, our fellow employees), a healthy community, and a sense of accomplishment.

Postscript: One benefit of musing about this topic was that I got some ideas on ways to update the memo. Yay! Let’s hope that it’s successful, or at least partially successful.

[1] Yes, Grinnell is considered a city. I’m pretty sure that where I grew up, you needed 100,000 people to be considered a city. Grinnell may have 10% of that.

[2] Plus two days of finals’ week.

[3] A scurry is a group of students who live together and, in some cases, take classes together. It’s named after the term used for a non-familial group of squirrels. When I looked it up, I discovered that squirrels are not particularly social, and so don’t usually for scurries. I wonder if we’re providing some implicit guidance to our students to employ social distancing.

[4] That number is likely to fall a bit once we start scheduling class times.

[5] Fingers crossed.

[6] The College had not yet settled on the term term.

[7] One of my colleagues notes that a two-credit course requires more work than half of a four-credit course. They are probably right. Labs may also be more work, but most labs are either (a) very closely tied to the class or (b) offered in groups so that the development can be shared.

[8] Or perhaps 36. See the next few paragraphs.

[9] Or nine.

[10] Do you have a better term?

[11] Ugh.

[12] Useful for the major, but other two-credit options as well as four-credit electives are still available.

[14] Only 11 students took CSC-105 last year. CSC-151 is intended to serve both potential majors and non-majors and should suffice for the coming year.

[15] Our department normally offers only one section each year; we had found a way to add a second section this year. I think we’ll still be held to that.

[16] More accurately, the Deans, since we have an incoming acting Dean as well as our regular Dean who will soon be acting President. You know what I think about them.

[17] That doesn’t quite work, since it just switches the overload to another person, and it’s rarely the case that those teaching the tutorial or intro course can switch to the upper-level course.

[18] I hope that most departments are cooperative.

[19] I’m also fortuate that I have a safe place to live, a job that provides me with flexibility and allows me to teach online, an employer that is showing concern about people’s health, and so much more. Compared to those broader concerns, none of this matters. I need to keep reminding myself of that.

[20] ’Til Daddy took the keyboard away [21].

[21] Or was that T-bird?

[22] Or almost all.

Version 1.0 of 2020-06-25.