Rethinking my teaching for the new normal

When I was on the academic job market, lo those many years ago (ok, early 2003), I concentrated my search mainly on smaller, teaching-focused colleges. I knew that I wanted to be somewhere with small class sizes and the opportunity to really get to know my students and interact with them, in class and in office hours, and where I could really focus my time and energy on teaching. I dreamed about small group activities and the opportunity to teach intro in the computer lab and all the cool pedagogical things I could do with class sizes of 15-20 students—certainly no more than 30.

A series of emails from my colleagues last night sent me to the spring registration pages (which I’d been blissfully ignoring—one of the perks of being on leave). Right now, our smallest CS course (an upper-level elective with multiple prereqs) has an enrollment of 36, while every other course is at 40+. We have 3 sections of Intro—all are full with waiting lists. We have a visiting prof teaching 2 courses to help ease our load—both are enrolled at well over 40 students. Our enrollments have been heavy for a while now, but this is the most extreme it’s been, as far as anyone can remember. And let me remind you: I teach at a small liberal arts college, one that’s supposed to have class sizes of 15-20 students—certainly no more than 30.

So much for that small class pedagogy, huh?

Obligatory caveats: We are certainly not the only department experiencing enrollment pressures (hello Econ, Psych, and Bio, and you too, Stats). And CS enrollments have historically been notoriously cyclical. And huge enrollments are an excellent problem to have. Don’t get me wrong, I am thrilled beyond words that so many want to take CS at Carleton (and at other institutions too, since enrollments are growing elsewhere), and I hope that this trend continues.

But there’s no question that I teach a 40+ person course differently than a 20 person course. For instance, I am a huge believer in lab/practice time in Intro, so much so that I’ve been teaching that course exclusively in the lab. I can’t do that with 40+ students unless I triple people up on computers—and that’s not an ideal pair programming scenario. Last spring, I taught a very different version of Software Design than I had planned, because I quickly realized my plans wouldn’t work with my 30+ class. This meant a lot less individual time with students/project groups and fewer modeling/practice activities overall, things which I think are pretty darn important for that course.

The thing is, I’m loathe to let my small class pedagogy completely go. I strongly believe in the small class model and in individual attention and as much lab time as possible, etc. So how do I make my pedagogy fit when my class size doesn’t fit my model? How do I make my old normal fit my new normal? Is it possible, for instance, to find some way to teach a lab-based Intro when my class doesn’t fit into any of our labs? How can I scale down project-based activities so that the students still get the benefits but in a way that’s sustainable for me?

I also worry a bit about future course offerings. If we are bursting at the seams, how will we justify “burning” a course on a small-enrollment freshman seminar, or a limited-enrollment upper-level seminar? We essentially have no upper-level seminars now—our 300-level courses routinely enroll in the 30s and now 40s. Will we have less room and less freedom to experiment with course offerings if, say, our majors are shut out of required courses? How do we balance obligations to our majors and potential majors, and service to the college for non-majors, with our call to provide a small liberal arts college education?

How can we mimic that small liberal arts environment when our class size reality is no longer so, and may never be again?