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How should members of a department allocate course sections among themselves?

January 8, 2019

How should members of a department allocate course sections among themselves?

I’ve seen a number of different models, most of which work tolerably well when enrollments are either growing or stable. But with enrollments dropping, the gaps in some of the models are starting to show. I’m hoping that some wise and worldly readers have seen, or thought of, models that might fit the current situation better than many.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that we’re talking about departments with more than three or four full-timers, and a number of adjuncts.  Let’s also assume differing levels of seniority among members, and overlapping but non-identical preferences. Just to make life interesting, let’s assume unevenly declining enrollments over time.

When enrollments and staffing were relatively stable, I used to see the “rollover” model a lot.  In that model, a department would take the previous year’s schedule as the starting point, and just roll over the vast majority of it. The burden of proof was on any change from the past.

That model offers both transparency and simplicity.  But it tends to lock inequities into place -- whoever got the crappy schedule last year gets it again this year -- and can lead to de facto fiefdoms.  It can lead to decisions being made on the basis of horse-trading, rather than student or departmental need. It also falls apart when enrollments slip.  Prof X likes back-to-back classes on Tuesday, so she’s willing to take the late afternoon section to get the prime time class. Then her prime time class doesn’t run. Chaos ensues.

Seniority-based models come in several flavors.  For instance, a “vertical” model has the most senior member pick all of her courses, followed by the next most senior, and on down the line.  Professor Senior has picks 1-5, Professor Next Senior has picks 6-10, and so on. It’s a pretty sweet deal for the most senior member, but the rookie gets the dregs. 

A “horizontal” model works like the NFL draft: it works in rounds.  Professor Senior gets the first pick in the first round, followed by Professor Second Senior, and on down the line.  Then it starts over at the top for round two, until everyone has a load. The most senior person gets a better set of options than the most junior, but not by nearly as much; the rookie’s first choice is higher than the senior’s second.  

I’ve also seen what I think of as “squatter’s rights” models, in which seniority inheres in each individual section. In that model, whoever had a given class last time has first dibs on it this time; overall seniority applies only to new or orphaned sections.  This method works well at first, but over time, entropy kicks in. Say that the department chair position turns over. The former chair lost the classes for which she had release, and only has the dregs from which to choose now.  It’s a powerful disincentive to chair.

Seniority isn’t necessarily the only consideration, either.  Depending on the department, there may be times when it makes sense to encourage people to cross-teach, so you have depth on the bench if someone should fall ill.  One-person departments make me nervous for exactly that reason. The cross-training model works better in some areas than others, but as a general rule, it’s good practice to ensure that people are prepared to pick up coverage if something happens.

Similarly, there are good moral and practical reasons to ensure that even the rookies get a reasonable share of the desirable assignments.  Hiring people who are excited to be there, and then relegating them to the margins, is a pretty good way to kill that excitement.

Of course, there’s a larger question about adjunct faculty and their roles.  Depending on local rules and culture, some departments take their wishes into consideration, and some don’t. That’s a much larger question. I’ll just suggest that some adjuncts are so wonderful and crucial that ignoring their preferences amounts to malpractice.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen an allocation method within a department that left everybody reasonably satisfied, made some kind of sense, and didn’t collapse when enrollments dropped?  If so, what was it?


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