The Overflowing Composition Classroom

At community colleges, those who teach writing have far more students per semester than may be educationally sound, survey finds.
March 27, 2007

The workload of community college composition instructors has grown such that they are teaching far more students a semester than guidelines suggest is educationally wise.

Results of a national survey – released at a session during last week’s annual meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication – found that those who teach writing at community colleges have a mean of 94 students a semester. The conference – a division of the National Council of Teachers of English – has guidelines that state that no faculty member should be teaching more than 60 writing students a semester – and fewer if the students have remedial or other special needs.

Composition professors  say such limits are essential because good writing instruction – especially at colleges where many students may not have received adequate instruction in high school – is intensive, involving constant assignments that need to be graded promptly so students can learn from mistakes and advance.

Not only has the norm started to greatly exceed desirable levels, but significant numbers of instructors are teaching well above the mean. The survey found that more than 20 percent of writing instructors at community colleges teach between 111 and 130 students each semester. And 9 percent report teaching 131 to 150 students a semester.

The sample size was not large enough to provide state-by-state breakdowns, but the survey found that faculty members in the Northeast, Midwest and Southwest generally had teaching loads slightly less than the national mean. In the West and Southeast, teaching loads were higher than average.

The survey is part of an effort by the Two-Year College English Association to document workload trends and to then try to identify strategies for making them more manageable.

Lois Powers, a professor emeritus of English at Fullerton College, said that the teaching loads the survey identified come with a real educational cost. “If most of your time is taken up evaluating papers, what is lost in the process?” she asked.

In reactions to the survey at the session -- and in interviews with others after -- faculty members said that one of the realities is that the only coping strategy possible is to cut back either on assignments or the have a less speedy turnaround time on grading papers. Anecdotal evidence at the session also backed up the findings. Several audience members volunteered that they were teaching five sections of composition, with class size up to 28. One person in the audience said she is teaching seven sections a semester.

Powers and others said that the best way to deal with the problem is to try to establish firm policies on class size and numbers of sections to be taught a semester. Institutions with lower composition students to faculty ratios generally had specific policies in place, either as a result of collective bargaining  or state system policies. One faculty member suggested that composition instructors need to take the current government interest in “learning outcomes” and demonstrate the extent to which composition instruction is hurt by rising workloads.

But setting new policies may be easier said than done, especially when many community colleges report that their state and local funds aren’t increasing on par with enrollment increases and inflation.

When one professor in the audience asked for concrete ideas on how to get a policy in place, another audience member expressed shock at her workload and suggested she get her union involve. The first faculty member reported that she works at a public college in a state that bars its professors from unionizing.

And some others said privately that they work at colleges where there are policies in place that limit the number of composition students any instructor may have in a given semester, but that those policies are routinely ignored. Professors said that because composition is frequently taught by adjuncts or junior professors, it is difficult for them to insist on following a policy when a department chair asks them to add “just three more students” or "just one more section."



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