Composition, Overcrowded

Data and discussion at gathering of writing professors suggest that class sizes and teaching loads at community colleges -- long viewed as too high -- are growing again.
March 16, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO -- Class sizes and teaching loads for composition courses at community colleges -- courses typically required of most students and seen as crucial for college success -- appear to be growing well beyond levels that are considered educationally sound.

That was the suggestion from preliminary data released here Saturday at the annual meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication. The conference has long had standards for writing courses, based on the idea that composition teaching requires the assignment of more papers than is typical of college courses, quick turnaround on evaluating those papers, and detailed discussion of those papers with students. According to the conference's guidelines, undergraduate writing sections should be limited to 20 students (15 for remedial writing), and no faculty member should be responsible for teaching and grading more than 60 writing students a semester (or 45 students in remedial courses).

It doesn't appear that anyone in charge at community colleges is paying attention.

The Two-Year College English Association has been trying for several years to draw attention to the ever widening gap between those guidelines and actual practice. This year, the association is conducting a survey of community colleges -- asking writing instructors to report on actual practice (as opposed to official policy) on class size and teaching loads. To test the survey instrument, the association gathered information from 15 community colleges in California and found the following:

On class size, not a single one of the colleges meet the guidelines. For remedial writing (recommended class size not to exceed 15), one college reported a cap in the 15-20 range, while five were at 21-25, four were at 26-30, 6 were at 31 to 35 and one was over 35. For non-remedial first-year composition, four colleges reported caps of 21-25, six college reported caps of 26-30, two reported caps of 31-35, 2 reported over 35, and one did not reply.

Notably, while the composition group's research and standards both call for remedial writing sections to be smaller than college level sections, the opposite may be happening. Of those in the pilot survey, 46 percent have caps higher than 30 for remedial sections, while only 27 percent of the colleges have similarly high caps for non-remedial writing sections.

After presenting those figures, Mark Snowhite, who teaches English at Crafton Hills College, quipped to the audience: "Do your developmental students need less time or more time with you?"

The figures on maximum number of writing students also suggest that the composition conference's standards are being ignored. No college reported having a maximum for writing students taught per semester to be under 76 (when 60 is the theoretical maximum). Of the 15 colleges studied, three reported limits of 76-100, five reported limits of 101-125, and six reported limits greater than 125. (One college could not determine its maximum.)

Jody Millward, who teaches at Santa Barbara City College, said that these numbers are likely to go up even more as "more students are pouring into our institutions because of the economic downturn." Millward said a major reason for conducting the survey -- which will soon expand -- is to document the educational consequences associated with failing to match educational needs with public support.

Privately, many at the composition meeting said that this problem was getting worse by the week. Instructors at colleges with official policies on enrollment caps for composition reported being approached by deans and being asked to "take just a few more" and to do so quietly, because the college could not afford to hire additional instructors. While some of those being asked to take on more students could theoretically file grievances, several pointed out that they are adjuncts who can't be in the business of picking fights with deans (and that they also don't want to be held responsible for turning students away).

The initial survey looked only at 15 California community colleges (whose names were not released). But a show of hands in the audience - which included instructors from many other states -- found that the data (while depressing to many) were no surprise.

One person in the audience described a meeting on her campus where writing instructors tried to explain to administrators why class size and teaching load needed to be kept down to help students. "You could have gotten laughter out of the room," she said. "It’s never going to happen with us."

Community college professors involved in this research stressed that these teaching loads -- unlike some of those for some of their four-year college counterparts -- don't come with teaching assistants. And because much of the teaching is done by adjuncts, they noted that many of those teaching composition at this pace are also spending considerable time each day commuting among campuses.

Alan Ainsworth, chair of English at the central campus of Houston Community College, said that writing instructors work a 5-5 teaching load, with a cap of 25 students per section. Those who are adjuncts are working that sort of teaching load while "driving 20 miles from one class to another in Houston traffic," he said. The result of this volume of students -- whether taught by full timer or part timer -- is that it's "unrealistic" to provide students with all the feedback they need. "We need to reduce [class size] so students can get the attention," he said.

Thomas F. Edson, professor of English at Mt. San Antonio College, in California, said his college reflected several of the trends in the preliminary survey. The cap for composition courses for first-semester students is 30 -- well over the recommended level -- for both college-level and developmental sections. But while the cap goes down in the second semester to 25 for student in college-level sections, it stays at 30 for remedial sections. "It doesn't make any sense," he said.

In teaching remedial sections, Edson said, instructors face classes with a wide range of skills, and must give constant assignments, sometimes repeating them -- with immediate grading to provide effective feedback. "It takes much more time to teach a remedial student," he said.

Remedial writing students may lack the ability to construct sentences or paragraphs, he said, and so need intense instruction. Remedial courses "aren't a simple turnaround," he said.

Officials of the Two-Year College English Association also plan a major survey on adjunct working conditions. Given the extent to which colleges "use and abuse" adjuncts in teaching composition, officials said, it would not be possible to push for improvements in working conditions for composition instructors generally without also focusing on adjunct issues.

Millward, of Santa Barbara, said that the survey -- which will cover both working conditions and adjuncts' goals (such as whether they are seeking full-time tenured jobs or not, and which benefits and working conditions are most important to them) -- is essential so that the association "doesn't make assumptions" about the best approaches to issues in the absence of the views of those doing so much of the teaching.


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