In the Midnight Hour

Community colleges that started offering sections in the middle of the night are finding the strategy worked, and such scheduling is spreading to other institutions.
December 9, 2009

Midnight classes, once a quirky scheduling option available at only a few institutions, are gaining currency at a growing number of community colleges as student demand for specific courses increases and available classroom space for those courses decreases.

Though it is unclear which institutions pioneered the idea, Clackamas Community College, in Oregon, began offering what became known as “graveyard welding classes,” lasting from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., two nights a week last spring. The classes were so popular that the college expanded them to four nights a week this fall, and students can now take five different welding courses during the “graveyard shift,” ranging from an introductory section to those focusing on specialized projects.

John Phelps, one of two adjunct welding instructors who lead the late-night courses, said the college’s experiment with these sections was a matter of necessity. Even with some welding sections available on the weekends, he said, the college reached its capacity for these courses last fall and was forced to turn away a number of students. Rather than continue to see access to his courses restricted, Phelps volunteered to take on more students well after dark, if they were willing to stay up as late as he is accustomed.

“I’ve worked at several different shops in manufacturing settings,” said Phelps, who continues to do welding and fabricating work on the side during the daylight hours. “Right out of high school, I worked nights for many years and was always working until at least 2:30 in the morning. So teaching these sections is not an issue for me. It’s an opportunity for me to do more work and help my students better themselves.”

Many of the students in Phelps’ “graveyard welding classes” have similar hard-luck stories about recent layoffs, unsuccessful job searches and trying to support themselves or their families on unemployment checks.

Wayne Rush, 31, who lost his job as a manager for a construction subcontractor a year ago, drives almost an hour and a half to Clackamas to take late-night welding classes. His prior work, he said, made him a night owl. But the classes are a perfect fit for him for more practical reasons as well.

“These classes free up my days to continue to look for work – not just short-term work but a sustainable job,” said Rush, who is hoping to complete an associate of applied science in welding technology. “When I first came out here, I didn’t know what to expect, but the camaraderie here is unparalleled. You’d expect everyone to be sleepy, but we’re all motivated to better ourselves. It’s almost like a brotherhood.”

Paul Jones, 46, who was laid off from his job as a computer programmer last spring, agreed with Rush’s assessment of the bond he feels with his fellow “graveyard welding" students.

“Everyone here is kind of in the same situation, being unemployed,” said Jones, who already has a bachelor's degree in computer science but is looking to change careers with a work-skills credential. “There’s this peer cheerleading, if you can call it that. We want each other to succeed.”

The noise and heat from working near arc welding equipment is more than enough to keep everyone awake, Jones said, noting that he has not perceived any safety issues related to the late hours he and his peers are in the shop. Still, other students have had to alter their methods of staying awake to accommodate the precise nature of the skills they are learning.

Michael Loza, 33, a father of four who was laid off from his job at a sheet metal distributor just before Thanksgiving, said he used to drink a lot of coffee and energy drinks before heading off to class at the start of the semester. When he noticed that his hands were shaking from the caffeine – an unfortunate side effect when one is learning the art of gas tungsten arc welding – he stopped the practice; now he takes a brief powernap before class instead.

Clackamas officials said retention for the day and nighttime welding classes is “excellent,” noting that “there is not a measurable difference between the two.” Phelps and others attribute this to the high demand for skilled welders in Oregon.

The initial success of the “graveyard welding classes” has all but ensured their continuance. As for expansion to other disciplines, Janet Paulson, a Clackamas spokeswoman, noted in an e-mail that the institution is in the process of reviewing its course offerings to see if there is enough demand for similar late-night sections.

Photo: Carl Graham / Clackamas Community College

A student at work in a midnight welding class.

Clear across the country in Boston, Bunker Hill Community College experimented with midnight classes for the first time this semester, partially to deal with a last-minute enrollment surge that had the college looking everywhere and at every hour for available classroom space. And though the current term has not yet ended, officials there are already calling the two late-night offerings – introductory courses in English and psychology – successful. The retention numbers and feedback from students are so positive that the college has already committed to offering next-level courses in the two disciplines and a new sociology course in the dead of night next semester.

Kathleen O’Neill, professor of the late-night psychology course, started out the semester with 23 students and only had three drop the course, mostly for reasons unrelated to the time. Teaching from 11:45 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. once a week, however, does not come to without its difficulties. On the Tuesday when O’Neill teaches her late-night section, she also teaches classes during the day. Still, her marathon day at the lectern gives her a way to relate to her students.

“I don’t sleep on the days I’m teaching this section,” O’Neill explained. “I’m up at 6 a.m. one morning until 4 a.m. the next. Before the late-night class, I usually just take a shower and pretend it’s morning again. I had one student doze off in the third class, and he was really upset because he didn’t want to be the first one to do it. Still, I understand and try to do something different each class to keep it interesting. Also, if they look woozy, I usually give them a break.”

Wick Sloane, professor of the late-night English course and a columnist for Inside Higher Ed (who wrote a September piece about his midnight section), started the semester with 13 students and has 9 remaining. The reasons students gave for dropping his class included having found a preferable daytime section and family concerns about being out late at night. Sloane brings three large pizzas to every section, bought with his own money, for those students who may not have had dinner because of their unusual personal schedules. Otherwise, he said he approaches his class no differently than any he has taught during the day.

“My biggest surprise is how much is the same, compared to the other sections I teach,” Sloane said. “People at community colleges are always tired, because they have long jobs and commutes and everything else. You get yawns at 7 a.m. and you get yawns at 2 a.m.; there’s no difference.”

While O’Neill and Sloane knew what they were getting themselves into when they signed up for a late-night course, some Bunker Hill students apparently did not.

“Actually, I took this class by mistake,” said Hamid Mezhoud, 22, who takes O’Neill’s psychology course. “I misread the course catalog and thought it would start at 11:45 a.m. and end at 2:30 p.m., not vice versa. But no other sections were available for it, and I needed to take this course this semester, so I decided to stay. I actually usually get off work at 11 p.m. [at a nearby full-service gas station] anyway, so it’s kind of worked out that I can go home and shower and just stay up until 3 a.m. and take the course. I’d probably be up anyway.”

Mezhoud, who is working toward an associate degree in mechanical engineering and wants to transfer to the University of Massachusetts at Boston, said he enjoys the late-night class, quipping that he is more awake in it than he typically is in his morning classes. If Bunker Hill offered more classes in his concentration, he said he would sign up for late-night courses again.

John Maguire, 41, who is in the same psychology section, also said the late-night offering perfectly fits his busy schedule. He works four or five long shifts a week at one of the largest Italian restaurants in Boston.

“When you get off work late, you’re usually wired and energized,” said Maguire, who is pursuing an associate’s degree in business and finance. “Some people are just nighttime people. It just works better for me. Being a waiter’s good money, but it’s not something I want to do forever. This helps me continue my education. I actually wish they’d add more business courses for my major.”

Newcomers to the Late-Night Scene

The College of Southern Nevada, just outside of Las Vegas, is bursting at the seams. Darren Divine, its interim vice president of academic affairs, gave one example to illustrate how much enrollment has ballooned: The college had about 920 seats available in its introductory biology sections this semester, and it had to turn away more than 1,400 students for lack of space.

“When we saw that, we knew we were going to have to look for another time frame to offer more sections,” said Divine, who noted that he and his colleagues took notice of the national press coverage Bunker Hill received for its late-night offerings. “Midnight classes were something we batted around for years, but we hadn’t really taken seriously until now. I mean, this is Las Vegas. This is a 24 hour town. If a midnight class can work anywhere, this should be the town. We have a huge number of people who work at all hours of the day and night around here.”

Starting next semester, Southern Nevada will offer six classes that meet two nights a week from midnight until 1:30 a.m. Of early registrations for these courses, K.C. Brekken, the college’s spokeswoman, said “They’re going like hotcakes!” As of late last week, the introductory English, math, communications and biology classes were all full. A sign, perhaps, of the popularity of these late-night sections, the biology class filled up within four hours of being listed on the course catalog. The introductory history and psychology courses have had slower enrollments, but Divine said he expects they will fill before the start of the semester in mid-January.

The immense student interest in these sections is of no surprise to Divine, but he did note his amazement that the college did not have to search very far for instructors.

“To be honest, I assumed we’d be hiring adjunct instructors specifically to teach in that time frame,” Divine said. “But, just like that, three full-timers said they’d love to do it and said it’d be perfect for them. The other three instructors are adjuncts. It’s important, with something like this, not to force anyone to do this. The point is, if we can’t get a good instructor to teach from midnight to 1:30 a.m., then we just won’t have that section. But it’s worked out.”

Other institutions experimenting with this scheduling include the Community College of Alleghany County, in Pennsylvania. It will offer late-night welding courses, similar to those at Clackamas, running from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. this spring. Also, officials from Schoolcraft Community College, in Michigan, recently noted they would consider adding a limited number of classes that did not end until 2 a.m

Though late-night classes and Sin City seem like a natural fit, one might not say the same of such offerings in the relatively rural town of East Peoria, Ill. Still, Illinois Central Community College is jumping on the bandwagon and offering a set of six courses this next semester, which it has dubbed, for marketing purposes, “night owl classes.” A friendly looking poster advertising the classes even notes that “free coffee is also available” for all meetings.

Photo: Illinois Central College

A snippet of a poster advertising the late-night courses.

Margaret Swanson, interim vice president for academic affairs at Illinois Central, said, like those at Southern Nevada, she was inspired to try out the late-night sections by Bunker Hill’s well-covered effort. Unlike Southern Nevada, however, she said Illinois Central is not having an enrollment crisis at the moment and has plenty of facilities and timeslots for classes during the daytime.

“We’re not doing this because of lack of facilities, but we just wanted to be able to reach out to more community members who might not otherwise be able to attended classes and also to reach out to nontraditional students,” Swanson said. “We’re going to experiment with this to see if anyone is interested.”

There are many weeks remaining, but early enrollment in the six courses is slow compared to that of Southern Nevada. As of late last week, an introductory jazz course and a first-aid course had no students. The remaining courses – in computer networking, freshman composition, philosophy and medical terminology – all had enrollments in the single digits. Swanson said she would likely cut sections that did not enroll at least ten students. Still, she added that the college would use the opportunity to survey those students who did try to enroll for these late-night sections to discover why they were interested in such an option and how the college could better serve them in the future.

Annette Sherwood, an English professor who plans to teach an Illinois Central section that starts at midnight, said, as a former nurse who used to work late-night shifts at a hospital, she felt prepared to lead a class in the midnight hour. As for her students, she has high expectations.

“You know students,” Sherwood said. “They’re always up doing something at the last minute and cramming and procrastinating. Still, if a student shows up at midnight, they’re showing up for a reason.”


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