Saying No

Hugo Schwyzer write about the worst part of a new semester: turning away students from classes that are full.

September 14, 2005

If there's one thing I don't like about the first week of classes, it's the task of saying "no" over and over again.

Like many community colleges, mine has far more students than we have slots available in most of our classes. It's a very rare course where I am able to accept everyone who shows up the first day trying to "crash" a class. More often, as with the three classes I met on my first morning of teaching this semester, I have wait lists of one- or two-dozen for classes that typically  have a maximum of 40. I generally do lotteries for available seats, and ask all those not selected to leave.

I'd like to enroll everyone, of course, and be the "nice guy." But if I did that, I'd be left with a classroom too tightly packed for anyone to move, and in serious violation of city and state fire and safety codes. I'd also be overwhelmed with papers and tests and journals, and my grading load -- with seven courses a semester and no teaching assistants -- is already immense. So for reasons of both safety and sanity, I have had to get very good over the years at saying "no."

Students beg and plead and, invariably, explain why it is that without this particular class, their entire academic career will be ruined permanently and the dreams of their parents dashed. Some students get teary with frustration at the depressing process of huddling in doorways and squatting on floors and ingratiating themselves to be admitted to over-crowded classrooms. A few try flirtation or flattery; on one or two occasions long ago, various bribes were rather openly proffered -- and politely refused.

College administrators have told me, on more than one occasion, that professors are not to use any method other than random lotteries to choose students for available spaces.  Apparently, the concern is that if students are asked to write an essay, or demonstrate a high degree of need for the class, then professors open themselves up to charges of bias or favoritism. After all, we are not truly in a position to judge the actual needs of our students. It is axiomatic that each semester, I will hear, over and over again, “Professor, yours is the last class I need to transfer. If I don’t get in, I’ll be set back an entire semester.” Is it possible, even likely, that many of these students are telling the truth? Of course. Is it equally likely that some students are exaggerating? Yes. Is it part of my job to evaluate the veracity of their claims and the urgency of their need? I don’t think so.

I find that saying "no" to a student who wants to get into a class is much harder than saying "no" to a student who has asked me to rethink a deservedly poor grade. When I've assigned a low grade to sub-par work, I generally feel quite confident in my assessment of the student's product. But the way in which students get into classes seems so arbitrary (and unfair, as returning students get priority) that I have a hard time defending the system that leads to the composition of any particular class.  And yet, any system where I am called upon to make judgments about a student’s suitability for a particular course seems an even worse prospect.

It's no fun for the students to put themselves through this. I honor them for doing it. The smart ones continue to call and visit every day, hoping that some enrolled student has dropped and a space has been freed up. Often, but not always, I am able to accommodate them once students start to drop after the first week, but I won't do so if it means a dozen bodies on the floor and students barely able to breathe. (I tend to pace around while I teach, rather than cling to a podium; I need a bit of walking space!) I’m also aware that the college can get cited for safety code violations by the fire department if we overcrowd the classroom.

Two true lottery stories: One year, I had about two dozen names on a list for my women's studies course in which five spaces were available. There were perhaps 17 women and 7 men trying to get into the class; by strange chance, all five of the slips of paper I drew had men's names. It was completely random, but as one of those women who wasn't selected left, she muttered in disappointment, "God, even in a women's studies class I'm fucked over by men." Lots of people heard her, and it set an awkward tone for the remainder of the morning.

Another year, I had three spaces available on a lottery list for a modern Europe class; one of the women on the list (of some 15 hopefuls) was a very pretty, bubbly scantily-dressed blonde. Her name was the first name that appeared -- at random -- when I pulled slips of paper out of a manila envelope. After the class, two students who weren't selected publicly accused me of rigging the lottery to pick the "hot girl," and they complained to the dean. (Who laughed them out of her office; incidentally, the "hot girl" ended up one of the top students in that particular section.)

There’s little prospect of this over-crowding changing any time soon. Community colleges, at least here in California, have an open-admissions policy. The fact that a student has been admitted to the college does not guarantee a space in a single class. Invariably, that means that more students are enrolled in the college than we have classroom (or parking) space available. Students report that in many cases, their academic careers are extended by one or two years because they are unable to get into all the classes they need in a timely fashion. The obvious answer is that we need more professors, more courses, and more buildings in which to do our teaching. But until, by some budget miracle, all of those resources are available, I will continue to have to say “no” to the hopeful, the ambitious, and the deserving.

I'm not asking for pity, mind you; saying "no" and dealing with the justifiably frustrated and disappointed is part of the job description. But it's pretty damn near my least favorite part of what I do.


Hugo B. Schwyzer teaches history and gender studies at Pasadena City College. He teaches and blogs about such issues as the interplay of faith and sexuality, American history, and masculinity.


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