Diary of a Visiting Assistant Professor, week 20: in which students shop for courses

This, the first post of the new semester, will be very brief. But one thing I learned at the MLA a few weeks ago is that people are, in fact, reading this blog, and finding it useful. So I want to make one, important point:

  • If you want to control the enrollment in your courses, then when you get to a new job you should find out how, and do it early.

While working for the Teaching Resource Center at UVA I taught several workshops on “teaching the first day of class.” The first couple days are critical, as they set the tone for the whole semester, and I like to hit the ground running: in addition to important administrative tasks like covering the syllabus and course expectations, we dive into content on the first day. Absent students miss a lot, and will have a lot of work to do to catch up.

Last semester two of my courses were under-enrolled, and the third had no waiting list (either by coincidence, or because I was new and an unknown factor). This semester, though, all my courses are full, with a few people trying to get in. So I face a problem Mark Edmundson cogently summarizes:

Students can also float in and out of classes during the first two weeks of each term without making any commitment. The common name for this time span — shopping period — speaks volumes about the consumer mentality that’s now in play. (Edmundson, Why Read?, Bloomsbury 2004, 19)

I don’t stress about students floating out of my classes: during the “shopping period” some students always enroll but don’t show up, and if they attend but decide not to stay in the class, I don’t take it personally. Ideally I’d like to fill the open spots with students who made the effort to come on the first day. The way the computerized system works, however, if a student drops a spot opens, and is filled by whoever gets there first. The paper course slips I fill out, letting in the students who came, have a time-lag. The result: I have students “floating in” who have missed a full week of class or more.

I knew about this problem from past experience, and it’s a solvable problem. But in the rush of the first week I didn’t think about it. I’ve since had the registrar (who was very nice and very helpful) drop the enrollments to below the current numbers, so a spot won’t open when someone else drops. But I’ve put myself in a position where I’ll probably go over the  cap by one or two students. And more importantly, some students have missed critical information.

Not the end of the world, I know, but a minor frustration. So future VAPs (and new faculty generally) take heed: you should ask this question during orientation, and find out just how much control you have over enrollments during the “shopping period.”

Did you have any similar experiences when you began a new position? Tell me about them in the comments.

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