The teaching profession is an essentially altruistic profession. Over time, I've grown to accept this. Indeed, the opportunity to help others (well, or at least not harm them) is one of features of teaching that motivates me to teach well. But on the other hand, I sometimes find that the altruistic dimension of teaching results in uncomfortable situations, situations that could be seen as ethical dilemmas. Today's example: Am I obligated to add students who wish to add my courses?
A little background is perhaps in order: Due to budget woes at my university, course sizes have increased this quarter. Courses that typically run with 35 students have enrollment limits of 40 students — and these courses are fully enrolled after regular registration is complete. I have discretion to enroll above that number, and as you might expect, many students have requested that I add them.
I find this a very uncomfortable situation, personally and ethically. I think that I'm obligated to enroll up to official limits set by the university. (Indeed, I have no control over that.) But am I obligated to enroll students in numbers above those limits? On the one hand, I'd like to think that by taking my courses, students are getting something good and valuable, so I should be willing to provide it to anyone who requests it. Furthermore, some students need to enroll in my courses in order to graduate, either because the courses satisfy their unmet general education requirements or because the course is required for philosophy majors. But of course, each additional student is a little more work for me. This may not seem like much, but the university has already compelled me to admit five more students per section, and I teach three sections a quarter; that's 15 students more total. If I agree to take, say, five more students per section, that's 15 more. So under the usual arrangement, I teach about 105 students per quarter, and I find myself teaching 135 — not a trivial increase in my workload.
I feel guilty about declining to add students, but at the same time, there are limits to what my altruistic role can reasonably ask of me, aren't there? If 100 students wanted to add my courses, I'd have no obligation to take them all (I'm pretty sure). But if 100 is more than I'm obligated to add, then why isn't 15 more than I'm obligated to add? On top of this, there's a larger institutional context to consider: Students need to demand that their instructional needs be met, and if I add them to my courses, I'm removing an incentive for them to, frankly, be pissed about the budgetary situation. As a constituency, students have some power (if not now, then later on, when they are voters deciding on how the state universities will be funded), but if I (and/or my colleagues) add students, then the impact of the budgetary situation — and the fact that they have legitimate grounds for complaint about that situation — may be lost on them.
As it turns out, I've added a few more per section. But I remained deeply unsatisfied with the situation.