Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Add infinitum?

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.


  1. Great post. I've thought about this exact issue a number of times over the past few years. Here, in a nutshell, is the (tentative) conclusion I've come to. Adding students is in the majority of cases supererogatory, and thus not something that you are obliged to do. I will typically admit a few extra students at the start of each class (usually those with some particularly compelling reason for needing in), but don't think that I am unjust to them if I do not. Furthermore, insofar as having a class of significantly larger size has a negative impact on those in your class (and on you), I think that allowing too many extra students into a class can be unjust.

  2. I'm with the previous commenter. You're under no obligation to add extra bodies to your class. In fact, there's a reason _not_ to: it's that if you do, you help a little to preserve or create the impression amongst administration that there are enough faculty to teach the students who want to be taught. (Of course, on hearing student complaints of not getting into the classes they need, the administrators may simply do what they just did to you, and raise the class limits. But that's the sort of thing that, hopefully, can be fought once it gets too unreasonable.)

    That said, I too tend to let the odd student in -- if the student has a compelling reason for needing to be in the class, and if s/he has been consistently showing up in the first week of classes.

  3. I'm new here, and am violating the first rule of etiquette in posting before reading your blog, but I think you're missing the big picture.

    To ask what is your "ethical" obligation is to ask what are your ethics. By this you must mean either your personal view as a human being, your professional view as an employee of your university, or your pedagogical view as a member of the teaching fraternity. Perhaps there is some other set of ethics you mean, but the discussion will be the same.

    Are these truly in conflict? If so, you must decide which is predominate. In most instances, ethics being what they are, there really is not a conflict, or only one sphere conflicts with the others.

    Your goal appears to be laudable: you wish to be the best person, teacher, and employee that you can. To me, that means returning to others the greatest value.

    I would suggest that you, and not the university, know best your limits, and as importantly, the level of enrollment which will maximize the value you give to students in return to the university for its paycheck, to the teaching profession for its camaraderie, and to yourself as the only one looking out for you.

    Unless your school has rules about it, don't get worked up over numbers, in thinking that because you let in one over the maximum you must let in the next.

  4. I'd just like to emphasise Kevin Timpe's second point: adding extra students has an impact not just on your workload, but on the quality of education all of the students in the class get. The reason classes are size-limited isn't just that there's a maximum number of essays teachers can be expected to mark. It's also that the particular goods of university education (perhaps especially in philosophy) require a certain kind of personal engagement which gets harder, and eventually impossible, as the class gets larger. So, I'd say you have altruistic reasons, based on diminishing returns for your students, for refusing to add more than a very few extra people. You may also have such reasons for fighting the increase in class sizes.

  5. I struggle with the this situation pretty much every semester—and like Michael's, my classes are already packed with 40 students.

    I agree with the others that you're under no obligation to let them in, and there are numerous reasons not to. I do, however, admit students who have a really compelling reason for needing to take that class during that semester.


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