Remote classes see increases
Class size is on the rise across CUNY despite the extensive research showing that classes conducted online or through remote learning need to be smaller than typical in-person classes if students are to succeed. Instructors and students agree: bigger classes adversely affect the learning environment. In an effort to slash budgets, some CUNY college administrations have merged classes and increased class-size caps, while others have pressured department chairs to reduce the number of sections.
And in the midst of these challenges, the University refuses to bargain over class size and its impact. In May, the PSC put forth impact bargaining proposals for CUNY that included a provision that class-size limits during the pandemic should remain unchanged from past practice, but this semester class-size limits have increased. The union continues to fight the administration on the issue of ballooning class size, arguing that anyone invested in educating the next generation of New Yorkers should know that class size matters. The PSC is organizing a membership campaign around the issue and preparing for legal action.
Some classes in the math department at City College of New York have nearly doubled in size, with enrollment caps hovering just below 80 students, the number for providing teaching credit for a jumbo course. At the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), caps have jumped from 25 to 30 students per course. At Medgar Evers College, the administration raised class caps from 35 to 50 without faculty input, lowering them to 42, and more recently, to 40, for classes for next semester, only after pushback from faculty and the local PSC chapter.
“This is a new model and new danger for CUNY,” said David Hatchett, a PSC Executive Council member from Medgar Evers. “This is not just a Medgar issue. This is a larger CUNY [community] issue. Because if this is allowed to happen at Medgar, it will happen someplace else as well.”
In an op-ed published in the New York Daily News this summer, State Senator Toby Ann Stavisky and Assemblymember Deborah Glick, the chairs of the New York State Legislature Higher Education Committees, urged CUNY not to balance the budget through ballooning class sizes.
‘SET UP TO FAIL’
“Cramming more students into our classrooms – especially into our online classrooms – sabotages both faculty and students,” wrote PSC President Barbara Bowen in a September 22 email to members. “Overcrowded classes mean that our students, already under enormous stress during the COVID crisis, are being set up to fail.”
Clarion’s Shomial Ahmad spoke to CUNY faculty about how management’s increases in class size have impacted their teaching, and their students’ learning.
Department of Mathematics
City College of New York
My class sizes have exploded this semester. They have nearly doubled, and I’m not getting any additional help or compensation. I feel like I’m being compelled to warehouse students. I’m not alone. Other faculty in the math department at CCNY are experiencing similar levels of unreasonable workload. These are courses that are prerequisites for many STEM majors at CCNY, including engineering and physics.
I’m teaching three courses this semester at CCNY, an intro pre-calculus class with 78 students and two upper-level math courses with 63 and 75 students enrolled. The official CCNY number to get jumbo credit for classes is 80 students, and many classes in the department are hovering at a little under 80.
Typically, I have around 45 students in my “regular size” classes. People may think that with math you can automate grading, but that’s not true. You really have to inspect students’ work carefully and make sure they’re taking logical steps and not guessing their way to the right answers. Because a lot of the classes I’m teaching are building blocks for a major or program, it’s important to set the right standards.
In the spring I set up tests on Blackboard. Some questions were multiple choice, but I had to go through many problems and grade manually. That was already taxing with my “reasonable” class sizes of around 30 students. But doing this with around 75 this fall? This is insanity.
I’d like to continue working at CCNY for many years to come, but if the enrollment figures continue to swell to such drastic levels, I feel burnout is inevitable. Faculty in the department whom I have talked to feel the same way. If these working conditions persist, math faculty may leave, and this will have a domino effect with students not getting their prerequisite courses for core departments and majors that define City College’s identity.
Class sizes have always been a problem for us in the accounting program at Brooklyn College. Before the pandemic, I had about 35 to 40 students in my in-person introduction classes. Now, I have 45 students in those foundational classes conducted online and 30 in my upper-level auditing class, a writing intensive course; the previous course cap was 25. One of my colleagues has a class of 114.
Learning accounting is like learning a foreign language combined with a new logic system. Students often need a lot of review of concepts and problems, along with individual attention. This is nearly impossible in a large class. To mitigate the problem, I switched to flipped learning where I record the lectures, and during class time students spend time doing exercises and problems.
To make accounting come alive, I’ve added experiential learning projects. The hours spent organizing and dealing with problems puts me in a mode of constantly walking a tightrope in a state of exhaustion. Yet I plow through, because the students have raved about the projects despite all the logistical difficulties. A TA would be a great help.
The online teaching world makes things worse. At the beginning of COVID, I worked 10- to 14-hour days. In the past, I tried to work out problems with my experiential learning teams at the beginning or end of a live class with the entire team in attendance. Now, I have to deal with multiple emails. I also have to deal with what seems like gazillions of emails about students’ technical problems with Blackboard or the book publisher’s site. Then there are those students who can’t complete assignments on time because of an illness in the family (COVID or non-COVID), connectivity problems, computer issues, work schedules, childcare, etc.
I spend most of my time just managing the work and the issues and less time teaching. I certainly have little time with students. And being with students is why I do this job.
CUNY was founded as a college to teach the children of the working people, yet our class sizes defy good teaching practices. It makes me wonder how much CUNY management really cares about our students.
Bronx Community College
In order for remote learning to be effective in maintaining quality and student success, I emphasize individualized instruction and formative assessments. On a weekly basis, my students take quizzes, submit hand-drawn sketches and share video explanations on concepts, in addition to monthly exams and the final exam. Populating the weekly folders on Blackboard alone can take hours and involves following multiple checklists for myself and workflow charts for the students.
Class size for two of the three classes that I teach this semester has gone up to 30 students each. Typically, I teach around 24 students. As a result, my current workload is staggering.
As a community college professor, I constantly worry about retention and passing rates, and therefore, I devote a lot of extra time to create community and know the individual needs of students. Individualized instruction emphasizes communication, feedback and caring. This means longer grading hours, being available to support students when they are feeling frustrated and cheering them on when they experience small victories, tracking down students who have fallen behind, and arranging for referrals for students who are dealing with learning disabilities or grief from the loss of a family member.
I do believe that digital learning can be faster and more effective. It can only happen if class sizes are capped at pre-pandemic levels, which was 20 before COVID. No one wins with large class sizes — not the students, not the faculty and certainly not the administration.
Professor and Department Chair
Department of Public Administration
Vice Chair of College Council
Medgar Evers College
At the beginning of this fall semester, enrollment in classes at Medgar Evers ballooned. The day before the first day of the semester, two classes in my department were merged without consultation with me, as department chair. These classes did not have low enrollments. Luckily, I had an extra course that I could give to the faculty member who lost their course.
The administration also wanted to bring class-size caps up to 50 this semester, ignoring the enrollment cap of 30 for hybrid and online courses that was set by the College Council a few years ago. Eventually, the cap was set at 42. The administration said that they’ll bring in TAs to help with larger classes, but really what’s available are supplemental instructors who are typically not trained in the subject matter of the courses. The instructors would have to be trained, and it’d be like teaching two courses.
On top of all this, most classes at the college are asynchronous. Administration overrode my decision to have synchronous courses in my department; I submitted courses with times and they were removed. Students aren’t showing up to classes because they feel like they don’t have to. This fact will drastically affect student retention rates, especially for freshman and sophomores, where structure, peer support and time management are essential for student success. Faculty are now forced to put in an extraordinary number of hours trying to engage students.
The effects are real. Soon into this semester, the college encountered 900 instances where students were de-registered from classes because of lack of attendance. Provost Augustine Okereke sent an email to department chairs to work on “revers[ing]” this issue, by determining who is participating in classes by “several means.”
These developments at Medgar are not a surprise. The Medgar Evers College administration have used the college as their personal fiefdom. Many departments are not given a budget, and when they were given a budget, it was $250 for the entire academic year.
I teach public administration and I teach my students how to be accountable, transparent, fair, efficient and effective. Unfortunately, I can’t use my own college as an example. At Medgar, these public administrators have set us back a whole generation.
(Clarion reached out to Medgar Evers College about the decision to make most classes asynchronous and the prevalent issue of students being de-registered from classes. A college spokesperson said the decision of modality of instruction was ultimately a department decision, and Provost Augustine Okereke sent an email about the 900 instances of student de-registration to determine whether students “deserve[d] to receive a grade of WN.” The issue of WN grades, the spokesperson said, is CUNY-wide.)
Business Management Department
I have about the same number of students for my online classes as I did for my in-person classes. This is not optimal. With 40 students in each of my remote classes and the extra work that it entails, effective teaching is compromised.
I am spending all day long preparing for classes that meet at 6:30 pm. Much of my preparation has to do with finding ways around the impersonality of a 40-person class. I can’t even see all the students on one screen.
I initially worked on creating smaller group meetings based on collaborative projects. I spent days preparing the groups and creating them in advance on Zoom. This required that students come in with the same emails they registered with on Zoom. I couldn’t do a test run in advance, and it didn’t work. In a class of 15, it would be easy to get to know the students during the class, to discuss their projects and to create the groups in an organic way.
I consider the increase of class size a form of symbolic violence inflicted on our students and faculty. Some students are first responders and others have full-time jobs. Some have become ill or have had close family members die. Two of my students mentioned having babies and young children to care for. Many students deal with Wi-Fi issues and lack of private space to study and attend classes. Despite all these challenges, students are largely positive and are finding ways to navigate this new terrain.
Decisions should be made based on pedagogical soundness, not financial expediency. Our students need more attention, not less. Faculty are working longer hours and are frustrated that sometimes, despite all that they do, they cannot deliver the classes they had hoped to deliver.
Social Science Department
LaGuardia Community College
I’m teaching 38 students in my anthropology classes; it’s the same number I taught for in-person classes before coronavirus, or “BC,” as I say. Thirty-eight is the cap for my department, despite an administration directive that capped “fully” online courses at 22 students. The administration is making a distinction between online courses, where faculty have been trained and certified, and “distance learning” courses – a difference which, God help me, no one can figure out.
At LaGuardia, cap sizes vary. In the social sciences, it’s mostly 38, but around 25 in math. Public speaking courses are capped at 19.
Remote teaching is a technological environment that requires double the amount of work. So, I’m doubling the free labor I’m giving to CUNY as an adjunct and there is more work in preparing lessons, researching usable up-to-date online content, making sure online links are functional, answering emails, creating exams in different formats, understanding breakout groups for synchronous classes and creating study groups and discussion board posts for asynchronous classes. Exams are take-home tests, so all remote courses have become more “writing intensive.” This designation is important because writing intensive courses are capped at 25 students. I accommodate differently abled students and ensure everything works in a mobile platform as many students use smartphones.
In a virtual learning environment, I have less time to evaluate student progress as they would like and need. Maintaining large class sizes shortchanges students.