English department budget cuts have led to a 400 percent increase in class size, and an almost 100 percent decrease in writing in some courses.
Some English course sections have increased from 30 to 120 students, which makes formal writing assignments impossible, department chair Kathryn Rummell said.
It changes the curriculum to a point where students are negatively affected, Rummell said, and losing the writing portion of classes means the loss of much more than just learning grammar and punctuation.
“Writing is a process of discovery,” she said. “You often don’t know what you think or what you know until you write. (With) no writing happening, that process has just died.”
But the department had no other choice, she said.
Formal writing is a casualty of the budget cuts that have plagued higher education for the past three years. Approximately $584 million was cut in the 2010-11 school year, according to the California State University system website.
The future looks just as grim, Rummell said.
With a proposed cut of $500 million on the way for 2011-12, College of Liberal Arts dean Linda Halisky and department chairs have had to make cuts. The general education (GE) area C1 classes in the English department are supposed to be capped at 30 students, but some sections have increased to 120 because of faculty cuts.
In 1997, the department had 33 tenure-line faculty—this year, the department has only 19.
The department lost eight lecturers and part-time faculty over the past three years, which means putting the remaining students into the remaining classes, Rummell said.
“It is the only mechanism we can come up with to continue to meet the demand with the current faculty we have,” Rummel said. “It means that students don’t do any writing.”
Large classes make it impossible for a professor to grade writing assignments, said professor James Cushing, a tenure-track faculty member who has taught both small discussion classes and large lecture classes. So writing must go, phased out for the lecture-learning style of reading a text and taking a Scantron test, he said.
“It’s possible (to grade 120 essays in a week) if I don’t do anything else, but I didn’t become Dr. James Cushing just by grading papers,” he said.
Classes in writing don’t necessarily have to have 120 students to make teaching and grading difficult tasks, lecturer Sadie Johann said. Even in a class of 22, one or two additional students makes the instructor’s job harder.
Grading an essay and giving feedback are very important aspects in helping a student learn how to write well, Johann said. Writing and talking to students one-on-one creates the best learning environment. But when professors are told to do this with 30 students or more, it becomes a difficult task, she said.
“Telling us that it’s not a big deal to add one or two more students is not true,” Johann said. “The more students we have, the harder it is to get into that personal space, talk one-on-one and know them as individuals and help them with their writing.”
The time taken to grade an essay is made even more precious when professors are also expected to talk with students and live their everyday lives, Johann said.
“Its kind of maddening trying to fit that all in and still have a good attitude about pushing them,” Johann said.
The extra stress put onto teachers is noticeable in the classroom, Nick Hood, a mathematics freshman currently taking English 134 said.
“I feel like my English teacher has way too many papers to grade, and she simply puts a grade on most of our essays,” Hood said. “They can’t possibly give each one as much attention as they want to. It’s really unfair to both the teachers and me.”
When students do not have the proper preparation in their lower division courses, assignments further along in their writing careers may become more difficult.
“It really hurts them down the road because in their upper division writing courses (GE areas) C4 and D5, they are going to have to be able to produce writing somewhere in their major,” Rummell said. “They are also not getting enough experience writing to help adequately prepare them for the 300-level writing proficiency exam.”
The writing proficiency exam, or graduation writing requirement, is the writing test all students must take and pass in order to graduate. With no writing in some GE area C1 classes, students may not be as prepared as they should be.
The problems created by the absence of writing are compounded by changes in the learning experience, because classes with 120 students are very different from those with only 30 students, Cushing said.
“With the large classes, the educational experience changes from the bottom roots to the top leaves,” Cushing said. “It’s a theatrical performance. A theatrical class demands just physical presence.”
In the large classes, students can easily tune out and go into a television-watching state, which is not a good way to learn, Cushing said.
Learning is a process that demands the student to be involved and become a part of the experience. When a student is in sponge mode, it is very easy to become numb and disappear, he said.
“The only way to be humiliated in a big lecture class is if you snore loudly,” Cushing said. “You can be oblivious to the whole experience.”
In a discussion, critical thinking and comprehension skills are important. Students exercise their knowledge much more effectively in a small class, because when the class is not interesting and fundamentally engaging, it is easy to tune out and get tired and sleepy, he said.
Although large classes are not as effective, it remains the only way to deal with the financial burden and the number of students, Rummell said.
Halisky and the department chairs are still in discussion about how to frame the next large cut to the entire college.
“My hope against hope is that our class sizes in English are as protected as possible, particularly in (GE area) A1 and A3 courses,” Rummell said. “I think all of us are very hopeful that President Armstrong can beat the bushes and get some extra money for us.”
If the state continues to cut the money flowing into the college, the department will have to continue offering large lecture classes.
“You are not coming here for theatre, you are coming here to have your life changed,” Cushing said. “It’s urgent to have small classes. Especially in a university that boasts of changing its students lives by ‘Learn By Doing.’”
This article was written by Dane Jensen.