On Cancelling Courses

I hate, truly hate, cancelling courses. A canceled course is more than an inconvenience. It is a failure, an unfulfilled idea, an unanswered question, a planned journey never taken. In my various roles in higher education I have had to cancel, or have been part of the decision to cancel, developmental courses, regular undergraduate courses, graduate courses and continuing education courses. And even when the cancellation is the right decision made for all the right reason, it pains me.

Most course cancellations, thankfully, are routine run-of-the-mill affairs. Four sections of Introduction to some ology are offered and enrollments only permit three to run, for example. If the academic department is well-managed, the student enrollments are watched carefully, the faculty are informed throughout, the students thoughtfully advised, and there is clear communication among all of the participants, then this sort of cancellation is a non-issue. Large academic units with a good deal of practice with course cancellations handle these sorts of actions well. The cause of the cancellation is understood and the decision is made under the banner of efficiency. It is academic business.

But it is a completely different matter when a newly created course is cancelled because of low enrollment.  A new course, dependent upon student interest for enrollment, shifts the balance of power in academia. The professor, as course creator, assumes the position of contingency.  It is an uncomfortable spot to be in for most faculty members. The fledgling course, often the product of a faculty member’s interest or curiosity, is a public expression of a faculty member’s confidence in their ideas and ability to command student time. The work, by default, must be front-loaded. The students, however, cannot be compelled.

Some new courses are instant hits. These are usually the products of popular faculty and often fit within an appropriately sized and structured curriculum. Most new courses struggle a bit, however, and need tweaking before maturing into something more robust. Other new courses, though, fail to draw students and die an early death.

When a new course fails, questions always abound. Was it offered at the wrong time or day? Was a faculty member’s reputation to blame? Or did the curriculum not afford the right space and level? Failed courses sometimes highlight a program’s inadequacies, if there is a willingness to look hard. Perhaps student advisors did not recommend the courses enough. And some cancelled courses simply do not offer students the right mixture of learning and opportunity. Students do not believe that the course will be worth their time and effort. These courses may not live. Regardless of the cause, imagined or real, the faculty whose new classes are cancelled do not shrug the experiment off. Anger and disappointment are inevitable, and so, too, is a wariness in investing in new curricula.

Despite the disappointment, it is rare throughout higher education to query students about curricular choice or expectations from a student point of view during the course selection process. What are the factors in shaping student choice?  And under what circumstances? Student evaluations after a class are the norm, but I have never seen a survey of student expectations before a course is offered. Graduate students are occasionally part of the curricular design process but their perceptions are hardly ever considered prospectively at the undergraduate level. It is an oversight, an unwillingness to examine all aspects of what we do in higher education, that is not even acknowledged as an oversight. We, the degree holders, are not inclined to ask those who do not yet know what they think.

I want to minimize the number of courses I have to cancel in future semesters. Accordingly, I think that I am going to have to ask some of those questions. I will keep you posted.

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