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Deans and professors clash over seminar schedules
This semester, Dean Chester Gillis of Georgetown College has cut the number of seminar courses that may meet once a week dramatically, inciting significant discontent from many faculty members.
Any professor’s request for a course to meet once a week for 2.5 hours must be approved by the Dean. “The rules are rules,” Dean Gillis said. “[Professors] can make a case, but I’ll make the decision, and generally I say they should meet twice a week.”
The Dean’s default position illuminates a stark divide between himself and the faculty over the most effective way to teach seminar-style, upper-level courses. “The issue is, pedagogically, is that the best way to run a seminar?” said Government professor Harley Balzer. “I think the faculty member ought to have the choice…I know a lot of my colleagues have expressed the same concern.”
University Registrar and Assistant to the Provost John Pierce said professors have the opportunity to go through their department chairs to express their disagreement with the policy. “If professors feel that their views need to be expressed to the Dean, I know that the [department] chairs have an equal opportunity to do that,” he said.
Pierce added that in 2011 the policy was approved unanimously by the executive faculty, and the consensus was that “an excessive number of such once a week courses are not pedagogically sound. Everyone agreed to those policy guidelines,” he said.
In the past year, Dean Gillis has slashed the once-a-week course count roughly in half. According to data provided by the University Registrar, in the fall of 2010, 34 courses in the Government Department met once a week and the History Department held 29. This semester, Gillis approved 12 once-a-week courses for the Government Department and 18 for the History Department.
This semester, there are approximately 49 once a week courses in International Affairs. These typically go through the School of Foreign Service.
Senior faculty from the SFS declined to comment on why the school’s policy is less stringent with once-a-week courses.
Professor and Chair of the History Department Carol Benedict believes that most upper-level History courses are better suited to meet once a week.
“I think most History professors find the once per week format more suitable because students have time to actually read the assigned book carefully, to prepare their thoughts for discussion, to reflect on the reading and discussion afterwards, and therefore to get more out of the class,” Benedict wrote in an email.
Dean Gillis argues that meeting twice a week with students would increase faculty-study contact hours. “I want faculty presence and availability to students,” he said. He argues that professors who consistently choose to hold once a week courses will choose not to commute to campus frequently enough.
Michael Bailey, Chair of the Government Department, feels comfortable with the Dean’s policy. “I personally see both sides, but if that’s the position of the College, even though I can see the other side quite clearly, they’re being somewhat flexible about it,” he said. “If it were a straight-up vote about whether or not we should have a default towards twice a week, I would say yes for a couple reasons. It’s just hard to keep our energy up for two and a half hours, I’ve taught a lot of classes that go that long…and we absolutely need a ten minute break.”
Bailey added that there is a possibility some professors do not know they can request to hold a course once a week in the first place. “I can think of one case where someone didn’t agree with the policy but knew about the policy and therefore was submitting twice a week classes and only later did it come out, did I tell him that oh, you can apply, you can ask. There may be this kind of latent interest that’s not fully revealed.”
Exceptions can be made, but only for professors with compelling reasons. “If we had a well-known, high-value, adjunct professor who can only teach on Monday nights for two and a half hours because he’s running the federal government, then that would make sense because that is his or her only instance where they can come to campus. But for ordinary faculty, that’s not the case,” Dean Gillis said.
Adjunct professors who are straddling multiple jobs between Georgetown and other universities in the D.C. area, however, do not see the same exception. “It would have to be someone who was compelling. Adjuncts are great, I’m not devaluing what they do, but if they’re not the most powerful person in their field, we’re not necessarily arranging our schedules for their convenience.”
At its core, the rift between professors and the top-level administrators lies in a pedagogical debate over the most effective way to teach higher level courses.While the Dean asserts that seminars can still offer the same educational experience in a twice a week format, many professors vehemently disagree.
“As it is, Georgetown seminars are too short. Making them shorter still sabotages the purpose of the format,” Matthew Rudolph, a professor in the Government Department, wrote in an email. “Lecture halls should soon be empty. Rooms with rows of chairs instead of seminar tables serve mostly to earn tuition, not to teach.”