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Faculty committee revisits time block schedule amidst faculty concerns, expected challenges next semester

April 23, 2021

Last amended at the beginning of the Fall 2020 semester to accommodate remote learning, faculty members are encouraging the administration to revisit the Spring 2021 time block schedule to alleviate unnecessary class conflicts, make the process of time block selection more equitable within departments and accommodate for larger on-campus student population in the fall.

A primary concern with the current system is the degree to which students’ course selections are limited by scheduling conflicts between different classes.

“I believe it is very important for our students’ educational experience and their ability to fully explore the curriculum, to minimize time conflicts in course offerings,” wrote Senior Lecturer in Physics and Faculty Liaison for Advising Karen Topp in an email to the Orient. “It will never be conflict free, of course, but I do think there are options we can work towards to make the course selection and registration process smoother than it has been for students (and their advisors).”

The time block schedule has seen a series of minor alterations in the past six years. Starting in 2015, faculty working groups have met regularly to propose solutions to key issues with the existing system, including expanding the amount of time between classes and starting classes at 8:30 a.m. rather than 8 a.m. to incentivize faculty and students to select earlier time slots. Phase 1 of the group’s recommended changes, which addressed these concerns, was implemented at the start of the 2018-19 academic year. The group had planned to follow with Phase 2 changes soon after, but COVID-19 necessitated a switch to the current time block schedule, which was introduced this past fall.

“In my role as liaison for advising, what I was finding was that instead of giving thoughtful advice around what courses [my advisees] wanted to take in terms of what’s good for your future, a lot of times it boiled down to time conflicts, which was not what people should be basing their course selection on,” Topp said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “You can never totally … remove it, but I’m interested in trying to minimize the extent of these time conflicts from students experiencing several courses they wanted to take [overlapping].”

The increasing amount of block conflicts in recent years has been the culmination of decades of institutional factors. Topp conducted hours of independent research, scouring the College’s archives and documents from the Registrar, to evaluate the history of Bowdoin’s time block schedules since the 1970s. She found that three key factors have contributed to the recent surge in scheduling conflicts.

Firstly, the student-to-faculty ratio has decreased from 11.5 : 1 in 1990 to 8.7 : 1 today. Increases in the number of professors have proportionally outpaced growth in the College’s student population, increasing from 123 in 1992 to 210 in 2018. Given the fact that the majority of professors teach two classes per semester, more professors simply means more classes are offered each semester—classes that fill a finite number of time blocks and create more conflicts.

Secondly, class sizes have trended towards being smaller since 2000, with the number of classes with fewer than 20 students enrolled increasing by roughly 40 percent. The number of classes offered for more than 20 students has largely either stagnated or decreased. The average number of students in a class decreased from 20.5 in 2001 to 17.3 in 2016.  Again, this trend towards offering more small classes for a growing campus population increases the choices students have, but conversely leads to more conflicts when there are not multiple sections of the same seminar offered.

“I’ve been here 20 years, and there’s a much more rapidly increasing number of sections offered,” Topp said. “There’s only five days in a week, and only 8:30-4:30 time slots each day … there’s a limited constraint with time, but more and more courses are going in, and obviously by nature—by math—it seems we have many more conflicts [now].”

Finally, teaching classes that meet twice a week is more popular than teaching those that meet three times a week, creating a higher degree of scheduling conflicts than would exist if the distribution was more equal. Topp found that, in 1960, every class was taught three times a week—either M/W/F or T/Th/Saturday, back when the College only had a one-day weekend. By the 1970s, the College had eliminated Saturday classes, but the majority of classes were still taught three times a week. Into the mid-70s and 80s, the number of two times a week and three times a week classes were roughly equal. Today, however, almost 80 percent of classes are taught twice a week, taking up longer time blocks that conflict and overlap with other blocks.

The time block schedule was a topic of debate at this month’s faculty meeting. Prompted by the registrar announcing a revised set of rules for next fall’s schedule and concerns about the expectation of an abnormally large student population next semester, the Governance and Faculty Affairs (GFA) committee brought the topic to the floor.

“The deans effectively announced in February that a time block change was going to go into effect [next fall], and this did take faculty by surprise, because there was an understanding from many faculty that [they would be involved in that decision],” said Professor of Government and GFA Chair Michael Franz. “So there’s sort of two sides of the story—there’s the impending crush of students coming back to campus [from leaves of absence and a smaller-than-usual study away population] and the need for some ways of alleviating course conflicts …  and then the faculty desire to weigh in on the latest draft.”

Beyond issues with time conflicts made even more important by next fall’s high projected enrollment, the current system raises problems related to equity as well. Currently, each department is assigned a palette of time blocks in which to teach, and departments then independently allocates the slots to their professors. Additional rules require departments to fill a certain number of “special” (often undesirable, meaning early morning or Friday) blocks, but the process is largely unsupervised.

In the faculty meeting, faculty voiced concerns that the uncompensated burden of figuring out how to allocate time blocks is too often shouldered by junior faculty or professors who are women or people of color. In addition, seniority often comes into play when older professors claim their preferred time blocks by pulling rank, leaving the less desirable slots for younger faculty.

“I think in some departments, there was seniority involved in the sense that some faculty members have a sense of, ‘this is my time block,’” Topp said. “There’s certainly been encouragement to make it more fair, especially amongst junior faculty … and then there are considerations for professors with small kids and other considerations. How every department figures that out has certainly been up to [them] … [for Physics], there are only six of us, and we’re all quite willing to bend … we luckily figure it out pretty easily, but that’s not usually the case.”

The path to resolving these issues is unclear. The GFA working group that proposed the 2018-19 Phase 1 schedule changes is due to reevaluate the success of the system next year through soliciting feedback from faculty and staff on the success of the schedule.

“The solution to … these [issues] is to space out our teaching so that more courses are offered all day on Friday, and more courses are offered during the full range of available hours,” wrote Associate Professor of Classics and former GFA chair Rob Sobak. “There is also a knock-on issue of there being a crunch for classroom space. So, encouraging faculty to make use of a wider range of timeblocks will alleviate these problems considerably and lead to much better student access to the full range of our curriculum.”

However, Franz said that at this point, that process is still too far out to describe precisely what the methodology for implementing future changes might look like and to what extent the full faculty will be involved in the decision. The most recent iteration of the College’s time block schedule is not without its flaws—having recognized them, Bowdoin’s next challenge will be confronting the Gordian knot of fixing them.

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