Dean looks to trim 100 small classes
Sometimes less really is more. That was the message Christopher Manfredi, Dean of the Faculty of Arts, delivered to about 100 students at a Town Hall on Tuesday, Jan. 22.
Speaking in the Arts Lounge, Manfredi said he was looking into eliminating up to 100 undergraduate courses with enrolment of 20 students or less. He also wants to have more full-time faculty members in the classroom.
The savings of such moves would, in turn, allow the Faculty to address a main area of concern by improving the ratio of Teaching Assistants to students.
In his opening remarks, Manfredi spoke of “the disconnect between research and teaching.” At present, he estimated, some 65-70 per cent of undergraduate Arts courses are taught by full-time faculty. His goal is to push that number up to 80 per cent.
“When we tell prospective students that when they come to McGill they will be taught by the leading scholars in their field, I want to be able to honour that promise by making sure that those scholars are in the classroom,” said Manfredi.
The Dean also told the audience that in recent years, the Faculty’s budget for TAs has remained static while enrolment in courses and TAs’ salaries have been on the increase. “[Our] ability to provide an appropriate ratio of students to TAs [has been] harmed, Manfredi. “We’ve actually seen the ratio of students to TAs deteriorate over the last several years.”
This trend can be reversed. “My objective is to hire 120 additional TAs,” he said. “This will have a significant impact on the student/TA ratio.”
That effect would also be felt on waiting lists for those courses that are capped because they currently don’t have enough TAs to provide the appropriate support. “If we have more TAs, the caps on those courses will go up and students will have an easier time getting in,” said Manfredi.
But Manfredi emphasized that the course reductions will not be arbitrary and will be made only after the completion of an extensive consultation process in which Associate Dean of Arts Gillian Lane-Mercier has been meeting with each unit to evaluate existing programs and discern exactly what courses should be retired, combined or left as is.
He noted that some Canadian universities in the same situation have made sweeping cuts by simply cutting all classes with enrolment under a certain number. McGill’s decidedly more thorough approach will ensure that courses that are small by necessity, but vital nonetheless, will be maintained.
“Some courses are small because they are so esoteric and uninteresting to students that they don’t enroll in them,” said Manfredi. “I worry about those courses.”
During the question period, Arts Senator Jimmy Gutman voiced his displeasure with the proposed cuts. “We get less with whispers of getting more. Getting more for less works for growing potatoes or corn… Is school simply a conveyor belt or are we trying to learn,” said Gutman. “Do you want to learn in a small environment with people that really care about teaching every time you go to class,” he asked.
“This is not a whisper, it’s a declaration,” answered Manfredi, noting there is no correlation between classroom size and the educational experience. As proof, Manfredi listed a number of the Faculty’s long-standing – and most popular – large classes. “This is not about cutting the Faculty’s money. It’s about spending it wisely,” he said.
Gutman also maintained that by eliminating posts that traditionally have been held by course lecturers, the Administration was intentionally targeting a group that had only recently unionized.
Manfredi categorically denied the charge, noting that increasing the number of courses being taught by full-time faculty has been an integral part of the University’s strategic priorities – along with improving the student/TA ratio – dating back to the 2006 White Paper.
The Dean expressed some surprise that the issue of course lecturers had seemingly snuck up on some people. He noted that, since the tabling of the White Paper in 2006, the topic has been regularly discussed in numerous forums, Town Halls and working groups across McGill even as recently as the Sept. 25 Faculty meeting – a meeting in which student representatives were present as members of the Faculty Council.
Throughout the question period, Manfredi also emphasized that even with the elimination of 100 small courses, the Faculty would hardly be entering into an amphitheatre-only era.
“We will continue to offer somewhere between 30 per cent of our courses [more than 300] with fewer than 20 students. That’s a big proportion,” he said, also noting that after the proposed changes the average size of an Undergraduate Arts class would increase from 55 students to 55.5.