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Cancelled classes cause problems for students, departments

At the beginning of this semester, students who were intrigued by the listing for HI102: "Medieval Spain: Land of Three Cultures" in the Course Announcement Bulletin might have gotten a surprise when they went to shop the class - it had been cancelled.

This cancellation was not unique to the history department. Throughout the University, classes are canceled each semester because of problems with faculty availability.

According to Registrar Michael Pesta, lack of student interest rarely causes a course to be cancelled. Instead, departments typically cancel courses when faculty are unavailable to teach them.

A professor might become unable to teach a course if he or she receives a research grant, retires or teaches a graduate course instead, in place of a retiring professor, said James McClain P'07, chair of the Department of History.

The problems students and departments have with cancellations arise mostly because of the timing of the Course Announcement Bulletin's publication, McClain said. Academic departments submit materials for publication in the CAB 12 to 18 months before the semester begins. At that point, it is often impossible to tell whether faculty will be available to submitted courses.

The percentage of sections of classes cancelled this semester is about the same as the 5 percent cancelled in past semesters, Pesta wrote in an e-mail to The Herald.

But some departments have been hit harder than others.

Of about 60 sections scheduled in the history department for this semester, 13 were cancelled, including four junior seminars. McClain said his department was forced to cancel courses because a large number of professors left for the semester to do outside research. Also, the department faced a number of unexpected retirements, he said.

When a professor retires, the department begins a job search for a replacement. If the job search fails, the University provides funding for a visiting professor to teach two courses, forcing the department to cancel at least one other course, McClain said. Full-time professors teach an average of four courses per year.

Even if the job search is successful, the new professor may have a different area of expertise than the retired professor, forcing the department to replace scheduled classes with ones in the new professor's field, McClain said.

McClain said the History Department's need to offer specific graduate seminars can also affect the availability of professors to teach undergraduate courses. Because the history department is required to offer a minimum number of seminars to graduate students, undergraduate courses are often cancelled to make faculty available to teach them, he said.

The visiting professors Brown hires to replace faculty on leave often have experience teaching undergraduate courses but lack experience with graduates, McClain added.

The decision to cancel courses is ultimately up to the individual academic departments, and each department has a different protocol for canceling courses. Nancy Armstrong, chair of the Department of English, said the English department does not cancel undergraduate courses so that professors can teach graduate courses.

When an English seminar for graduate students is under-enrolled, the department will sometimes open the seminar to undergraduates, she added.

Armstrong said the English department typically will cancel a course if fewer than six students are in attendance at the end of the first week of shopping period. If the cancelled course was slated to be taught by a graduate student, the graduate student is usually re-assigned to assist with an overenrolled course.

Armstrong said the classroom environment is an important consideration in canceling courses. A seminar with only three students can be just as ineffective as an over-enrolled section of a lecture course, she said.

"(The English department doesn't) want to cancel courses. It's a bureaucratic nightmare for us," she said. Typically, the departments adds more classes than it cancels, she added.

Nathan Schneider '06 said he was disappointed to find that an English class he had planned to take had been cancelled. "It would be nice to know why," he said.

Schneider said he would have liked to try to mobilize students to get the course reinstated if it had been cancelled because too few students signed up for it.

But Pesta said it is "pretty rare" for a course to be cancelled because not enough students pre-register for it. The registrar's office tries to notify students, either by e-mail or by mail, when a course is cancelled, he said.

Online registration, scheduled to begin with the Fall 2005 semester, will make it easier for students to determine which courses have been canceled, Pesta said.


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