We Reversed Our Declining English Enrollments. Here’s How.

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By Peter J. Kalliney

Five years ago, I took on the task of course scheduling when I became associate chair of the English department at the University of Kentucky. We faced problems familiar to many humanities departments: declining enrollments, stagnant numbers of majors, politicians questioning the value of the humanities in higher education, institutional pressure to serve greater numbers of undergraduates, and faculty members who prefer to teach small specialized courses for majors rather than large intro classes full of nonmajors.

Since then, we haven’t solved most of those problems, but we have managed to stem — and even reverse — our declining enrollments.

In my very first year as course scheduler, our enrollments plummeted about 20 percent. A combination of factors contributed to the pronounced dip: The university adopted a new general-education program that didn’t include many English courses; part of the reorganization stripped English of its virtual monopoly on an important writing requirement; and, as we all know, enrollments in English were in decline across the country.

It was a disaster. I spent the year canceling undersubscribed sections, reassigning instructors, waiting (vainly) for empty classes to fill, panicking about designing my first schedule, and wondering if the job was too big for me.

Soon thereafter, however, we stabilized and began clawing our way back. In 2017-18, our courses have more students enrolled than in 2012-13 — up 25 percent from the trough and climbing consistently. We have done that without an increase in faculty, and our department’s increased enrollment has outpaced growth in the university’s over all undergraduate population.

For the first time in five years, I did not have to cancel a single course this year. So how did we do it? Since academic tend to be skeptics, let’s start with what we didn’t do and actively tried to avoid:

  • Overhauling the major is not the answer. Curriculum reform is a reflex reaction for humanities departments facing declining numbers. Professors often assume, mistakenly I believe, that poor enrollments might be explained by a structural problem of some kind. But curriculum reform is taxing and does not necessarily lead to a spike in enrollment. In fact, there is often a lengthy transition period during which enrollments drop while students and instructors adjust to the new offerings, making it difficult to tell if the fix is working. At best, curriculum reform is a major distraction; at worst, it can hide or exacerbate the problem and delay a solution. Working within the existing curriculum — offering better classes and perhaps some new ones — is the way to go.
  • Don’t get buried in the minutiae. Course scheduling is an incredibly detail-oriented job. It is easy to get lost in the weeds, as my chair is fond of saying. For instance, I often find myself fretting that our 400-level offerings in the fall are too focused on early-period topics and not enough on modern ones. I have to keep reminding myself to put that flaw in perspective: It’s not as important as making sure the introductory courses are attractive and balanced topically, and the faculty teaching burden is equitably distributed.
  • Don’t let required writing or language courses be an undergraduate’s sole exposure to the humanities. Many students resent those requirements even if they need them. Complement them with course offerings on topics that lots of undergraduates are eager to study: film, creative writing, mythology, the Bible, science fiction, Shakespeare, and Great Books. All of those have tremendously broad appeal.
  • Don’t assume that certain professors are incapable of teaching a popular intro course. Chairs and course schedulers may jump to that conclusion because of faculty disposition or areas of scholarly interest, but all faculty members should strive to teach upper- and lower-division courses. Striking a balance between student demand and faculty wishes is difficult but of the highest priority for two reasons: (1) Giving in entirely to student demand forces instructors into some awkward courses, and (2) the strong temptation to satisfy the desires of peers usually produces a top-heavy schedule.

Now for the positive steps that course schedulers and chairs can take to turn around an enrollment decline.

Bring out the big guns to teach nonmajors. The most crucial thing — and perhaps the hardest change to effect — is to have the department’s best and most experienced professors teach introductory and general-education courses on a regular basis. Gen-ed courses are where humanities departments fight for majors and should be used as recruiting opportunities.

In our department, that involved expanding our film and creative-writing offerings. We have increased our film offerings every semester for the past five years to take full advantage of faculty members who are able to teach in this area. A new introductory creative-writing course, which meets a gen-ed requirement, also proved extremely popular. Many first-year students who never thought much of writing fall in love with the idea after a semester with one of our novelists or poets.

The goal: Make such popular classes gateways into the major and use the captive audience to recruit students. These courses should go down first on the teaching schedule — assigned to the most engaging instructors. Without those offerings, our upper-division and graduate courses will wither and die.

Our new gen-ed curriculum has a diversity requirement. So we also tinkered with our women’s-studies and African-American literature courses to reach more nonmajors and diversify our pool of majors.

Provide incentives for teaching at the intro level. I don’t just mean financial ones, though that always helps. Here are some options: Give faculty members a boost in their annual merit reviews if they teach a successful intro course; offer a bonus to professors who teach large intro classes; link the teaching of the most desirable classes (senior seminars and graduate courses) to the teaching of a "service" course; and offer small, enrollment-capped seminars for first-year students.

Some of those ideas we’ve tried in our department (a merit "bump" for teaching large classes), and some I’m still pushing for (first-year seminars). And of course, people’s schedules cannot always accommodate a gen-ed course assignment. If, for instance, they’ve just accepted a part-time administrative post that comes with a reduced teaching load, they’re going to want to keep an upper-division course and drop an intro one. The chair and I work together closely to build a schedule that works for the department.

Practice what you preach. It is extremely important for the chair, the course scheduler, and the senior professors to teach intro and gen-ed courses on a regular basis. You cannot ask faculty members to do things that you are unwilling to do yourself. Since becoming associate chair, I have taught a 100-level class every year, which is more frequently than any other faculty member. Exempting senior faculty and administrators from teaching "service" courses weakens morale. Having a chair, course scheduler, and senior professors who support all of these measures is essential to changing internal attitudes about teaching intro and gen-ed courses.

It’s worth noting: Teaching such classes can be incredibly rewarding. I routinely have students from other majors take additional courses with me after the one they were "required" to take. And it’s always gratifying to hear students who will never take another literature course say they learned something in my class.

Adopting some of these strategies depends on appointing department leaders who have demonstrated their commitment to whatever the department values. If research is important to the department, having a chair and a scheduler who are active researchers promotes the idea that research and teaching are compatible activities. If the institution values teaching over research, having a chair and scheduler who understand the demands of the classroom is essential. It helps to have full professors in these positions, too, if staffing permits.

Finally, make the effort to thank colleagues who are willing to share the teaching load equitably.

Department administrators sometimes feel squeezed — both by faculty members (some of whom look only at their own teaching schedules and miss the big picture) and by deans and provosts (who emphasize that new resources will not be plowed into fields with declining enrollments). Attracting new majors is just as important as serving the ones who have already declared. Humanities courses have plenty to offer all students: We simply need to get our best faculty on the job.

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