Friday, May 9, 2008

Budget cuts

My first inkling of how bad budget cuts are going to be was the emails that started going around about the cuts in East Asian language funding. Because foreign language classes are taught by lowly lecturers and GSIs, they're the first classes to be cut, and the EALC department has impressively mobilized to protest the cuts to their budget.

East Asian language classes are being cut by nearly fifty percent, causing the department to restrict enrollment to the College of Letters and Sciences. Students in the business school, the law school, the engineering school, the school of environmental design, etc., are just out of luck -- even though they may very well need to learn Chinese, Japanese, or Korean. Over 1500 students who are currently enrolled for East Asian language classes will be turned away from further study in the fall. These are core classes with high demand. The students want to learn, and the lecturers and GSIs need the work.

To their credit, EALC grad students have put together a petition to ask that the funding for these classes be reinstated. I think they've generated a lot of sympathy, and as I'm writing the student petition has almost 2500 signatures (a petition for the general community is located here).

But it's not just EALC's budget cuts. The cuts are to all positions staffed by lecturers and GSIs, and most departments have "service" courses that they teach for the benefit of the university at large.

In the English department, it's the Reading and Composition (R&C) courses, English R1A and R1B. Reading and composition is a requirement for Cal undergrads, and most of them fill it with R1A and R1B courses, in English or in another humanities department.

For as long as I've been here, R&C has been ridiculously overenrolled. The roster is always full, the waitlist is always full, and the first week is always populated by hopeful students, either waitlisters or crashers, hoping through sheer tenacity to get in.

In the past the overenrollment has been a small comfort to grad students -- although everyone feels it's ridiculous that R&C is so understaffed, at least we've felt pretty sure that there was always a demand for sections, and that, up to a point, we would have work, and therefore money to live on, while we worked on our Ph.D.s.

So it comes as kind of a blow that R&C appointments are being cut even further for '08-'09. It's a financial disaster for grad students, of course -- it's not like we get paid enough in the first place to start saving rent money for a rainy fiscal year. But it's completely ridiculous that a required class for undergrads is being cut. These students already hang onto their spots on the roster for dear life. There is no question of switching sections because you prefer another topic: if a student relinquishes her spot in one class, there's little possibility of her getting into another. Further cuts can't be supported.

My worry is that the cap for these classes will be raised in order to accommodate all the students. That means fewer appointments for grad students, and more grading for those that do get it (at the same pay). And when you're teaching a writing class, grading takes a lot of time.

And raising the cap also means a different kind of class setting for the students, a more anonymous setting, one in which it's more possible to fade into the woodwork, because it isn't physically possible for every student to talk at any length in a given class period any more.

In a class in which students are supposed to workshop their papers together, it's in the interests of the instructor to try and generate a friendly and relatively close-knit community. Students should have an idea of who it is that's critiquing their writing, and whose writing they're critiquing themselves. But that's not possible in a class that's too large.

Cutting R&C is a disaster. I hope the undergrads make a big stink, because R&C was already in bad shape, and this will really diminish the quality of undergrad education. It's not clear what will happen yet -- I know the English department is trying to find resources to soften the blow -- but I'm worried.


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