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Answers elusive in frustrating, arbitrary class caps

Published: February 3, 2012
Section: Front Page


Class-capping at Brandeis can seem a vague and inconsistent process.

Some classes are capped at a larger number than other equivalent courses; some allow additional students past these capped limits while others do not.

Mark Hewitt, the university registrar, gave a few reasons why classes are capped.

A typical and increasingly frequent reason, according to Hewitt, is simply size constraints. “This [capping] happens when a class is approaching the physical limits of the classroom and we have no larger classroom available to move it to,” Hewitt said. Instructors do not know what size classroom they will receive during the registration period. Therefore capping commonly is put in place before there is a clear idea of what the room capacity will be.

Sometimes there are situations in which the professor feels a limit must be placed on the class for a specific learning atmosphere. “If they are capped for pedagogical reasons, then that is a decision that is made by the instructor and chair of the department and ultimately approved by the dean [of arts and sciences],” Hewitt explained.

This could include labs, classes requiring many oral presentations or language classes where class participation is key. Sometimes professors will prefer to have larger introductory classes so that other courses may remain small, a fact asserted by Mick Watson, dean of the graduate school of arts and sciences and professor of psychology. While these larger courses may still have caps, they are able to be bigger with the help of teaching assistants who can break up the classes into smaller discussion groups periodically.

Professors Mike Coiner (ECON) and Sarah Lamb (ANTH) both say they would not be able to manage such large classes without their TAs.

Lamb said she needs her TAs so that she can break her Anthropology 1A class, Introduction to the Comparative Study of Human Societies, into discussion groups of around 20 students. Otherwise, she prefers her smaller classes to be capped at 25-40 students so that class discussions can happen regularly and much more easily.

Faculty provide the initial input as to where they prefer their cap limit to be. Lamb describes the process: The anthropology department makes a decision considering the faculty’s wishes and then sends it to the dean to approve.

Once a cap limit is established, it is up to the individual professor whether they wish to admit any additional students unless it is an issue of classroom constraints. According to Hewitt, the exceptions happen in UWS or comprehensive writing courses where the writing program director must also approve added students.

The economics department shares a similar procedure with a few outstanding issues. This semester Coiner teaches the course Global Economy of which there are two other sessions available. Since it is a popular course for both majors and non-majors, however, the dean occasionally approves an additional “supersession” to be offered. Coiner is teaching one such session, which originally was capped at 80 students, a decision originally made by the department. The department will often choose a cap, typically around 35 students for a regular session, based on the last time the course was offered. Sometimes they will also impose a smaller cap number to prevent students from randomly enrolling in a course only to drop it later.

Hewitt describes this situation, in which the registrar may, “[impose] a lower cap than the current enrollment so that the instructor can fully control who receives seats that open up if students drop. This happens when a class initially closes at the ‘normal’ cap number, but there are many students hoping for seats. In order to ensure that the instructor can decide who gets a seat that opens, we lower the cap so that there is no danger of a student enrolling directly.” Lamb says this exact situation often applies in her classes and those of other professors in the anthropology department. “Many professors intentionally set a lower cap than the planned final size of a course, expecting to admit some students who petition to be added after a course is ‘full.’”

This method permits the professor to consider compelling petitions. This sometimes leads to a discrepancy between the capped number and the actual number of students registered, which can make it seem as though extra students have been allowed to enroll.

But how does one attempt to enroll in a class that is already filled? It is important to try petitioning, though it is not guaranteed to work.

“The instructor has the authority to let in as few or as many from the demand list as they wish,” Coiner explained.

This can depend on the physical restraints of the classroom or even just one instructor’s preferences. Coiner says he will typically let in as many students as he can from the demand list as long as they show up to class and put forth effort.

Watson, however, said he typically does not allow students past his cap limit. He imposes a strictly first-come, first-served policy, regardless of class level, as long as the students meet the prerequisites. Not all professors follow this plan. “Some give preference by class rank or grades, I don’t know. But this is how I do it,” Watson stated.

Exceptions may occur, as did this year in his Child Development Across Cultures course, in which he considered a petition. One masters student had contacted him because she had enrolled midyear and thus failed to complete any pre-enrollment, and he accepted her past the capped limit. “I prefer that course to be capped at 20 [instead of the current 25], but with more and more students at Brandeis, the department heads will often put a lot of pressure on the instructors to increase their cap limit. It is ultimately up to the professor whether or not to do so,” Watson explained. In the psychology department, a professor is usually allowed to choose his own capping limit, but within reason. For example, a cap limit of 10 students would typically not be approved, and if a course is requested by a large number of students, the department heads may encourage the instructors to increase the limit, as Watson described.

One other situation in which Watson may allow surplus students to join a class is if graduate students are on the waitlist. “If I have any grad students at all, I like to have many so they can associate with each other,” he said, explaining how the graduate students will typically have extra duties or assignments in the class, and this will give them an opportunity to work together within their own groups.

The consensus seems to be that a petition will never hurt, although an individual professor’s preferences are not always known.

“Most professors consider e-mailed petitions,” Lamb said. “We often give priority to majors. Some give priority to seniors who won’t be able to take the class in the future, although I myself tend to prefer to give priority to freshmen and sophomores for [Anthropology 1A], and to sophomores and juniors for my upper-level courses—for I find that students in their earlier years are often the very most eager and hardworking.”