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AUS holds Town Hall on elimination of 100 Arts classes

Dean of Arts stands by decision to reduce number of low-enrolment classes

During a Town Hall with students on Tuesday, Dean of Arts Christopher Manfredi reiterated his commitment to reduce the number of  low-enrolment classes to give full-time faculty more time to teach large classes.

The event was hosted by the Arts Undergraduate Society (AUS) as a way to allow students to raise questions and provide feedback on the subject of cuts in Arts classes.

Last week, The Daily reported that 100 classes with low enrolment will not be offered in the coming year, as the Faculty of Arts tries to raise the number of larger classes taught by full-time faculty members. Any funds saved will be directed toward hiring additional TAs for those larger courses.

Manfredi began by telling students that the main objective of this move was to enhance the connection between research and undergraduate teaching by having researchers in classrooms, and to decrease the ratio of students to TAs.

According to Manfredi, these objectives go as far back as 2006, when McGill Senate adopted the Strengths and Aspirations white paper, which regulates academic priorities at the University. Manfredi also pointed to a Town Hall meeting held in the fall of 2010 in which students expressed concerns about a disconnect between instructors and students.

Associate Dean of Arts Gillian Lane-Mercier said that other solutions could include retiring courses, reducing the frequency of offering, redefining course objectives, or increasing the number of students in each class.

Arts Senator James Gutman expressed dismay regarding the cuts. He said that while students were being promised more, they were actually being asked to settle for less, and accused Manfredi of punishing course lecturers for unionizing. According to Gutman, accepting cuts to low-enrolment classes would leave course lecturers in the lurch.

“If we accept this, we are going to be accepting an attack on these workers who are some of our favourite teachers,” Gutman told Manfredi.

Manfredi responded that the allegations that the administration was punishing lecturers for unionizing were “completely untrue.” According to Manfredi, the faculty had been planning the course cuts before the union had been certified.

Gutman also worried about the effects the cuts would have on students’ education.

“Is school simply a conveyor belt, or are we doing something more? Are we trying to learn? Can we learn in a big class? Maybe you’re talking to your TA once a week, or do you want to learn in a small environment with people that really care about teaching every time you go to class,” he asked.

“There is no direct correlation between the size of a class and the educational experience that it offers; it’s a combination of things,” Manfredi responded. “You can sometimes have a very poor educational experience in a very small-enrolment class.”

Lily Schwarzbaum, a U3 Political Science and International Development Studies student, responded that there are more opportunities to have better learning experiences when classes are kept small.

“You’re right, there’s no absolute correlation [between class size and learning outcomes], but the avenues with which you engage pedagogically with students are vastly increased when you have smaller class sizes,” Schwarzbaum said.

SSMU VP External Robin Reid-Fraser compared the cuts to classes with the provincial government’s recent budget cuts. The government “just sort of impose[d] the cut,” she said.

Reid-Fraser asked Manfredi why the administration had chosen to cut a seemingly arbitrary number of classes.

“I’m curious about why it was that you decided on the number 100, and now you are choosing to do the evaluation and figure out if that number is possible to achieve,” Reid-Fraser asked.

Manfredi responded he chose 100 because it is “less than 25 per cent of the current number of small-enrolment courses, it’s a round number, it’s a number that could generate the level of freed-up resources that I think would make an important impact on the other things we want to do.”

“This is not about cutting the faculty’s budget; it’s about spending our money in a different way. It’s mostly spending it on enhancing the classroom experience but also in the educational experience outside the classroom,” he added.

Manfredi told The Daily that the process would be moving forward with a presentation to faculty at an upcoming meeting.