College rejects graduate students’ petition to reverse class schedule changes

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Photo: Hongyu Liu

Ansin Building of Emerson College

By Alec Klusza, Assistant News Editor

The college rejected a petition signed by 15 Writing, Literature, and Publishing graduate students to reverse academic scheduling changes planned for the spring semester. The students said the changes may make it difficult to hold jobs while also fulfilling graduation requirements.

Emerson altered graduate program class schedules to meet twice a week in blocks of an hour and 45 minutes for the spring semester, a shift from the four-hour blocks in which most graduate classes are held. In late October, some graduate students spearheaded a petition to return to the fall schedule, citing the difficulties that working students would face if they had to attend an individual class more than once a week. 

The college deemed four-hour in-person classes incompatible with COVID-19 health and safety guidelines, Vice President of Academic Affairs and Provost Michaele Whelan said in her response to the petition. 

Most graduate classes were held remotely in four-hour increments on Zoom in the fall, the same time block that existed for many graduate classes prior to the pandemic. According to the college’s course offerings, some graduate classes met in-person for an hour and 45 minutes in the fall semester, and it was left up to faculty and students to figure out a time that worked for them to schedule the remaining time online.

In the spring, classes will resemble the weekly schedules of undergraduate courses, with classes in the hybrid model mandating one in-person class for an hour and 45 minutes and one online class for the same amount of time. Online-only classes offered on the graduate level in the spring—also scheduled twice a week in blocks of an hour and 45 minutes—are required to meet synchronously only one of those days, Whelan said. No four-hour classes are scheduled.

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By making both hybrid and online-only classes meet twice a week in blocks of an hour and 45 minutes, graduate students can easily mix modalities, Whelan said, offering them more flexibility in their schedules. 

However, the changes, per the petition, would pose difficulties for students who want to enroll in more than two classes, since they are no longer able to commit four nights of the week to four different classes. This change hinders students who seek to graduate at a certain time but also need to hold a job or fulfill other personal responsibilities in addition to classes, said graduate student Bruce Kilstein. 

In the petition, which was sent to Provost Whelan, Associate Professor, WLP Roy Kamada, and other administration officials on Oct. 30, graduate WLP student Katharine Pate outlined her grievances.

“We are extremely disappointed with these scheduling changes and that they have profound implications for us,” Pate wrote in the email to Whelan. “At no time was I or were my peers consulted via survey or any other means about these changes; that there was no direct communication to us when those changes had been effected; and that all the faculty members we spoke with were likewise not consulted.”

The college declined to reverse the change, citing the adverse effect of Zoom fatigue on productive educational environments.

“The department is experimenting with a twice a week schedule for three primary reasons: pedagogy, equity, and flexibility,” Whelan wrote in response to the petition on Nov. 3. “We know from experience and student feedback that long Zoom meetings cause fatigue and negatively impact the educational experience for students.”

Kamada also said that holding classes online for four hours would be counterproductive to effective learning.

“We were hearing from experts on teaching and experts on online teaching that this kind of four-hour online class is just not an effective way to deliver instruction—it’s just too taxing, and it’s not efficient,” Kamada said. “All of the pedagogical recommendations that we got were that once-a-week, four-hour Zooms are not the best way to deliver education.”

Kamada said the argument that students cannot take more than two classes is moot for the WLP program, since student enrollment typically does not exceed two classes per semester.

“We don’t have a very large number of students who take more than two classes on a regular basis,” Kamada said. “The change didn’t make it impossible for someone to take three classes; they could have taken a Monday, Wednesday, four to six, Monday, Wednesday, six to eight, and Tuesday, Thursday, six to eight. They may not have had their first options of classes, but the schedule was theoretically possible.”

Graduate WLP student Bruce Kilstein said the changes will pose difficulties for him and some of his peers who wish to graduate in the spring.

“Some of them won’t be able to graduate because they won’t be able to take three classes in the semester because the scheduling just won’t work and other people have jobs,” Kilstein said. “Plus there’s this whole thing about not being able to discuss things adequately in that amount of time in each class.”

Pate said the shorter class times would actually hinder productivity, arguing that substantive academic dialogue is not achievable in such brief sessions.

“Meaningful and sustained discussion at the graduate level—with as many as 15 students per class—simply cannot be achieved in blocks of an hour and 40 minutes,” Pate wrote in the petition. “This choice compromises the quality of our education and does not seem to reflect best practices for graduate study in institutions of higher learning.”

The college claims Zoom fatigue in students and professors was the reason for the shortened class blocks. Graduate WLP professor Daniel Tobin said he never had a problem with the long Zoom meetings. He said his students are concerned primarily with getting the necessary credits to graduate and the quality of the learning.

“[My students] expressed concerns about not being able to graduate, and they wanted longer classes where you can have longer conversations about the work,” Tobin said.

Kilstein said he also sympathizes with faculty who have had to restructure their syllabi to fit the new schedule. 

“It’s also messing up the way the professors have to teach, too, because they have their courses prepared in a certain way, and all of a sudden you have to change this and change all the schedules,” Kilstein said.

Kamada said he acknowledged the burden the changes place on students.

“I understand how this impacts people with children—I have two young kids, there’s no ideal solution,” Kamada said. “This is not a change that we made lightly. We did it because we decided that prioritizing students’ safety was number one while trying to preserve the best possible educational experience for students under these circumstances.”

Kilstein said the college did not consult students or professors before implementing changes to the schedule. 

“[Administrators] said, ‘That’s what the students want,’ and the students obviously don’t want that, and nobody asks the students, and apparently nobody asks the professors,” Kilstein said. “So this decision came from somewhere, and nobody’s really sure where.”

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