Two mornings a week, San Diego State University English professor Bill Nericcio teaches a 484-student Introduction to Literature class in one of the school's two 500-student rooms. Prior to 2003, the largest classroom at SDSU was half that size.
To put this into perspective, let's say Nericcio wanted to take his class to see a production of Oliver Mayer's Blade to the Heat, a play he and his students were discussing a couple of weeks ago. Mayer's an associate professor at University of Southern California, so let's say Nericcio had to charter some busses to get his students there. It would take nine tour-size busses-and each bus would be completely filled-to get the students to L.A.
Or, for a more plausible scenario, if Nericcio wanted to provide his class with a single-page handout, it would take an entire ream of paper to do so.
This is Nericcio's first time teaching a class so large. In fact, his was the room's inaugural class. He had mixed feelings about being assigned to that classroom in the newly constructed arts and literature building at the north end of the campus. He was on the committee that helped design the space and had advocated for a curved layout rather than seats going straight back-"in which case the last 15 rows, they might as well be in East County because of the way the room is designed. Imagine a horrible multiplex movie house."
The amphitheater-style room "is a good working room if you have to have a 500-student classroom," he said. "None of us wanted that. We fought-we wanted a smaller amphitheatre or more, smaller classrooms, but the mandate from Charles Reed's office"-the chancellor of the California State University system-"is serve more students with less labor. That's what it comes down to."
By increasing class size and employing more non-tenure-track instructors (part-timers and graduate students), California's public higher-education institutions have tried to absorb several years of less-than-adequate state funding.
"The beauty of a class like this," Nericcio says, is "my dean can tell anyone that 500 undergrads are being serviced by a full professor rather than taught by a [teaching assistant]. The statistics won't show that they were all in the same room at the same time."
The 500-seat classroom was necessitated partly by the fact that in a three-year period starting in 2002, some $20 million had to be removed from the academic budget, thanks to state budget cuts, said Ethan Singer, associate vice president for academic affairs at SDSU. "When you lose that large percentage of your budget, and most of your budget is in salaries, you have to find ways to deliver instruction, and that was certainly a prime reason why the first 500-seat classroom was built, was to respond to that conundrum."
Mark Wheeler, an SDSU philosophy professor and president of the university's chapter of the California Faculty Association (CFA), faults Reed and the university system's Board of Trustees for agreeing to a "compact" with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2004. Under the compact, the system would get a funding increase of 3.5 percent each year "if we agreed more or less to work within that framework," Wheeler said. But, he pointed out, that small increase is not nearly enough to keep pace with increasing enrollment and a backlog of budget cuts.
"We cannot hire an adequate number of faculty to teach the courses we wish to teach at the class sizes at which we wish to teach them," he said. "We'd all like to have more faculty and more class sections and smaller class sizes for our students."
Wheeler does point out, though, that for some subjects, having 500 students in a classroom isn't necessarily a bad thing-not ideal, but not detrimental to teaching and learning.
"You can successfully deliver some classes in large-class formats," he said. "It's done all over the world; it's done all over the country to good effect. You need to look at that college by college and discipline by discipline." For courses where the subject matter is more fact-oriented-such as math, science and business-a lecture-based curriculum is sufficient.
"When I was running through my curriculum, there were math classes that were gargantuan, and the professors thought that was fine," Wheeler said.
Large classrooms are less effective when the subject matter comes alive through discussion, interpretation and debate. In education scholarship, the term "engaged pedagogy" refers to a way of teaching that tries to break down the distance between professor and student and make the learning process more interactive.
Nericcio, a self-described ham, commands the large room easily with a voice that can reach the back rows. He's got an infectious enthusiasm for what he's teaching and has an objective in mind for how he teaches it-he wants to increase the ranks of English majors.
"Most [students] come in there with a very bad expectation of what Lit 101 will be. Like a judo guy, I try to take that negative energy and give them everything they thought they'd never get in a literature class."
Still, on a recent Monday morning, he caught two students napping and one working on her Spanish homework. But at least they showed up-Nericcio's only and best way to keep track of attendance is to give a short quiz at the beginning of each class.
Last month, Nericcio received an e-mail from Leah Elson, a second-semester sophomore whom he describes as one of his top students.
"I am writing this letter in regards to something that is of growing concern to my fellow students and myself," Elson wrote. "None of us are certain where to send such complaints, or if they will even be heard.
"I feel like a nameless face lost within a vastness of other equally anonymous faces. Despite my best efforts to participate in class and make my presence known to my professors, I cannot seem to rid myself of this air of insignificance," Elson wrote. "Classes were not meant to be held in this way and good professors, such as yourself, should not be forced to develop ways to make a room of 500 people more intimate."
Four of her classes this semester are in a 500-seat classroom.
"Students fail to care when they know that they possess no individuality," she told CityBeat in an e-mail. "When you remove the intimacy of learning in a smaller setting-when the professor knows your name, your habits, the look and style of your writing-it seems to remove the impetus to be there."
Singer says that although lower-division classes may be getting bigger, "there are certain economies that can be earned through using large lectures, one of which is to be able to have smaller classrooms and maintain them at the upper-division level."
If larger classes are helping to absorb the impact of budget cuts, so too are graduate students whose teaching assistance professors rely on to manage large classes. Jenny Minniti-Shippey is a graduate student in creative writing who handles two of the "break-out" sessions for Nericcio's Intro to Lit class-eight grad students handle 16 breakout sessions for that class. Minniti-Shippey attends both of the full-class meetings and then meets with each of her sections once a week for 50 minutes. She grades those students' (about 50 total, she said) quizzes, papers and other assignments. For this, she earns $350 a month. She estimates she spends about 15 hours a week focused on teaching work; she also takes two classes and works part-time teaching horseback riding.
"I often feel like the department takes advantage of us," she said. "We need the teaching experience in order to be competitive [in the job market] when we graduate, so they can get away with paying us practically nothing."
Last year, graduate-student teachers throughout the California State University system voted to have the United Auto Workers union represent them (UAW already represents University of California TAs). It's the first time Cal State graduate students have had union representation.
Jim Ricker, who's finishing up his master's degree in English, is the secretary for SDSU's UAW chapter. Ricker said better pay and fee waivers are two things the union wants to secure for TAs.
"The pay is abysmal," he said. "One of the first things the union is advocating for are fee waivers-we don't get fee waivers, so quite often a lot of our students are paying to go to school."
Two years ago, fees for graduate students went up 25 percent. Last year, grad-student fees went up another 10 percent. This year, the governor put a freeze on fee hikes.
In the University of California system, TAs' tuition and most other fees, including health insurance, are waived-this in addition to getting a stipend.
"It's kind of astonishing what we don't get," Ricker said.
Ricker, who's 50, says he's lucky-he's learned to "pare down his life," as he put it, so he can get by on the money he earns teaching. And, because he's been teaching for five semesters (many graduate students become teaching assistants during their first semester), he feels like he's finally getting the hang of the teaching gig and doesn't have to spend as much time prepping for each class.
A lot of grad students he knows have had to take on outside jobs in addition to their own classes and teaching in order to make ends meet.
"I know the university's strapped for money all the time, but I think that the fee waivers they could do pretty easily," Ricker says. "That's like an extra $1,500 per semester. That's a big deal."