Teaching fellow shortage to blame for intro course caps
In some cases, students have been turned away, and professors expressed long-term concerns about Yale’s classroom environments.
Zoe Berg, Photo Editor
At least five professors have been forced to cap introductory lecture courses — including “The American Century” and “Foundations in Education Studies” — for the first time this semester, in large part due to a shortage of teaching fellows and confusion around the new preregistration system.
In interviews with the News, professors affected by teaching fellow shortages pointed to both a larger undergraduate population and fewer graduate students as primary causes of the problem, and they all expressed some level of concern regarding how TF shortages would affect learning. Large introductory lecture courses often rely on teaching fellows to help facilitate office hours, additional discussion sections and generally assist the professor.
Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Deputy Dean Pamela Schirmeister ’80 GRD ’88 called the teaching fellow shortage the “chief factor” behind capped courses. She also credited the new preregistration system implemented this fall with making TF allocations more difficult.
This semester’s TF shortages can in part be attributed to fewer admitted graduate students and budgetary restrictions imposed during the early months of the pandemic, the News previously reported. Overall, these factors mean that caps could continue for the near future — or even become more strict.
“It’s working out alright this year, but we’re looking ahead to a situation in a couple of years where we’re going to have an expanded undergrad population … and because of the pandemic, highly restricted the number of graduate students we admitted,” professor of history and American studies Beverly Gage said. “We only admitted five graduate students in U.S. history. … It really could be a big big problem in the future if there has been any sort of major change [in Yale’s policy regarding teaching fellow allocation].”
Gage teaches “The American Century,” a survey course of 20th century American political history that, until this year, was available to anyone who wanted to take it. Although the department was initially able to assign additional teaching fellows, Gage ultimately had to cap the course because demand exceeded the number of fellows she was assigned.
Previously, Yale administrators indicated confidence in their ability to accommodate the increased class sizes for the 2021-22 school years, including by shifting resources towards introductory classes. In some cases, that held true: Assistant professor of economics Cormac O’Dea and professor of American studies and history Mary Lui said that they were able to accommodate the influx of students with an adequate number of teaching fellows in their large introductory courses.
But for classes that did need to be capped, an insufficient number of qualified TFs was the central issue, according to Schirmeister.
“The chief factor is the number of qualified TFs,” Schirmeister wrote. “We may have students willing to serve as TFs, but if they are not qualified to teach the course in question, it is preferable to keep enrollments lower than to create new sections.”
Schirmeister confirmed in an email to the News that the new registration system is at least partly to blame.
“This year because of the new preregistration system and an imperfect understanding of how the drop/add period would affect final enrollments, we began from a conservative position, focusing first on sequential and required courses,” Schirmeister said in an email to the News. “Were we to have appointed TFs of any kind based on the early numbers, we would have had very small sections, because once sections have met, it’s very difficult to reshuffle them.”
Because students could register for up to 10 courses, Schirmeister said, many courses that originally had high demand ended the registration period with fewer students.
Assistant professor of political science Ian Turner ultimately had to lower the enrollment cap for his “Game Theory and Political Science” course after struggling to find additional teaching fellows for the course.
“Know that I, and several others in Political Science tried very hard to find a replacement Teaching Fellow but were ultimately not able to,” Turner wrote on Canvas to registered students. “I have no control over the enrollment cap or waitlists.”
Alexandre Debs, director of graduate studies for political science, acknowledged in an email to the News that the department faced a cap on teaching fellow resources, which led them to make “hard choices.” Although he said that the department feels supported by the GSAS more broadly and supports the new registration system, Debs noted that additional resources allocated towards teaching fellows would be helpful.
“They are essential for the unique Yale undergraduate experience,” he added.
For some, the ramifications of teaching fellow caps are more immediate. Mira Debs, executive director of education studies, had to cap her “Foundations in Education Studies” course due to TF availability, meaning that approximately 25 to 30 students, many of whom were first years, were turned away.
Since the course is foundational to the Education Studies Program, Debs told the News that she is concerned about how students interested in either the scholars program or the certificate will be able to complete all of the requirements or if they will be deterred from the study.
Receiving enough TFs has always been a problem, according to associate professor of history Marci Shore, and the existing cap of 18 students per section in her European intellectual history course was already less-than-ideal.
“Smaller sections would give the undergraduates a better learning experience and the TFs a better teaching experience,” Shore wrote in an email. “It’s hard for me to understand what use of university resources would be a higher priority: teaching is the thing we do at the university.”
Schirmeister, whose office oversees TF affairs, advocated for switching to a preregistration-only process for choosing classes to better allocate TFs.
“Were we to rely strictly on a preregistration system, we would not encounter the same volatility at the start of the term,” she wrote in an email. “We hope to refine the process of moving TFs to the courses that need them and for which those TFs are qualified to teach as we develop a better sense of the relation between the drop/add period and final enrollments.”
According to the GSAS website, most doctoral candidates at Yale will be a teaching fellow in one to four courses during their time at Yale.