By Akanksha Mishra (UG22)
With the exception of finals week, the biggest cause of stress for Ashokan students across batches is registration day. The notorious incompetency of the registration portal, coupled with the knowledge that one’s preferred courses are wanted by over 100 other students leads to a Hunger Games-styled scramble for seats at the beginning of each semester. The inevitable glitches in the registration portal generate a number of hapless victims who do not get seats in the courses they desired. As the number of students continues to increase each year and the pandemic brings its own challenges of remote learning, it is time to take a step back and analyse this problem as one that is not caused simply by an inadequate registration process.
This problem has its roots in deeper issues that stem from an attempt to preserve the Ashokan classroom environment of interactive learning, that comes from smaller classes and strong professor-student engagement. However, due to the increasing student numbers every year, and the lack of adequate faculty members to accommodate them, more students vie for classes designed for fewer seats. The solution to this problem rests partly on changing the course registration system to comfortably accommodate major requirements of all undergraduate students, and partly on bringing in newer faculty members and expanding departments.
Student concerns this semester ranged from having small course caps for mandatory courses that were high in demand amongst second years to not having enough electives for seniors to be able to complete their major requirements. Specifically, political science, sociology, psychology, and the media studies departments faced this problem. Most of the courses that were high in demand were 200- and 300-level courses, which tend to have a smaller cohort to facilitate more engagement and discussion. In the words of Professor Vaiju Naravane, the Head of Media Studies Department, “Media courses need to have smaller course caps because we’re trying to instil a sense of rigour and we expect a fast turnover of work from our students, much like a real newsroom.”
Many professors in the political science and media departments increased, and in some cases, even doubled their course caps to accommodate the high demand amongst students. Short term measures such as increasing the number of cross-listed courses to provide students with more options were also adopted. After student requests, the Psychology department added a number of new courses and increased course sections in the eleventh hour. Professors tried their best to accommodate as many students as possible without compromising on course quality. While the professors and student representatives worked hard to allay student concerns, the larger problem still remains – there is an excess demand for some courses that the existing faculty simply can not satisfy.
Professors of certain departments admitted to being surprised by the increasing demands for their courses. In the last two years, the number of students pursuing subjects such as political science, psychology, media studies, creative writing and sociology has increased exponentially – as is to be expected with increasing batch sizes. Professor Naravane believes that they have been “victims of their own success” – by providing engaging classroom experiences with renowned faculty, many departments at Ashoka have managed to draw more students towards them.
However, the number of faculty members in these departments has not increased at the same rate. By rough estimates, around 250-300 (intended and declared) political science students have only 10 permanent faculty members, out of which only 8 are teaching this semester. Not only does this put pressure on the existing faculty to accommodate more students in their limited number of courses, but it also doesn’t provide the students with enough course options. On the other hand, less than 50 Physics students have 7 faculty members. This skewed faculty-student ratio results in uneven class sizes and interactional opportunities across departments.
It is admittedly not an easy procedure to recruit new faculty members, keeping in mind Ashoka’s academic standards, as well as the challenges presented by the global pandemic. However, as an institution that is committed to its students’ education – a fact reiterated many times as a reason for the exorbitant fees charged even during a pandemic – it is their responsibility to provide the academic excellence they promise. In the meantime, there are other measures that could be taken to prevent registration anxiety and help the faculty anticipate student demands for courses.
Although students officially declare their majors only after the third semester, a majority of them start taking mandatory major courses from the second semester itself – as many of these are only offered in alternate semesters, students who do not get a seat in them effectively end up having to wait an entire year without taking advanced courses. Allowing students to tentatively declare their major after the first semester would help provide the administration with the data to gauge the demand for different majors. It would also help them give preference during course registration, in certain mandatory courses, to students of that particular major. Students should be allowed to change their tentative major at any point after initially stating it.
Following the lead of other liberal arts colleges such as Amherst College, registration could be divided within a batch, allotting different slots for different majors to ease the traffic on the registration portal. Along with long-term provisions by expanding the number of faculty members, the administration could also use the preregistration data to add additional sections in certain courses, according to the demand – to reduce the ‘element of chance’ from a process as important as course registration.
While the faculty-student ratio problem has not exceeded limits yet, it is only going to get worse with the onslaught of another batch of about 650 students this semester. As Ashoka expands, it also needs to be able to accommodate its students adequately, in ways other than housing. To truly retain the liberal arts academic culture that is paramount to the Ashokan experience, it needs to expand its resources and facilities appropriately. Otherwise, Ashoka might just find itself, like several of its departments, a ‘victim of its own success’.