Committees Allow for More Student Input

Rachel Mead, College senior

To the Editors:

Students at Oberlin seem to feel that they are in the dark about how the institution functions, and rightly so. There is very little information readily available for us to answer questions like those posed in last week’s article, “Program Cuts Leave Film Students with Questions,” involving how departments grow and shrink (The Oberlin Review, Sept. 16, 2016).

This doesn’t have to be the case.

For the third year in a row, I am sitting on the College Educational Plans and Policies Committee, the group charged with, among other things, doing program reviews of every department and program every few years; discussing and making recommendations for other short and long term curricular directions for the College; and most relevantly to the Cinema Studies example of the moment, participating in evaluating requests for adding faculty positions.

Eight faculty members, a dean and four students can sit on EPPC. At the moment, there are only two students filling those positions.

It’s not hard to get onto a college committee with student seats. The procedure involves emailing Student Senate, filling out a one-page application, attending a five-minute interview with a Senator who knows about as much as you do about the committee they’re appointing you to and then waiting until Sunday, when Senate decides on your merits at plenary.

So now, to why Cinema Studies feels spread so thin. There are several ways to answer this question without concerning ourselves with Oberlin’s mysterious budget situation. One of them is that this is the nature of the academy, especially at a small school. Some departments are just going to be too small.

At Oberlin, the smallest department currently houses 1.4 Full Time Equivalents’ worth of tenured or tenure-track professor. An FTE represents, at the most basic level, the workload or hours that one professor completes, which at Oberlin is 4.5 courses taught per year. The largest department here has 14 FTE. Even large departments struggle to balance service for the college, like sitting on EPPC, participating in the First-Year Seminar Program and teaching classes for non-majors, with their responsibilities to offer a well-constructed curriculum and support for majors. Every department at Oberlin can make a case for why they could use another body with a brand new FTE — which is not to say that Cinema Studies doesn’t need more staffing, only that it is not alone.

Another explanation for the plight of Cinema Studies is the fact that three out of its five non-visiting professors inhabit split positions — that is, they owe work to two different departments. This means that while the department has five tenured bodies in it, it has 3.5 FTE and two professors whose commitment to serve as chair, among other onerous tasks, is housed only in one department.

Smaller departments, in feeling stretched, face yet another major issue: It takes a lot of time to serve on a committee like EPPC or College Faculty Council, which makes the final decisions on which departments will be allocated new faculty at the end of every year. Some faculty members don’t feel that they can spare time for this institutional service, but turning down the responsibility of serving means that small departments full of younger faculty have no members who have ever read applications for additions to staff, and therefore have little to no guidance on how to write an effective and persuasive application.

Students are only at Oberlin for four or five years. Because of this, it is incredibly frustrating to us how slowly the institution moves. Even if a position is allocated to Cinema Studies at the end of this year, the new hire won’t start teaching here until the fall of 2018, by which time half of the current student body will have graduated. But Oberlin is our alma mater, and even if we can’t benefit from the curriculum we help to develop, future students will.

– Rachel Mead

College senior