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Thursday, Oct 6, 2022

Computer science department faces unprecedented class sizes amid staffing shortages

An increase in interest in the Computer Science Department and a shortage of faculty have severely limited the number of classes being offered in the department this fall.

Students reported unprecedented class sizes and a lack of course availability that has made it challenging for current majors to satisfy their requirements.

An email sent in late spring 2022 from Professor Matthew Dickerson, then-chair of the department, to computer science majors said that a staffing shortage would limit upper-level classes available for the fall semester. It explicitly told majors that, with few exceptions, no student would be allowed to enroll in more than one class at the 300 level or above during registration.

According to the department website, five professors are on leave this semester. Two professors also resigned in the spring, creating an unexpected shortage of faculty available to teach in the fall.

In another email to graduating computer science majors, Dickerson explained that with a smaller number of computer science faculty teaching full time, the department will be offering fewer sections of CSCI 701 — the senior seminar formerly required for the major — this academic year than in the past. As of fall 2022, the Computer Science Department has moved towards new requirements which require CSCI 701 for departmental honors, but not for all majors. Students graduating in the classes of 2022.5, 2023 and 2023.5 will be allowed to replace CSCI 701 with another elective to meet the major requirements.

Upperclassmen in the major have accepted seats in increasingly large classes, and priority given to majors has made students outside the department effectively unable to take computer science electives this fall.

Grace Aronsohn ’23.5, a computer science major, is taking Theory of Computation, a 300-level class with 37 other students. Aronsohn described the class as “the largest [she’s] ever been enrolled in at Middlebury.”

“I was also planning on taking Algorithms, which is usually offered every semester,” Aronsohn said. The course, however, is not being taught this semester, despite it being required for the major.

Newly-hired Assistant Professor Phil Chodrow is currently teaching two sections of Introduction to Computing, each with 36 students.

“I’m still getting emails from students interested in taking my classes. The only reason I can’t let them in is because of the fire code,” Chodrow said.

Professor Frank Swenton, who has split time between the Computer Science and Mathematics Departments for the past 20 years, described the staff “super-shortage” in the Computer Science Department as a “perfect storm,” noting that several professors are on leave and three junior faculty members left unexpectedly.

“There were other job possibilities, either in industry or academia,” Swenton said. “Some professors departed in the interest of their spouse or family, or with the intention of leaving a town as small and isolated as Middlebury.”

Other institutions have also reported difficulty in finding and hiring computer science professors. This past year, several of these institutions “failed a search,” meaning that they were unable to hire any new professors.

Professors in the department are confident that this staffing issue will be resolved within the next year. Middlebury is currently looking to hire two more faculty members in the Computer Science Department, according to Department Chair and Professor Amy Briggs.

“Filling those positions will ensure that we have enough classes to support the growing interest in computer science,” said Chodrow.

Briggs is hopeful that the department will return to its total capacity next year.

“We're starting the hiring process now, so we’re confident we’ll be back to full strength in Fall 2023…,” Briggs said. “Next year things should be back to normal.”

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