The situation is thus: my institution allows professors to buy out of teaching a class. This semester, my advisor has done so and as a result they needed someone to fill in. After discussion with my advisor, I applied for the position to gain teaching experience (having had none previously).

Thus far, teaching the class has gone smoothly but our department has a huge waitlist problem. When I originally applied for the position, the class had 40 spots. Later, without my input, it was increased to 60, and there were still over 50 people on the waitlist.

Prior to the class starting, my advisor attempted to get the department chair to increase the class size to 90 so that more waitlisted people could get in. However, the chair responded by saying that the department felt that it was important for graduate students, particularly in their first attempt at teaching, to have a good experience, so they didn't want to increase the class size so drastically without my approval. I responded telling them that I didn't feel comfortable taking on so many students when I hadn't taught before and the issue was dropped.

Now, in the second week of classes, my advisor is again pressuring me to admit any waitlisted students that would like to take the course, increasing the class size to 70+. I've told him several times that I am not comfortable with this and thought the issue was closed. However, one of the waitlisted students has gone directly to my advisor and now he's specifically telling me to admit this student.

As it stands, I currently have 62 students in a 60 person class and I understand that taking on one extra student is technically not a big deal. However, I feel uncomfortable for several reasons:

  1. It feels like I'm rewarding bad behavior (e.g., the student going to my advisor and forcing entrance into the class)
  2. If I admit this student for going to my advisor, I am concerned that every other student on the waitlist will go to my advisor and I'll get similar e-mails about all of them and suddenly my class size will be 70+ students

Technically, I don't have to admit this student, but that would be going directly against what my advisor is telling me to do.

I guess the questions are:

  • In the long term, how much control should my advisor have over my class?
  • In the short term, should I admit this waitlisted student?
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    Just be slightly more scary and students will withdraw.
    – vadim123
    Jan 29, 2014 at 23:14
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    Make a pot of coffee for you and him. Put a mug in front of him and start pouring. Don't stop and let it spill. "Oh! It spilled!" He yells. "Oops, sorry! I thought you always like things overflowing," you say. Put down a roll of kitchen towel and then walk away. Proceed to teach brilliantly and get a better course evaluation than he ever had. Act fully not caring about that at all. Jan 30, 2014 at 2:14
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    Does the teaching include elements where time/effort spent increases linearly with the number of students, such as homework exams? Is reward in any way a function of the number of students? I think it's normally not but I don't know customs in other parts of the world and in other fields (it would make sense if grading 100 exams gets rewarded more than grading 10, but the world does not always make sense).
    – gerrit
    Jan 30, 2014 at 11:23
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    @a1exandros There are 110 students who want to take this course and it is the OP's first time teaching. We are not talking about 60 vs 65. Overwhelming a new teacher is bad for everyone.
    – earthling
    Jan 30, 2014 at 12:39
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    Just be slightly more scary and students will withdraw. — [citation needed] If this is a required class, they'll more likely stay and give crappy evaluations.
    – JeffE
    Jan 30, 2014 at 13:20

3 Answers 3


In the long term, how much control should my advisor have over my class

None, for the duration of this instance. The advisor bought out. You're in charge. End of story. Now you might need some help in standing up to your advisor, and you need to bring in the chair of the department (who's already shown a willingness to help) and/or other senior faculty who manage curriculum activities. Don't do it confrontationally: merely say that you're really uncomfortable expanding the class size and don't feel like it's right to selectively admit students who have access to your advisor, but that you'd feel more comfortable with a faculty intermediary to help mediate.

In the short term, should I admit this waitlisted student?

No. you're right that this is both setting a bad precedent as well as being unfair. Again, as for how to proceed, see above. You haven't indicated exactly how the advisor is pressuring you, but I think it's fair to point out to them that this undermines your authority as the teacher, and you really need to maintain your independence because you're "only a student". Anyone with teaching experience should understand the importance of establishing authority and presence in the classroom.


You are the captain of that ship. You must never forget this, nor should you ever let anyone else forget this.

I have issues with being asked for special things like this and I generally refuse, for two reasons:

  1. The school naturally wants larger class sizes because it means more revenue with less expenses (more students per teacher)
  2. The larger the class, the more classroom management work there is to be done which limits the energy I can dedicate to conveying the points I'm trying to convey, which in turn lowers the quality of the experience for my students

While I not a fan of using your power just to show you have power, I do suggest, especially when you are just starting teaching, that you start small and work your way up...and that you push back when others, including your adviser, are trying to get you to do something you are uncomfortable with.

The first semester is always the hardest (my first semester showed me everything I thought about the right way to teach was wrong). You must also set the tone about who is in charge and when it comes to your classroom, you are. You should not admit anyone beyond what you think you can handle and I think a class of 60 is plenty for your first semester.

When negotiating issues like this with your adviser, you must be able to speak from experience. You will have that next semester. For now, stand strong.

Good luck!


Poor thing... Well, I am not going to teach you to say no because after all he is your adviser and you probably don't want to directly upset him over this teaching fiasco. However, I can provide some tips to be less miserable.

First, refocus. Don't just look at the enrollment, look at your mode of teaching. Some teaching methods, when passing a certain number of students, do not change dramatically even the number of students keeps increasing. For class size less than 20 there may be more group work, interactive discussion... but once it passes 60, upping to 70 should not make you revise the syllabus to any considerable extent. Doing this favor can buy you some brownie points from the department and dean, etc.

Second, once you're over that class size phobia, use your position to negotiate. Ask for a pay increase, if the payment is fixed, ask for a couple extra TAs, if there isn't any, ask for a copy of new software, a few books on teaching and engaging students (those suckers are expensive,) a laptop, a set of whiteboard pens, a plane ticket to an upcoming conference, parking reimbursement, publication fee, journal subscription... whatever you can think of. (I actually was in a similar situation once and I got a conference + hotel + air fare paid for.) Get the most support out of it and don't be shy! Your department needs you and it will do fair things to keep you a happy teacher.

Third, stop over induction. Just because you allowed your adviser to send k more student can never imply he can send k + 1. You're trapped in your little logic maze. Counter offer him sincerely. Tell him that you really appreciate the student's desire to join, and you can up the quota, but in turn make your adviser promise making no more of such exception because the students will be very confused of who is actually in charge, and that will not go well along the semester. He, besides being a jerk, may just be excited that people actually want to learn a subject that he loves.

Fourth, learn to deflect. You can often find a pivotal point to transfer the conflict between you and your supervisor to between someone else and your supervisor. For instance, tell him that you'll think about the 2 extra students, but don't inform the students yet. That way the students will not start broadcasting the trick. Respond yes to the registrar at 4:50 pm of the due date of the add/drop period. Want more in? Your supervisor will have to talk to the registrar, who already seems to be on the side of keeping the size manageable.

In conclusion, excrement like this happens in academia on an hourly base. When you are at the lower end of an intricate power ladder, try to compensate, balance, and leverage. Having taught a big class is a good experience, and judging by the popularity I think the students will be motivated. Do get the most fun out of it, and best wishes to your first course.

Response to comments:

Negotiations don't normally work once the semester has already started. You cannot reasonably expect to get extra teaching staff support after the allocations process is complete and courses are underway. That's one of the reasons for having registration limits in the first place!

I think this comment further highlights how self-imposed rigidity can limit our options. First, just because I said TA doesn't mean I won't take a grader, I will even just take a couple more people to move chairs and tables, why not? It depends on OP's needs and I merely provided some examples. Second, tertiary institutions operate in so many different forms and traditions that if we have seen one academic department, we probably have just seen one academic department. Perhaps in our department it won't work, perhaps in OP's it does. I have only worked in two institutions, and this negotiation mechanisms worked in both of them. Once, as I have said, sponsored a conference trip. Another allowed me to up the food budget so that I can have two nights of presentation with refreshment and gave me US$350 budget for course-related expenditure.

The key point, to me, is not if the class has started or not. It's the OP still has power to say no. As long as that is in effect, some form of negotiation should be able to take place.

  • 1
    Negotiations don't normally work once the semester has already started. You cannot reasonably expect to get extra teaching staff support after the allocations process is complete and courses are underway. That's one of the reasons for having registration limits in the first place!
    – aeismail
    Jan 30, 2014 at 6:17
  • @aeismail - This would depend on the size of the institution at which you are teaching. While teaching as a grad student, I know that I had graders for some of my larger class sizes. The OP may know if this is the case at his / her institution. If so, I would ask ASAP for a grader. If the OP does not know, then ask around. There is almost always extra money floating around to higher a few undergrad graders.
    – nagniemerg
    Jan 30, 2014 at 7:26
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    @nagniemerg: Graders aren't TA's.
    – aeismail
    Jan 30, 2014 at 8:43

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