Who Gets to Teach That Course? The Importance of Assigning Courses to Disciplines

ASCCC Standards and Practices Committee Chair

Assigning courses to disciplines is designated as an academic and professional matter under the purview of academic senates in Title 5 §53200(c):  “(1) Curriculum, including establishing prerequisites and placing courses within disciplines.”   While the vast majority of courses at California community colleges were assigned to disciplines following the passage of AB 1725, changes to college curriculum and to the Disciplines List often necessitate the need for local senates to review the decisions they have made locally in this area.  However, misconceptions often arise regarding what it means to assign courses to disciplines.  Sometimes this process is confused with equivalency, and sometimes it is incorrectly perceived as being the same as granting single-course equivalency.  Other times faculty and colleges are confused about what to do if no corresponding discipline for a course appears in the Disciplines List[1] and how to appropriately use the interdisciplinary studies option.  It is important that local senates and curriculum committees understand these issues in order to make effective and appropriate decisions regarding the assignment of courses to disciplines. 

In order to teach credit and noncredit courses at a California community college, faculty must meet the required minimum qualifications for the discipline or disciplines to which a course is assigned. Minimum qualifications for faculty are established and revised by the Board of Governors upon recommendation of the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges. Title 5 §53407 and §53410 require that faculty who teach credit courses must meet the minimum qualifications as stated in the Disciplines List, while for noncredit courses faculty must meet either the minimum qualifications in the Disciplines List or the noncredit minimum qualifications stated in Title 5 §53412.[2]   

While minimum qualifications for disciplines are established at the state level, the assignment of courses to disciplines is locally determined and is primarily the responsibility of local academic senates, with the specific work of assigning courses to disciplines typically delegated to curriculum committees.  While the criteria for assigning courses to disciplines are locally determined, the ASCCC established the following principles in its paper Qualifications for Faculty Service in the California Community Colleges, which was adopted Spring 2004[3] :

A college curriculum committee must be very careful to place courses in disciplines according
to the preparation needed by the person who will be determined qualified to teach them. Curriculum committee members should remember that placing courses within disciplines is done to assure that the instructor qualified to teach those courses are [sic] likely to possess the appropriate preparation to teach them effectively. Curriculum committee members should resist the impulse to place courses in disciplines primarily to broaden the pool of those who may be considered qualified to teach those courses or to restrict the pool of potential instructors as a means of protecting the assignments of any faculty member or group of faculty who have traditionally taught such courses.

Thus, local senates have a responsibility to establish criteria that ensure that faculty assigned to teach a course will have the proper academic preparation needed to teach that course with the scope and rigor expected of all college instruction.  The assignment of courses to disciplines for reasons other than proper academic preparation may result in students completing courses that inadequately prepare them for transfer or employment, loss of articulation, and accreditation sanctions.

Standard practice is to assign each course to a single discipline from the Disciplines List.  This practice is preferred because it clearly demonstrates to the students, the public, accreditors, transfer institutions, and employers that the courses are taught by faculty with appropriate academic preparation.  An example of the differing applications of this process might involve a case in which a college decides to expand its curriculum to offer courses in geography, geology, and oceanography.  As part of the curriculum approval process, the curriculum committee should recommend the disciplines to which those courses would be assigned.  In the case of the geography courses, the assignment to a discipline is straightforward:  geography is a discipline listed in the Disciplines List, and therefore the curriculum committee should assign the geography courses to the geography discipline.  The decisions regarding the geology and oceanography classes are less obvious because the Disciplines List does not included specific listings for geology and oceanography.  However, if one reads the Disciplines List carefully, one notices that the earth sciences discipline encompasses geology and oceanography:

Master’s in geology, geophysics, earth sciences, meteorology, oceanography, or paleontology
bachelor’s in geology
master’s in geography, physics, or geochemistry
the equivalent.

Based on the detail and listed degrees in the earth sciences description, the curriculum committee can logically conclude that courses in subjects such as geology and oceanography should logically be assigned to this discipline.

While standard practice involves assigning a course to a single discipline, colleges do have the option to assign a specific course to more than one discipline, and doing so may be appropriate provided that valid curricular reasons exist.  For example, faculty in the African-American studies[4] and English departments at a college might propose to the curriculum committee that a course in African-American literature be assigned to both the African-American studies and English disciplines, given that a person with expertise in either discipline might legitimately be considered properly trained to teach the subject matter of the course.  The curriculum committee must then critically review the proposal and consider possible unintended consequences and potential harm to students if the assignment to both disciplines is approved.  If the African-American literature course is assigned to both the English and African-American studies disciplines, then any faculty member who meets the minimum qualifications for either discipline may teach the course, including an English faculty member with no background in African-American literature. 

This situation can become especially problematic in climates that involve class cancellations or reductions in the work force and faculty seniority or bumping rights.  The supervising administrator has the right of assignment of faculty to teach courses and is responsible for ensuring that the requirements of the local collective bargaining agreement regarding faculty teaching load, seniority, and part-time faculty rehiring rights are met.  Thus, an unintended consequence of assigning the African-American literature course to both disciplines may be that an English faculty with no expertise in African-American literature is assigned to teach the course in lieu of a faculty member who has a master’s degree in African-American studies and who is expert in African-American literature.  Such a decision might be perceived as a disservice to the students.  Therefore, the assignment of courses to multiple disciplines should be done judiciously, and care must be taken to ensure that assignment of a course to multiple disciplines does not adversely affect the rigor of courses, is done for valid curricular reasons, and does not harm students.

A common misconception about assigning a specific course to multiple disciplines is that it is somehow the same as granting single course equivalency, but such is not the case. Assigning courses to disciplines is the means by which a district determines the specific minimum qualifications faculty must meet to teach each of its courses, and whereas equivalency involves the decision as to whether an individual person meets those qualifications.  If the African-American literature course is assigned only to the African-American studies discipline, then only faculty who meet the African-American studies minimum qualifications can teach that course.  If that same African-American literature course is instead assigned to both the African-American studies and English disciplines, then the faculty who teach that course must meet either the African-American studies or the English minimum qualifications.  If a person who meets the English minimum qualifications is hired by the college to teach the African-American literature course, that person is not only qualified to teach that particular course but is also qualified to teach any course assigned to the English discipline. This situation does not constitute single course equivalency because the faculty member not only meets the minimum qualifications required to teach the African-American literature course but also meets the minimum qualifications to teach all of the other courses assigned to the English discipline.  

Courses that are commonly assigned to multiple disciplines are those that do not have a corresponding discipline in the Disciplines List.  For example, many colleges offer courses in environmental science, and four-year institutions offer degrees in environmental science, yet the Disciplines List does not include a listing for an environmental science discipline. Therefore, the curriculum committee must assign environmental science courses to appropriate disciplines listed in the Disciplines List. For example, based on the content and objectives of the courses, a curriculum committee might decide to assign an environmental science - physical processes course to the chemistry and geology disciplines and to assign an environmental science -environmental biology course to the biological sciences and ecology disciplines.  The drawback to this practice is that a person with a master’s degree in environmental science would be prevented from teaching an environmental science course at that college unless he or she is granted equivalency to one of the disciplines to which that environmental science course is assigned.  An alternative approach is for the curriculum committee to assign all of the environmental science courses to the Interdisciplinary Studies discipline.  The minimum qualifications for interdisciplinary studies are as follows:

Master's in the Interdisciplinary area
master's in one of the disciplines included in the interdisciplinary area and upper division or graduate course work in at least one other constituent discipline(s).

If environmental science is the interdisciplinary area in question, a person with a master’s degree in environmental science is qualified to teach all of the environmental science courses offered by the college. The benefit to students is clear because the environmental science courses they take are taught by faculty with academic preparation in environmental science and who are thus subject matter experts in that discipline.  The curriculum committee also needs to assign the environmental science courses to constituent disciplines from the Disciplines List.  However, a person with a master’s degree in one of those constituent disciplines still needs to have completed the requisite upper division or graduate coursework, as determined locally, in another one of the constituent disciplines in order to be qualified to teach the environmental sciences courses.

In summary, all courses must be assigned to a discipline in the Disciplines List. Education Code and Title 5 provide a fair amount of flexibility to local senates in recommending how courses are assigned to disciplines. In most cases courses are assigned to a single discipline, while in other cases it might be appropriate to assign courses to more than one discipline or to assign courses to interdisciplinary studies.  Furthermore, as the Disciplines List is revised local senates should review the assignment of courses to disciplines as appropriate to ensure that students take courses that are taught by faculty with the appropriate academic preparation.  In each case faculty leadership and professional expertise through local senates is critical for ensuring that assignment of courses to disciplines is done for sound curricular reasons so that students are enrolled in courses taught by qualified faculty with the academic preparation and knowledge necessary to allow the students to succeed not only in the courses offered at the college but also after transfer or joining the workforce. 

[1] The Disciplines List is incorporated in the publication Minimum Qualifications for Faculty and Administrators in the California Community Colleges published by the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office.  The Disciplines List is available at http://www.asccc.org/sites/default/files/2014MinuimumQualifications.pdf.

[2] The noncredit minimum qualifications are also listed in the Disciplines List for convenience.  However, changes to these minimum qualifications still require changes to Title 5 §53412 by the Board of Governors.

[3] Qualifications for Faculty Service in the California Community Colleges is available at http://asccc.org/sites/default/files/publications/FacultyQuals_0.pdf

[4] The African-American Studies discipline was approved by the Board of Governors in 2015 for incorporation into the 2016 edition of Minimum Qualifications for Faculty and Administrators in the California Community Colleges.  However, the 2016 edition has not yet been published.