While the pandemic has presented challenges for students across the board, engineering students at Harvey Mudd College are having a particularly difficult time this year.
The inability to take in-person classes during the pandemic translated to a surge in enrollment this year for required classes like E80, Experimental Engineering. Coupled with a faculty shortage in the department caused by a hiring freeze amid the pandemic, students say the surge is making a notoriously demanding program even more difficult.
The last four years have seen the engineering department at Mudd shrink considerably. Out of the previously 21-person faculty, four have retired, two are currently on a leave of absence and two are on sabbatical, Nancy Lape, the chair of the engineering department, told TSL via email.
While four of the eight unfilled positions were long planned-for retirements, the COVID-19 pandemic prevented Mudd from conducting candidate searches and hiring replacements, according to David Harris, the department’s associate chair.
Sophomores who weren’t able to take E80 during the 2020-2021 academic year were required to take the class this year as juniors, increasing enrollment from 64 students in 2019 to 118 this year, Lape said.
And due to the staffage pressures, some students reported receiving less support than they were expecting.
E80 is “being run by professors who are doing their best,” Sean Wu HM ’23 said, but “they have to handle two years of students when normally there’s only one year of students.”
Due to COVID-19 guidelines on classroom density, professors are working much more than usual. A new late evening lab section from 6:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. has been opened, Wu said.
“It’s been a real struggle trying to figure out the logistics with the staffing shortage. A lot of current engineering professors are stepping up,” he said. “These professors are working overtime and honestly, I applaud their effort, but at the same time, it’s like, yeah, having more professors would definitely be nice.”
In some instances, students have waited up to an hour to get their question answered during office hours, which take place primarily via Zoom for some classes, he said.
“Having available professors is something you sort of expect at a small school like this and the fewer staff there is, you don’t get as much engagement.”
“Having available professors is something you sort of expect at a small school like this and the fewer staff there is, you don’t get as much engagement,” he added.
Wu said that the engineering major at Mudd is hard but fun. But this semester in particular has been challenging and he said he’s often found himself at the Makerspace until 5 a.m. on Sundays and Mondays. As a junior, he’d had to take his courses out of order because he was unable to take E80 as a sophomore, resulting in some confusion with the material.
Lape acknowledged that juniors in E80 are taking it at an “unusual place in the curriculum” as a result of COVID-19 disruptions.
Emilynne Newsom HM ’24 told TSL that rigid deadlines and demanding assignments have been challenging for herself and other engineering students, especially with the staffing issues and over enrollment in classes.
“The honest truth is so much of [my semester] is a blur because I’ve just been surviving. It’s like okay, I’m going to think one day ahead. And I can’t conceptualize anything further than that,” she said.
Although Newsom was grateful for the support of her peers and individual professors who were accommodating, the department in general does not encourage flexibility, she said.
The syllabus explicitly states that late work is not accepted unless you have accommodations, Newsom said, in which case there is some flexibility.
“So much of [my semester] is a blur because I’ve just been surviving. It’s like okay, I’m going to think one day ahead. And I can’t conceptualize anything further than that.”
“It’s hard to ask for help and it’s hard to get accommodations,” she said. “It’s hard to get a meeting with the dean because those departments are also so overstressed … I think that the faculty wants to support us, and I think in a lot of ways they do. I also think that the culture and the ways that the class is presented make it harder to ask for the kind of leeway that would be really useful in making sure that people get the help they need.”
She said she understands the need for deadlines but felt that the department could do more to show students that exceptions are allowed, because otherwise “people don’t ask for help until it gets untenable [and] really bad.”
“Every day I talk to my friends, not all of them are engineers, but a number of them are and we’re all just so broken,” she said. “Everyone’s exhausted and everyone’s overstressed.”
Lape said she was “incredibly sad” to hear that students did not feel like accommodations were accessible.
“It is extremely important that we work on the culture to make sure to accommodate any students with any disabilities or mental or physical health challenges,” she said.
Harris described the culture of the engineering department as positive and welcoming, noting that the department wants to accommodate students’ needs and has been doing so.
He did, however, acknowledge that Mudd is “a very intense place” and said that the department is working to hire three new professors for the fall to address current understaffing issues.
“We just haven’t had any sort of luxury for team teaching, or the kind of collaboration between faculty that we’d ideally have fully staffed here,” he added.
Lape agreed that the understaffing has affected everyone.
“On the student side, we are not able to offer the electives students would like to take and we are not able to staff all of the required courses with permanent faculty,” she said. “On the staff side, the faculty that are here have a high service load both because we are hiring for many positions (and therefore almost everyone is on a search committee) and because the regular service duties are spread amongst a much smaller number of people.”
Harris said that he was not aware of the aforementioned student concerns until approached by TSL, but said that new hires should help to relieve the burden on the engineering department and alleviate the more challenging than normal conditions felt by students.
“I certainly know in my classes that a substantial fraction of students do have accommodations on the college record,” Harris said.
Harris emphasized that sleep management is a vital skill for students to learn.
“That is very challenging, and something everybody has to find the right path in college. And people who are not getting enough sleep, it’s very hard to learn, very hard to be fully productive. And it’s not a fun situation to be in,” he said.
In 2020 there was a wave of core curriculum changes at Harvey Mudd College, mainly as a result of activism following the Wabash Report, which exposed the unhealthy severity of Mudd’s curriculum and workload. The report was leaked to TSL in 2017 and resulted in protests by the student body, two days of canceled classes and national news coverage.
The report included student statements that they did not have enough time to shower and sleep due to the workload. Students also reported sacrificing their religious and cultural practices and hobbies to handle the amount of coursework. Faculty called the curriculum at Mudd “oppressive” in the report.
Harris said that the department is very open to student feedback and encouraged students to voice their concerns as much as possible.
“[We are] heavily focused on feedback from the students about the Harvey Mudd experience,” Harris said. “Engineering has been working since about 2017 [on curriculum revision options], examining our core and various options … there have been many student focus groups and feedback from students from faculty, alumni [and] other members of the community.”
Ultimately, the engineering faculty “care very deeply about our students and work very hard to provide them with an excellent education; we don’t always get everything right, but we do always try our best and welcome feedback,” Lape said.
Newsom said that she knows Mudd is supposed to be rigorous and exhausting and that students are told it’s not a reflection of themselves, but that the workload “just sucks.”
“I just feel like it’s not supposed to hurt this much, you know? Like it shouldn’t be this painful to get through school, [one] that so clearly wants to teach us, that so clearly wants us to learn to succeed. Why does it hurt so much to try and do that? Why does it take so much out of us?”