Dr. David Shevin photograph

Déjà Vu in Telletubbyland

January 1, 2001

The other day, I was watching Tinky Winky defy all of the laws of physics. He did this by condensing the mass of all of the favorite things in Telletubbyland into his small, magic bag.  Tinky WInky's magic bag is not all that big, yet it can contain so many multitudes, that he can not lift - let alone, even budge it.  To all intents and purposes, it LOOKS like a modestly sized purse.  I, too, made the error of thinking of it as a handbag, but when the Right Reverend Jerry Falwell questioned T.W.'s sexual orientation, the folks at Itsy Bitsy entertainment patiently explained that this is not a purse, but a magic bag.  Thousands of reassured toddlers breathed a collective sigh of relief, while freshly puzzled adults tried to put into perspective the very concept of sexual orientation for creatures lacking genitalia.

Tinky Winky could not finish his piece of Tubby Toast, so he put it in the magic bag.  He ventured outdoors, into the world of astroturf meadows where real rabbits forage.  He came upon Dipsy's hat, and this also went into the bag.  Laa Laa's ball, larger than a Teletubby in itself, went into the bag already crammed with toast and hat.  Then, Tinky Winky encountered Po's scooter.  Now, a scooter is not only a sizable object, but brittle!  It does not have the give of a furry top hat or an oversized, inflated beach ball.  Do you know what Tinky Winky did with the scooter?  You guessed it.

At this point, the bag was too heavy for Tinky Winky to even lift.  So one, by one, each object came back from the bag, undamaged and intact.  I'm certain that even Einstein could not have accounted for all of those simultaneous presences occupying that common space, all at the same time. There was no explanation of what possessed Tinky Winky to thus collapse and disrupt the Telletubby universe; nevertheless, on the return of favorite things from the bag to the rolling hills where the Noo Noo runs free, all the other Teletubbies cheered and squealed.  How happy they were to be delivered back to normalcy.

The reason that this script seemed so familiar was an issue that I had witnessed on my campus in 1998.  We had an upper division course in Autobiography, one I had developed seven years earlier.  The course not only filled a junior level literary genre requirement for the core curriculum, but was a popular course as an elective as well.  In addition to the enrollment swelling by the requirement and the topic, we were going through a period of administrative changes in course offerings, vastly shrinking options available to students.  As a result, 54 students were attempting to enroll in a class that had been repeatedly capped by the faculty at 25 students.  Imagine trying to cram almost 225% of student body mass into a little classroom designed for fewer than half of them. Imagine, too, that only forty chairs fit into the classroom for those 54 students.

Our students, of course, were unhappy and disoriented by the situation. For that reason, my role was to advocate for opening a second section of the class; this I appealed to the chief academic officer and the president of the school, citing every standard from the professional associations, the universal practice of area colleges, and the internal governance structures: recommendations from assigned professors, department chairs, area coordinators, deans, faculty committees and resolutions.  The chief academic officer received all of this information.  But rather than create a second classroom to accommodate the students, he raised the faculty-mandated cap on the class, and raised it again.  One classroom, and infinite students was the rule of the day.  "Big classes are good classes," he explained.

Of course, I could no more teach a classroom of that size than Tinky Winky could heft the magic bag with all of the favorite things in Telletubbyland stuffed inside.  I arranged to teach a section of the Foundations of Writing class instead of the Autobiographies section.  Here, we were still able to maintain a class size of 25.  While this was still larger than the profession recommends, at least it was possible to teach in such a setting.

My colleagues still in the department report that sometimes students still have to be advised to come to the classroom early in order to guarantee a seat.  The school enrolls more students than there are chairs in individual classes.  Students and faculty are bewildered to any rationale for it all.

When the magic bag had toast, ball, hat, and scooter all condensed inside, the other Teletubbies roamed every ridge of Telletubbyland seeking for a restoration of some normal order.  I was watching Dipsy dance at the return of his hat, and it seemed obvious: this is how things should be.

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