Anne Arundel Community College to offer midnight class

It would be a disaster, Paul Vinette figures, to read from PowerPoint slides when he teaches his introduction to psychology class this fall at Anne Arundel Community College.

Students might tolerate a droning lecture at 2 p.m. But at 2 a.m.?

No, that's not a typo. Vinette will teach a psychology class from midnight to 3 a.m. Thursdays this fall. It's the latest, and perhaps most drastic, example of the steps community colleges are taking to deal with rapid increases in demand.

"We're trying to be as innovative as possible," Vinette said. "This is honestly one of the most unique applications I've seen at a brick-and-mortar institution."

Anne Arundel is not the first two-year school to offer late-night classes in response to booming demand. Bunker Hill Community College in Boston started such classes last year and others in Indiana, Missouri and Oregon have joined in.

Two-year colleges across the country have tried every method imaginable to keep up with a 17 percent increase in enrollment this year, said Norma Kent, spokeswoman for the American Association of Community Colleges.

"It really fits into the notion of access, which is what we do," she said. "We're known for being agile in our attempts to meet demand, and this is just an extreme example. We don't turn students away. It's not in our DNA."

The class, informally labeled "Midnight Madness," is the brainchild of psychology department chair Matt Yeazel. He had watched introductory courses fill and then overflow in recent semesters and turned his attention to less familiar time slots in the quest to reach more students.

"We're basically casting a wider net," he said. "We think this can become the kind of thing that people talk about on campus. You know, ‘Are you in that crazy Midnight Madness class?' "

Whether they're seeking bargain classes or more marketable job skills, students have flooded community colleges across the Baltimore area during the nation's economic downturn. Enrollment was up 10 percent at Anne Arundel Community College last fall and is expected to rise again this summer and fall. The extra students have forced two-year schools to transform basements and locker rooms into teaching spaces and to add courses in the early morning, late afternoon and on Sundays. Community colleges have also beefed up online offerings to serve students who can't attend class at traditional times.

Kent said a community college in Texas went as far as bribing faculty members with donuts so they would leave precious parking spaces available to students.

But the midnight class is a new frontier in the effort to reach more students. Some people who work 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. might not want to take online classes. Other students might simply be attracted to the novelty of class in the wee hours.

Bunker Hill started with two midnight classes last fall, added a third this spring and will offer five in the fall, said President Mary L. Fifield. The classes have been particularly popular among those who work unusual schedules — police officers, baggage handlers from the airport, single mothers who have put their children to bed.

"I think a hallmark of community colleges is our flexibility," Fifield said. "We'll try any new, creative idea as long as it serves some group of students. The basic belief is that everyone should have an opportunity to go to college, and we'll do everything necessary to make that possible."

Wick Sloane, who has taught midnight writing classes at Bunker Hill in the fall and spring, said, "What pleasantly surprised us is that the students have as much energy as they do at any other time of day. I'll look at my watch, and it's 2:30 a.m. and we're still talking."

Sloane finds it somewhat troubling that students feel forced to take classes under such unusual circumstances. "But these are people of tremendous motivation," he said. "And as long as they show up, we'll show up."

To help the midnight learners, Bunker Hill offers unlimited free coffee, donuts and taxi vouchers for those who might struggle to get home in the wee hours. Sen. John Kerry sent a letter to each student last semester, praising them for going above and beyond normal measures to get educated.

"They feel special," Fifield said.

Whatever draws students to the class at Anne Arundel, Vinette and Yeazel are determined to make it a fun, attention-grabbing experience. For example, they're working on cross-promotions with local eateries so students will get free pizza, Chinese food or coffee at least once a month.

In fact, Yeazel said, Vinette was his first choice to teach the class because the adjunct professor has a reputation for engaging students and getting them excited to talk about psychology. Though some professors might have balked at the request, Vinette said, "I was all gung-ho about it. I'm a night owl anyway."

It's unclear whether students will be equally gung-ho. The psychology department has begun publicizing "Midnight Madness" in its spring classes and will make another push during orientation this summer. But Yeazel won't know if his idea is a hit until students enroll in late August.

"The vibe I've gotten is that people are surprised and intrigued," he said. "There's definitely a novelty to it."

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