College night owls get chances to hit books

By Genaro C. Armas
Associated Press / December 24, 2010

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STATE COLLEGE, Pa.—Live, from Mansfield University, it's late-night political science class!

Wondering if students would be more enthusiastic and alert in the classroom after dark, professor Jonathan Rothermel scheduled an hour plus-long class next semester at a time fit for night owls: twice weekly at 9:45 p.m.

Mansfield is one of a number of institutions that have recently started testing the popularity of holding class at a time of the night a typical student might be cramming anyway ... or partying.

"Maybe at a later hour, students are more alert," said Rothermel, a 38-year-old teacher who is expecting a second child next year with his wife -- and more late nights himself. "I figure it's better than being back in the dorm room playing Xbox all night."

The late-night class -- dubbed "The Late Course with Dr. Rothermel" -- replaces a class that would have started at 9:30 a.m., typically populated by traditional undergraduates.

Rothermel's class is a test run at Mansfield, a four-year public university in rural northern Pennsylvania. In recent years community colleges have taken a lead scheduling way after dark, trying in part to meet demand from workers seeking to improve their skill sets in a struggling economy.

The Community College of Allegheny County in Pittsburgh started a welding technology course in spring 2010 that met four times a week for about four hours starting at 11 p.m., with a full enrollment of 16. It was not offered this fall, though the late-night section returns for the spring 2011 term.

Lack of space was the reason for the late start at the western Pennsylvania school, said David Hoovler, executive assistant to the college president. "Without the ability to add space, adding time was the best option," he wrote in an e-mail. "Extending the class day was more cost effective than opening the facility on Sunday for one class."

In Las Vegas, leaders at the College of Southern Nevada call the "Midnight Class" offerings a success after introducing the after-hours courses last spring. Darren Divine, vice president for academic affairs, said his school borrowed from a successful trial run at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston.

It seemed to fit right in with the up-all-night energy of Las Vegas. The two-year college expected students to sign up out of necessity, many to fill in around a regular day job.

"Turns out most students aren't taking the (late-night) classes because they have to," Divine said in a phone interview, "but because those sections are open and those times are amenable to them."

Bryan Caraher, 32, a first-year student who signed up for a reasoning and critical thinking class he thought started at 10:30 a.m. He and several other students were 12 hours early the first day; out of that group, Caraher said he was the only one who didn't drop the course that actually started at 10:30 p.m.

The biggest difference from day classes, he said, was that the late-night course had an older mix of students and livelier discussion. In day classes, he's typically the oldest student in the room.

His teacher was Carmel Phelan, a self-described morning person who was reluctant when first assigned to the course and an identical class that started at midnight. Weighty subjects like the Lincoln-Douglas debates and Socratic dialogues were among the topics studied.

"I expected to get a lot of people who were tired and battle-scarred," Phelan said. Instead, the class had a collection of insomniacs and students with exuberant personalities, and "once we all got that second wind, it was wonderful."

There were unexpected glitches the first semester, though.

First, the computer system didn't recognize a class starting one night and ending the next morning.

Also, some students got confused by what was meant by "midnight," whether for instance, a midnight start Tuesday meant midnight after Monday night, or midnight at the end of Tuesday evening (it was the former).

"We didn't think that would be an issue," Divine said. "We were wrong."

At Penn State's main University Park campus in State College, most classes -- other than the occasional downhill skiing or ballroom dancing course -- usually end by 9:30 p.m. on weekdays, with the bulk held during normal business hours as with most other institutions.

President Graham Spanier isn't a big fan of scheduling classes too early in the morning, though.

"Students typically don't come alive until later in the day, 8 a.m. classes are not popular or well attended, so universities serve their students better by starting more classes at 9 a.m. or later," Spanier said. He cited evening classes as especially important for older, nontraditional students.

Rothermel hopes discussions will be livelier, that students will have a different take on politics by recapping the day's events in Washington, rather than looking ahead to what might happen.

"When students are forced to take early morning class, some students just don't do as well, but they don't have an option," he said. "This gives them an opportunity to succeed. Right now, we don't have anything to accommodate the night owls on campus."