Sunday, March 24, 2013

A Pet Peeve: Misinformed articles about teaching loads

My brain hurts.  I've spent the better part of the past three days prepping my Intro to Rome class: making worksheets for ethics cases; coming up with discussion thread topics that will produce a deep and engaged conversation; creating PPTs for class; writing practice quiz questions; writing a quiz; putting together a list of all potential short answers for the upcoming midterm; talking to my teaching team; meeting with students.  I devote 12-14 hours on Saturday to the Rome class.  Oh, and I am teaching two other classes this semester, including a graduate seminar.  I easily spend 25-30 hours/week on the Rome class; and another 15 or so hours on my other two courses.  I also supervise our graduate students who teach Latin; and serve on several other departmental and university committees.  Time in class is by far the smallest time commitment of my week.

Imagine my irritation at seeing yet another study claiming that it's my fault (or, rather, the fault of professors) that college costs have risen.  Students are being shortchanged, the article claims, by faculty who aren't teaching enough to justify their supposedly astronomical salaries.  Just to be clear: the conclusions of this study are so generalizing as to be meaningless.  Without drilling more deeply into their data--and separating it by fields--it doesn't tell us much of anything.  In fact, teaching loads vary tremendously around universities and even within departments.  In natural sciences, engineering, and other grant-driven fields, for instance, it's not uncommon for faculty to do no teaching at all; and, maximally, to teach one course/semester.  Most teaching is done by lower paid lecturers, many of whom teaching three courses/semester.  In my college, liberal arts, most of us teaching two courses/semester. Some teach one, some none (if they have a grant that lets them "buy out" their time).  Lecturers usually teach three courses/semester. 

It's probably true that the teaching load of tenure-track faculty has decreased over time, but that's due to the elimination of tenured assistant professors who taught increased loads to compensate for their lack of publications.  The other factor that renders conversations about teaching loads meaningless: student-instructor ratios.  In my large lecture class, for instance, I am now teaching twice as many students.  On paper, however, my teaching load has remained a 2-2.  Similarly, the amount of time one devotes to teaching in any given semester can vary widely, depending on the particular courses, enrollment numbers, level, etc.  My two courses is rarely the equivalent of a colleague's two courses; and we all teach a range of different types of courses with the (often untrue) understanding that, over the year, teaching time will even out among faculty members.

Articles such as the one in the Chronicle of Higher Education are not just spreading misinformation, however.  They are potentially damaging to ongoing efforts to transform curricula and deepen learning, particularly in introductory courses.  The single common feature of all efforts to transform lecture courses is the amount of work it takes from the instructor as well as consultants and the classroom teaching team.  In some cases, instructors are giving a reduced teaching load; but oftentimes, such reductions just aren't feasible due to shrinking faculty numbers to staff courses.  I have done my transformation project while teaching a full load in the fall and an overload this spring.  This was nuts and, in retrospect, I'd never do it.   I'd insist on a course release.

This past year has been incredibly labor intensive, for me but also for the rest of the "team."  I expect that the Rome class will get a bit less labor intensive in future iterations; but, with 400 students and 4 TAs to manage as well as many moving parts (including a discussion board), it is always going to take up a big chunk of my time during the semester.  To me, the results I am seeing in my students' learning makes this investment of time worth it.  Still, those who are calling for education reform cannot also be calling for increased teaching loads.  This is particularly true at a time when faculty are taking on more and more of the responsibilities that were traditionally assigned to staff (who have been let go/not replaced in order to save money).

I agree that students should get a quality product for their money.  If they are paying higher tuition, it is my job to make sure that they are learning in my class, that they have something to show for that investment of money.  It is not my job to turn out a cheap product that will break the first time they use it--which is what will happen if I am asked to teach 3 or even 4 classes/semester.  To someone outside the academy, teaching two classes might seem like nothing.  Sometimes, depending on the course (and one's experience in teaching that course), enrollment, and level, it isn't a big time commitment.  Other times, though, it is more than a full-time job, with most of the work done behind the scenes and outside of class time.  I get that most people don't understand this, just as I don't understand the specifics of an investment banker's day to day work.  At the same time, it is important that we faculty resist the narrative being imposed on us, as lazy and entitled and only interested in research (which we expect our students to fund through increased tuition).

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