Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Teaching, Course Load, and Energy/Exhaustion

Every now and again, I'll be in a conversation with a person who teaches at an institution other than my own, and who teaches like 2 or 4 classes a year or something outlandish like that compared with the 8 a year (give or take) that I teach, and the conversation will turn to teaching. Inevitably, this person will say some version of the following:
"I can't believe that you teach that much! I don't think I could teach more than I do and survive it! Woe is me, with the 2-2 load! But moreso, WOE IS YOU! How do you stay in this profession?!?!"
Well, friends, I do manage somehow. Can I just note for the record, though, how freaking annoying it is when somebody says some version of the above to me? I often feel weirdly like they are congratulating me and pitying me at the same time, with a dash of assuming I must be a crappy teacher thrown in. It's an odd mix.

Now, I've gotten the above sort of commentary from a lot of corners. From grad school friends who've ended up in research-intensive jobs, from grad school mentors, from colleagues I meet hither and thither. When the comment first started cropping up, when I first began this job, I took it really personally, and it made me think that I should certainly be aiming for a lower teaching load because obviously to teach this much was white slavery or something. Then, later, I thought that while the people meant well that they were just weirdly out of touch with reality, as most people who work in this profession teach a load closer to mine than to theirs. Now, I feel like I've been doing this for long enough that I actually have a real response related to this matter. So here are my thoughts, in no particular order:

Number of students matters.
It's true that I teach four courses a semester. However, once the movement in the numbers is done (drops, withdrawals), I typically teach somewhere around 80 students in a semester (classes are capped around 25, and the web course I'm teaching is capped at 16). That's right: 80 students or so divided across four courses. Now, each individual student requires a certain amount of energy for the professor, even if one has TAs, even if that's just administrative energy. And in fact, one might argue, teaching that number of students in one course but with TAs can take as much if not more energy, because if one is a good instructor of TAs, one is actually teaching them while at the same time they're helping with grading and such. So the point here is that yes, I do teach more classes than some of my colleagues at research institutions, but I don't necessarily teach more students than they do.

Personality matters.
Some people aren't happy unless they're teaching in their area of specialization, or very close to it, most of the time. Other people do better when they've got a bit more variety. Some people aren't happy teaching non-majors/non-minors. Other people thrive when they teach a variety of kinds of students. Now, it's hard to know what kind of person one is until one is thrown into a particular job. Lots of people who end up at research universities have never had the opportunity to teach the range of students and classes that I regularly teach, so they don't really get how these things factor into what one does as a teacher. If I'm teaching a class that fulfills a general education requirement, for example, the kinds of things that I'm teaching will differ greatly from when I'm teaching a course with primarily majors. This still requires energy, but it requires a different kind of energy than teaching in my specialization. And this different kind of energy renews more quickly, at least in my experience, than does the other kind that I need to engage when I teach stuff that's more explicitly linked to my research. My aims are different, and the prep involved is different. For some people, this would be brutal. For me, variety is the spice of life.

Let's talk about # of preps and frequency of teaching certain preps
Now, I've got colleagues in my institution who have done everything in their power to limit the number of preps that they teach in a semester. It is entirely possible to teach a 4/4 with around 80 students/semester but to teach only two preps a semester, preps that repeat annually. While one is in the classroom for more hours per week than our friends at research universities, we nevertheless can be teaching just two courses and with a similar or lower number of students than people at research universities. Some people think that this is the way to go, as teaching the same courses with that frequency, while at the same time teaching sections, pretty much eliminates prep and the main outside-the-classroom work one does is grading. Such a schedule does, however, require that one be the sort of person who can stay on the same track in multiple classes when teaching sections (not my strong suit) and that one doesn't get bored by teaching the same stuff over and over again (also not my strong suit).

In contrast, I typically teach 4 preps a semester. Now, you might say, "This is madness, Crazy! What are you thinking! Why wouldn't you try to minimize the number of preps that you teach?!?!" Ah, good question. Well, as I noted, I get bored easily, and I suck with keeping multiple sections at exactly the same place in a syllabus. It's not an impossible thing for me to do, but it annoys me to have to do it. But let's delve more deeply into what that "4 different preps/semester" means in my practical day-to-day existence. Here's a version of my two-year schedule:

Fall: Class A, Class B, Class C, Class D
Spring: Class E, Class F, Class G, Class D
Fall: Class A, Class B, Class H, Class D
Spring: Class E, Class B, Class I, Class D

So no, I don't teach sections typically, but the repeating of preps means that I'm not teaching each course from scratch, typically, ever. I've been teaching A and E in the fall and spring since I started this job. B and D are more recent additions, but doing them semester after semester means that I'm about as solid with them as I am with A and E. C, F, H, and I are all courses in my specialization, and none is a brand new prep. I might change a text in or out, but the courses are "in the can" so to speak. The only new course I'll teach in the next two years is G, and that is in my wheelhouse of material and I've taught a very similar course in structure very recently. So, yes, I teach a lot of classes over a two year period. Nine, in fact. But seriously, I feel like that number is about right. It means that in a teaching-intensive job I can use my teaching to support my research - i.e., the stuff I teach is the stuff that I'm thinking about writing-wise, too. I do not do one set of work for teaching and then another set of work for scholarship. It's all the same. In other words, while this looks like a ton of teaching on paper, if one is thinking that the scholarly side of things is completely distinct from the teaching side, I'm probably doing about the same amount of reading/research as a person at a research university with a much lighter teaching load - just it counts for two parts of the job. Couple that with the fact that I teach about the same number of students in a semester (or perhaps even fewer) and I don't have to direct dissertations or serve as a reader for them, and ultimately, and we see that this teaching load really isn't so onerous. It's just one has to figure out how to negotiate the demands of teaching and the demands of research in a more conscious way. (Note, however, that in years 1-3 my life was a world of pain in getting all of this up and running. I shouldn't minimize that.) But this then leads to the next point.

Teaching can expand to fill the time available if you let it.
That's true if you've got a 2-2 load; that's true if you've got a 5-5 load. And the more time you spend doesn't necessarily mean that you are a better teacher or a more devoted teacher. It just means you're spending more time. If I've learned any lesson over the past five years, that is it. And having learned that lesson, I've realized that it's really not on me to set the world on fire in every class period. In fact, what happens in the classroom shouldn't be about me setting the world on fire. Now, that's not to say that I don't like to be a dynamic and engaging teacher. BUT - and this is an important but - my classroom isn't, most days, the Dr. Crazy Show. First, I want students to have ownership over what they get out of in my classes. It shouldn't (I don't think) be about what I bestow upon them but rather about what they themeselves can do. Second, if that is the case, I'm not being a good teacher if I'm hogging the spotlight and devoting every ounce of my time to "making" the classroom experience. I see my role, particularly in the service courses that I teach (A, B, E, and D) as one of facilitator less than as one of pontificator. Being the teacher doesn't, for me, mean being the center of the classroom enterprise. And once one believes that, it becomes clear that one shouldn't allow the work that one does as a teacher to suck all of the energy and time that one has away. In fact, I'm a better teacher if I have something left over at the end of the day.

But knowing that and doing what it takes to make that happen can be different things. Because when one is working on teaching, one feels like one is accomplishing something (a), one has the illusion that everything one does is super-duper important (b). And that is like a drug. Who doesn't want to feel all virtuous and important and productive all the time? So one has to be very vigilant about scheduling and about limiting the amount of time that one spends on teaching. Typically, I'm very good at this when it comes to grading and to prepping. If I fail, it's only in the area of the amount of time that I devote to individual students, and really, I don't see that as a failure. If I'm going to fuck up on the limiting my teaching time, I'd rather do it in the service of actual people than of "Teaching" as some grand good I do in the world.

I actually like interacting with most of my students, and doing so actually gives me energy.
This is a really, really important component of thriving with this kind of a teaching load. See, I don't see students (most of the time) as a time-suck or as an energy-suck. They don't take away from the non-teaching work that I want to do. Actually, I see them as motivation, and really without them, I'm not certain I'd be as productive as I am in the scholarship side of things. Actually, I'm almost sure I wouldn't be.

Practice makes perfect.
At least in my experience, teaching more made teaching easier. I became a lot more comfortable running my classes, a lot more willing to forgive myself when an individual class meeting didn't go so wonderfully (which is much easier to do when one has so many class meetings in the course of the semester), and a lot more confident that I knew what the fuck I was doing. I think the learning curve on all of that would have been steeper had I taught less over the past five years, if how I felt about teaching in grad school, when I never taught more than 1 or 2 classes in a semester, is any indication. Things like generating discussion no longer require real thought for me - they're just ingrained things that I know how to do. Similarly, I have a much better sense of how I work best in the classroom, how to put together a lecture, whatever. I don't labor over what I do in the classroom so much because, paradoxically, I've already done so much time laboring in and for the classroom.

So, now for the practical. How does one "survive" a heavy teaching load?
  1. Understand that different classes call for different levels of engagement on your part. If you're teaching classes to a wide range of non-majors, understand that you do not need to give lengthy lectures about the minutiae of scholarship about every single thing that you're covering (they won't be into that anyway) and that really your role is to get them excited about the study of literature and to give them the tools to engage with literature in a critical, analytical way.
  2. Teach what relates to your own scholarship, as much as is possible. I can't emphasize this enough. The whole "two birds with one stone" thing really makes a huge difference, and it makes one much less resentful of one's students, if one is inclined to resent them. (Note: the relationship can be somewhat tangential. This isn't just about teaching one's dissertation or book or whatever, although it can be.)
  3. Think about assignments not only in terms of what students "should" do but also in terms of your own energy investment in terms of grading, and once you've done that, be creative in terms of how you design assignments and respond to them. The point here isn't to dumb down one's courses or to eliminate grading, but rather to be realistic about what you want students to achieve (and about what they can achieve reasonably in the course of a semester) and to be realistic about your ability to give them useful feedback. (In other words, it does nobody any good to assign a weekly response paper if you won't have time to read/comment on them weekly. Better to assign four and to give really substantial feedback. This is just one example.)
  4. Teach repeat preps as much as possible, whether across semesters or in sections. I know not everybody has the luxury of being able to negotiate this, but if you can work it, do. (And this is good advice for job-seekers, too, actually, in terms of things to look at when they see a heavy teaching load job. A 4/4 load at one institution may be infinitely more manageable than a 3/3 elsewhere, depending on how teaching assignments work.)
  5. Bitterness about teaching typically makes people a) hate their jobs and b) do less well at teaching. With this kind of a load, you've got to find a way to make the teaching work for you, and you've got to get over resenting it. If you can't, then you'll be miserable. And if you're miserable, it's really hard to feign excitment in order to engage your students. And they do seem to respond better if they don't think you're miserable teaching them or teaching that particular class or whatever.
Now, I'm not saying that these are the only ways in the whole world to make teaching a heavier load work. I'm just saying that these are the things that I've found teaching such a load over the past five years. YMMV, and all that. But if you're one of those people who teaches a lesser load, and you like to pity/congratulate your pals who teach more, consider all of the above. It may not be so horrifying and tragic as you think. (Or maybe I'm just delusional, or maybe I'm really quite a phenomenal person, though I'm inclined to say that I'm probably not either, at least on most days :) )


life_of_a_fool said...

I agree with much of what you say here. I have a 3-3 load, and oh how I wish it were smaller. But I also have fewer students in my 3 (fully enrolled classes of 35) than a colleague has in one class at another U. Styles vary, but I much prefer the smaller classes.

My two main problems with teaching are: I could do a better job of managing grading. I am somewhere between what I think they should do, and what I can manage without feeling overwhelmed and testy (though maybe I just hate grading, and would always hate that part).

The other is that while I enjoy teaching (and definitely facilitate more than I pontificate) and interacting with students, it usually leaves me overstimulated and exhausted. That's another personality issue (introvert vs. extrovert?) that influences how one thrives in different teaching environments, and I'm not sure that can be completely managed (though your suggestions are good). I like my students (mostly) but interacting with them is still often draining.

So, I'm not sure I would have more *time* if I taught in another kind of institution (e.g., one with PhD students) or with a lower teaching load, but I might prefer the energy expenditure (though then again, maybe not, if I were teaching huge lectures).

dhawhee said...

These are all great points, and points I've thought about as my grad students go get jobs and re-train my thinking. (one in particular got a 4-4 job recently and I was all "you're going to die!" and then she was all, "but each course meets once per week, and has only 12 students in it." And I was all "you take that job!" And she LOVES it. So yeah, the whole 2-2 or die thing has been drilled in to us, etc., and there is a lot more to teaching (as you explain quite well and thoroughly) than how many times one has to show up.

I'd also toss in, as alluded to by the person who posted a comment above mine, that those of us at 2-2 institutes who advise graduate students and serve on PhD committees are definitely teaching more than a 2/2, but we just don't call it that. I spend a heck of a lot more time on an advisee's first chapter draft than I do prepping a week's worth of UG classes. So we all do fill up our teaching time, we just fill it up with different sorts of labor. And only this year was I allowed to do a grad course that was a repeat prep (after 9 brand new seminar preps over the years), and so I totally hear you re: the prep repeats.

The other thing I'd add to this discussion, which is really a discussion about job happiness, is that having some control over what one teaches is a good thing. Whether that means one has general rubrics with free rein on design or that one is allowed to teach special topics regularly doesn't really matter, but I think that this figures in to people's happiness quite strongly, which stands to reason, given that no one likes to be bossed around, and that's why so many of us ended up in academia in the first place.

Dr. Crazy said...

Thanks for the comment, LoaF, and bringing up the introvert vs. extrovert thing. I'm pretty extroverted, so I often forget that others are even more exhausted than I am by all of the face-time a heavy teaching load requires. (And even with my extrovertedness, it exhausts ME - especially in the transition from break into a new semester.)

Brigindo said...

This makes a lot of sense to me. Currently I'm stretching myself to teach across three programs: undergraduate (majors & minors), masters' and doctoral. A lot more effort goes into the programs I'm not familiar with (undergraduate and doctoral) but I can see that with time I'll "get" it and the experience will be easier. Same with repeat preps in general. Also I'm teaching a 2-2 but have approx 70 students this semester, that added with working with doctoral students does require more work than a 2-2 load would seem to need. We have many discussions in my department around workload as class sizes and advising is very different across the three programs.

While I work my research into my class as much as humanly possible I think it is harder to integrate the two when you are conducting field research than when you are engaged in scholarship. Yes I need to read and write and think on many issues that I cover in my classes but I also need to recruit participants, manage projects and analyze data and that is hard to connect to class time (except for practicums, which I've run but are not really valued in the department so often don't count towards my course load).

I do agree with life-of-a-fool about the introvert/extrovert aspect. I'm a devout introvert and although I can be extroverted in the classroom (and facilitation has become second nature due to years of running training workshops) it does take its toll. My understanding of the difference is that extroverts recharge from interaction while introverts recharge from time spent alone.

Great post.

negativecapability said...

You're absolutely right. I teach a 2-2 at a huge university, and this semester I have about 140 students. One of those courses is a lecture with TA's to teach and grade sections, but teaching the TA's and organizing the whole thing up front so that it runs smoothly also takes time and energy. I volunteered for this particular course, though, and next semester I'll have two seminars with less than 15, so it balances out.

I am also a devout introvert who can be extroverted in the classroom, so this wears on me a bit; I couldn't do my own work without interaction with students, and I thrive on it, but I definitely need the recharge time. I can't go out or even really talk on the phone before a day of teaching.

gwinne said...

Yes, I'll agree with the introvert/extrovert comment. I'm extremely introverted--though I do a good show in the classroom, which is not the same as being "extroverted" (which is really an innate personality trait, not a behavior)--and even a 2-2 teaching load leaves me exhausted. It's not the time involved (fwiw, I've also had a job I taught 6-7 classes per year), but energy expended. It takes me hours after class to wind down...I'd never be able to manage a night class.

Shane in Utah said...

Okay, I've been lurking here for years, but this post led me to finally sign up for a damned blogger account...

My first job out of grad school had me teaching 3 or 4 classes per semester; for three years since, I've been in a job with a 2/2 load. There is a real difference, and it's not just the sheer amount of high-energy time in front of the classroom involved. It's also that when I spent so much time in a week trying to distill complex ideas into a simple enough form for undergraduates to grasp them, I then had a difficult time making the transition into scholarly mode, where I was writing for an audience of 30 or 40 renowned experts in my field...

But Crazy is right that, once you've mastered a repertoire of classes and lesson plans that you can draw on, a 4/4 load can be made workable. I would emphasize her point about making your teaching work for your research and vice versa. I recently taught a "Writers" course on Derek Walcott, after which I was able to write a paper on his *Omeros*. I became a Walcott expert by giving myself as well as the students a 15-week crash course! And now I have another course in my repertoire...

Finally, a suggestion of my own for time maximization: teach the same text in different classes. So I might teach The Tempest in an Intro to Drama class, and at the same time in a class on postcolonial responses to canonical texts. Even if students happens to be taking both classes simultaneously, as sometimes happens, they are usually fascinated to see how different the discussions are in different contexts.

Anyway: great post.

Dr. Crazy said...

Hi Shane! I'm so glad you have stopped by! (And I apologize about the whole "you must have a blogger account thing" - it's all about the spam-elimination). You're so right to mention the energy that it takes to distill difficult texts into undergrad-understandability. I'd not thought to talk about that because now, five and some years in, I've just gotten used to doing it. But in my first two years especially, this was ENTIRELY draining and difficult. Now, I just sort of operate in that register (esp. at the beginning of the semester) and then I work toward initiating them into the world of the complicated (toward the end of the semester) and it seems natural. This was NOT at all natural in the beginning, and it was very, very difficult.

And yes to the teaching the same books across courses or (if you're like me and you want to teach more books and more books and more books) at the very least teaching the same authors across courses. So no, I no I don't typically teach the same books across courses anymore (mostly because of my own predilections to teach a variety) but I do frequently teach the same authors and/or concepts across courses, and it makes a world of difference.

Brigindo: thanks for the note about field research vs. purely library-based research. Since I don't need to do the field stuff, I forget others do :) This was a great addition to the conversation, and one that needed to happen.

And I'd also like to draw attn. to DHawhee's comment about a 2-2 being much more teaching than just teaching two courses a semester. If anything, when I've gotten into deep conversations with colleagues who have lesser (seeming) teaching loads about teaching, what I realize is that they're doing a lot of invisible teaching work, that ultimately adds up to similar to a 3-3 or 4-4. In other words, where I used to be jealous, I now realize that all in all I've got a pretty good gig.

Thanks for the comments, everybody! And if anybody's yet to weigh in, feel free. I just wanted to respond to those who'd already said something back.

White Trash Academic said...

Hi there! First time poster, long-time lurker. This is a great post. I will reference you from now on when I get into these discussions. We were just making the schedule for the spring and my Chair promised me and another colleague a course reduction (on a 3/3 load). One of my concerns was that the course you are removing from my schedule is the one core I teach every semester, but requires more time and energy than the others combined, it will not feel much like a reduction. This class is such a time suck that it would not matter. It worked. I got the reduction for that class :)

Belle said...

As already noted, great post. I too do a 4/4 with the occasional overload thrown in to meet expressed needs or interests. A couple of years ago, my provost offered me a part time admin gig that would require fewer classes but go to a 12 month contract. He regarded fewer classes as the smaller reward; I saw it as a penalty. Teaching, for me, is a two-way channel: I get and expend energy. Admin, for me, is a constant drain. That conversation helped me clarify my ideas about teaching as much as it clarified his.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Late to the party, but: yes, I completely agree; this is a great post. I'd agree with the introvert/extrovert thing, too - one of the reasons I was glad to leave teaching was that I did continue to find dealing with students (and all the rest of the campus that comes with being t-t in a small community) draining, ultimately. Like gwinne, it takes me a while to come down from a class. I did start to train myself to leave campus once I was done, rather than hang in my office, because hanging in my office really prolonged the coming-down process. But there's only so much one can do about it.