"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.
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?
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.)
- 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.)
- 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.