Friday, February 05, 2010

Workload, Teaching Load

Tenured Radical wrote a post today about class size, and it couldn't come at a better time for me because I've been thinking a lot about workload issues particularly as they relate to teaching. In fact, I started a post this morning about just these things, but it was so boring that I just deleted it without posting. After reading TR's piece, I feel like giving it another shot.

Now, I've got to say, as a caveat, before I launch in, that when I read TR's piece one of the things about it that was so striking to me was how wildly different her teaching context is from my own. In her world, 19 is a "large" upper-level sort of a class. In my world, the smallest class size I've got is 22 (both for upper-level classes in literature and for writing classes - and let's just note that the recommended maximum for writing classes according to those who write reports about such things is 16 or something, and that 22 was a victory for my department because writing courses used to be capped at 25 in recent memory). In my world, full-time, tenure-line faculty teach 4 courses a semester (more on that in a minute), not just two. Now, it is true that the research expectation at my gig is not as high as that where TR works, so comparing our gigs is in many ways like comparing apples to oranges. But her post provides a nice jumping off point because while the settings in which we teach are very different, and while the specifics of the debate change because of those differing settings, the core question about workload is philosophically the same.

The core question is, as far as I can reduce it down, do more bodies in seats per each section = greater teaching productivity/efficiency? In these times of budgetary woe, it seems like my administrators at least think that the answer to that question is "yes." There's lots of talk about raising class maximums, about finding ways to have tenure-line faculty teach more and more students, about how to organize teaching in a way that costs less and that yields more profit. There is something to be said for this model of thinking about things. According to a corporate model, efficiency = fewer dollars spent and more students "served."

But this is where things get sticky. What does it mean to "serve" our students? Are students "served" by ever-increasing class sizes? Yes, more of them will be able to enroll in and to complete a greater number of courses under this model. But is teaching productivity measured (solely) by enrollment figures? Should it be?

And, further, in my institutional context other issues, that I would say are most definitely teaching issues, enter the mix. Faculty are being strongly encouraged to direct more undergraduate research experiences, and those departments with graduate programs also have the responsibility to direct student theses. This is all teaching, right? None of this counts in terms of how our teaching loads are calculated. Our teaching loads are still calculated under the 1970-come-teach-your-four-courses-and-go-home-and-no-you-don't-need-publications-or-community-outreach-for-tenure model. Further, advising is also considered under "teaching" for promotion and tenure (something that was a change after I was here for a few years - it used to be service), and yet advising duties are also not factored into our teaching loads. So all of the above are "teaching," and yet, faculty at my institution are expected to undertake those tasks basically out of the kindness of their hearts. Sure, we get to list those activities on our cv's, and I suppose they count for annual review (although raises are not something that we're going to see anytime soon, so what does annual review even mean at this point?), but at the end of the day it's 4 courses per semester, with the threat of class sizes in those courses increasing (it hasn't quite been mandated yet, although that possibility is clearly in the air), plus academic advising duties plus advising students in their own independent research (though apparently we just do these for the joy of it, and not because it's our job, except of course it is our job).

Is this the most "productive" or most "efficient" learning environment for any student? I'd say no. No, not at all. I'd say faculty are half-assing it on all of their teaching because although the teaching load has remained "the same" since the university opened its doors, it has, albeit invisibly, increased. And faculty don't half-ass it because they don't care about students, or because they're not accountable, but because they're still expected to conduct research and to do loads of service (department, university, professional, and community, thank you very much), and if they let those other areas slide, they're fucked. The truth is, it's a lot more sensible to assign one fewer paper, to meet with fewer students, to do a crappy job advising student research projects, than it is, in terms of one's own professional future, to drop research or service in order to be a better teacher. As much as we are a "teaching institution," our institution doesn't appear to value teaching all that much. The institution definitely values student enrollments and retention, but that is not at all the same thing as valuing teaching or valuing learning. It is entirely the case that one can do a piss-poor job in the classroom and as long as the enrollments remain stable that one will be just fine at this institution. It is entirely the case that one can be a crap adviser of student research projects and that one's crappy work counts (or doesn't) exactly the same as somebody who does a great job with such duties. And my administration has absolutely no interest in changing this from being the case. It would wreak havoc on the budgetary bottom line if they did.

So some colleagues and I have been strategizing about ways that within our department we can try to address some of these workload issues. The reality is that we can't do anything about the number of courses that we teach per semester (we put forward a proposal for a new way of looking at workload that was quickly shot down), nor do we have total autonomy over the number of students per course. All that we do have control over are those "invisible" teaching duties that don't technically count within our workload. And so basically our ideas are all about very boring procedural departmental policy sorts of things, but that is our starting point. We're trying to find a way to make a statement (and to spread the work out around the department) without impeding our students. It's not an easy task.

But it's the only practical solution I've been able to think of regarding these issues, because seriously? I don't see any institutions (and definitely not my own) chomping at the bit to change. To reduce the expectation that faculty advise independent research projects, the number of courses that tenure-line professors teach, or the number of students per course in these bleak times of reduced budgets and with the threat of further cuts looming. Those things are clearly here to stay for the foreseeable future.

This is not to dismiss what TR calls for in her post, nor is it to disagree with it.** It's just to say that while I entirely endorse TR's rhetorical position, such positions don't do anything to change people's (my) working conditions, nor do they do anything to change (my) students' learning conditions. Right now? I'm more interested in practical strategies that might improve my student's ability to learn and my ability to teach them as well as I possibly can. And that involves boring policy work, not (really interesting, and really powerful) sweeping calls for change.

**Well, or I don't totally disagree with TR's post, but I do disagree with some parts of it. I do think that fewer than 10 students in a course can actually be a bad thing if there's a bad dynamic between the students. I also think that spending lengthy amounts of time reading and writing extensive comments on student papers is not generally a good use of one's time and won't typically or regularly produce better student writing across the board. This is born out by research in composition and rhetoric that basically reports that students are likely only to respond to around three main comments on a paper and to internalize them and to use them in future writing situations to improve their writing, and my experience, having done it both ways, has born this out. Reading/commenting quickly but with a purpose can often achieve much more than mulling over a student paper and responding at length. The issue is that faculty across disciplines need training to respond to student writing most effectively, which is a topic for another post. More time spent by the instructor does not equal more effective writing by students. If only that would solve students' writing issues, I'd gleefully spend hours reading their papers. But the fact is that this just doesn't work.


Anonymous said...

This is kind of off topic but I was told my class for the fall was large intro class. The biggest we have, they said. That's why it has to be lecture. There are too many people for discussion. How big, I asked? Oh, around 30, they told me. Uhhh really? Wow. Large vs. small class size is way context specific.

Anonymous said...

and I've totally run discussion in classes that size.

PhysioProf said...

I also think that spending lengthy amounts of time reading and writing extensive comments on student papers is not generally a good use of one's time and won't typically or regularly produce better student writing across the board. This is born out by research in composition and rhetoric that basically reports that students are likely only to respond to around three main comments on a paper and to internalize them and to use them in future writing situations to improve their writing, and my experience, having done it both ways, has born this out. Reading/commenting quickly but with a purpose can often achieve much more than mulling over a student paper and responding at length.

I agree 100%, and I consider this a corollary to my assertion at TR's place that by the time students reach college, it is pretty much too late to teach them to write well. It needs to be done in high school.

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

I teach at a 100% "teaching" oriented school -- which must mean that my time is to be 100% teaching oriented, because (at least in my department) class sizes just don't jive with good teaching. My Ethics, Intro to Philosophy and World religions courses are capped at 50. We teach a 5/5 load -- so the idea that our total student load would be 250 students in a semester is not at all unrealistic.

The only way that you can assign a modest amount of student writing in these courses is if you simply don't do the math...

My problem with "workload" and class size is simply that our department bears much more of the load than others with significantly lower class caps... by rights, philosophy students should write 3-4 5-7 page papers per semester and one longer paper as a final. From my understanding, that's about the same as a comp class -- or even a bit higher... but, we have TWICE the number of students in our courses than the comp folks. So, as to whether or not our philosophy students are being "served" -- I say definitely not.

Maude Lebowski said...

Excellent post and comments Crazy. I was trying to figure out a way to comment using my own situation, but it ended up sounding like I was whining about my workload and that I look like a slacker. So I'll just leave it with this has been on my mind for quite some time, you do a great job of articulating this, and I'm looking forward to the conversation that develops. :)

Firefly said...

In connection with this and your previous posts about high school literature, and the time limits of what can actually be read/taught in a year, add a typical CLASS SIZE of 34 and a courseload of 5 classes. Yes college is not high school, or vice versa, but one continues to attempt the impossible, the larger the class, the less an individual student benefits, let alone increasing the fatgue of the teacher.

Tenured Radical said...

Hey Dr. Crazy:

Thanks for continuing the thought: and yes, our contexts are really different. I also think that your context is particularly conducive to a public policy approach to this issue -- who actually *could* fund small classes if they wanted to? The government, that's who. Public universities used to be leaders in innovation, and now they don't even try because they are so starved of funds.

And as to learning to write, I believe we are on the same page here -- people learn to write all their lives, and I think where the small class comes in is giving students a reason to write well, and a context where they can choose to become writers. Writing isn't like figure skating or ski jumping, where you either develop a set of muscles and coordinate them by a certain age or it can't happen. I am a very different writer than I was 5, 10, and certainly 25 years or 30 years ago. There are a variety of reasons for that, but it's true.

I also think it's interesting that everyone knows that small class size matters in early childhood development, but the assumption is that it ceases to matter when students are old enough to tie their shoes......

New Kid on the Hallway said...

I've found both the posts interesting because while I've never had to teach MASSIVE courses (thank god), I've taught at places where the "small" courses were about 20-30 people (big ones were 70), and at other places where the "big" classes capped at 22 (and there was much complaining about their size). So yes, I think it's extremely contextual, and I think that's also the case for the students - if the majority of their classes are 75-100+ people, then a class of 20-25 is going to feel "small" in much the same way a 6-person class feels small to people where the biggest classes have 20-25 people in them.

In my own experience teaching history, anything under 30 people was perfectly great for discussion, and I could stretch discussion up to about 50 people and still have it be semi-effective. Much beyond that, I did active learning stuff, but I wasn't very good at it (keeping open the possibility that others would do it better). But I do believe in the importance of small classes, so while I'm sometimes frustrated with comments like the one Annie got (30 people! MUST lecture!), I also don't want to feed administrative desires to expand class sizes.

I also found classes under 10 people really *hard* to teach, partly because of what Crazy mentions - sometimes they were great, and other times, they were like pulling teeth. My favorite class size was about 12-15 people.

The thing that I also think is interesting about the different comments about writing is the disciplinary aspect. Overall, I totally agree with Dr. Crazy that you rapidly reach diminishing returns in commenting on student writing. However, if you're teaching a small upper-division history seminar and the students are each writing research papers, that's where I think more time *does* (or can, anyway) lead to more effective writing - because the time is not just about writing per se, but about formulating a topic, situating it in a context, research processes, etc. I spent at least an hour a week talking with my senior thesis advisor about the project, and it was INCREDIBLY valuable to me (and I know she put a lot of work into reading my stuff and working with me).

But again, that also comes back to context - schools like Zenith (or in my experience, Former College) tend to have a fair number of classes where upper-level majors take on these kinds of research projects, and a lot of them can be like mini-grad student projects. Whereas at Rural Utopia, students had to do a research-based senior project to graduate, and often still had NO idea how to go about it by the time they got to that point. While the students needed a lot of help with these projects, it was a bit more like teaching writing generally - there was only so much you could tackle at a time, and giving effective feedback wasn't as dependent on being immersed in the topic yourself.

Janice said...

I fell to my proverbial knees last term when I had 230 students in three courses. Even with M.A. students assisting as TAs, I couldn't "download" enough on them to make it work. The one good outcome is that my department has now instituted a course cap on our mid-level surveys of 80.

But, yeah, good teaching/service and $1.52 will get you a large coffee at Tim's. I bucked the trend and got a merit increment two years ago for about a decade's worth of major, unremunerated overload teaching/servic. However, the snarky comments by some colleagues and committee members were a clear sign that other people shouldn't expect teaching/service to actually, you know, be rewarded!

dave said...

Teaching load is indeed context-dependent. I teach at an interdisciplinary, non-departmental SLAC of 300 students and 28 faculty or so. Our average class size is 12.5. I've taught classes of 30, which are seen by students and faculty alike to be huge.

One challenge that we have is that faculty teach very different numbers of students. In some years, total numbers of students taught varies by a factor of two. And those who are at the top end of the distribution tend to be there year after year. Some of these differences are due to the different things we teach: I can accommodate 30 in my Calculus class much easier than a studio art teacher or someone teaching a writing-intensive class. At other schools these differences would manifest themselves as differences across departments, while where I am, since we have no departments, they are seen more as individual differences.

But the variance of class sizes isn't by any means a function of discipline. Some faculty regularly place small-ish caps on their classes or teach courses that don't draw students. This might be because the course topic is not of interest to many students, or that the class or instructor is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as being not very strong. Students have very wide latitude in their course selection, since all students design their own major. So there are few tracks or sequences with a guaranteed enrollment. Additionally, faculty have considerable discretion -- perhaps too much -- in the courses they choose to offer.

At some level it's a zero sum game. If a faculty member teaches a small class, somebody else is going to have to teach a large class. Yes, we have adjuncts who teach occasionally, but it's hard to get good adjuncts in many fields, and often students prefer to take classes from permanent faculty.

Anyway, I realize that some details of this situation may be unique to my particular context. However, I'd be very interested to hear any thoughts on how to address this dilemma. E.g., a faculty member who, no matter what he or she is assigned to teach, almost always ends up with a relatively small class, or more generally, persistent and large variations in workload among faculty.

dave said...

Crazy, you mentioned research in rhetoric and composition suggestion diminishing returns on leaving comments on students' papers. Do you have any references for these studies? I'd love to read them. I often struggle with how to comment effectively on student writing.

The work you cite for teaching writing is consistent with my experience teaching physics and math. I think it's a much better use of my time to spend lots of time helping students as they're struggling with problem sets than to spend lots of time correcting problem sets that have lots of errors. I've never seen any studies backing this up, but I've never really looked for them. But over the years I've set things up so that I spend as much time as is reasonable having problem solving help sessions, and then try to grade the homework quickly.

Doctor Pion said...

At my CC, the number we track is contact hours based on the number of students projected to enroll, and we do a pretty good job of projecting the actual number that end up enrolled because that is how our college builds its budget.

On that basis, I teach 400 student hours per semester. (We also do advising as part of our base load, but other assignments or additional duties are compensated or count as required service or count as "reassigned time". More importantly, we are required to have a lot of total "available" hours so that people who teach fewer large classes have more office hours.)

It looks like you are assigned about 300 + however you count - or should count - students you advise. If those students pay for that time with you, we would count it as teaching time. I know some places do, but not all on a 1:1 basis. I'd be curious to know how close ItPF's classes are to the cap, since pushing 700 student hours is WAY over what is the norm at our CC. Just an FYI, but possibly the reason one of my colleagues told me the other day that she is better off than friends who are at 4-year schools.

But I digress.

I decided to comment so I could say the words "outcomes assessment". Perhaps your college leadership is as yet unaware of the need to assess outcomes across the curriculum to show whether you are meeting your mission of fostering student learning, and using those assessments to improve teaching and improve student performance upon graduation. It is on its way here, and there seems little doubt that every regional accreditation body will want within a decade.

If you really want a lever, that would be it. It is too soon to know just how low those standards will be (my assessment of the outcomes of the previous process at some institutions says it is pretty low), but it allegedly requires more than lip service to a process that values more than passing students to sustain enrollment.

Doctor Pion said...

To followup what Anastasia said, my physics lecture classes may seem big here, but they are smaller than the discussion/recitation sections at a university.

Dr. Crazy said...

Very quickly because I don't have time to comment at length at the moment - thanks for all of the great discussion! And Dr. P. Oh, we're on the outcomes assessment train, but faculty are expected to be doing the heavy lifting with assessment as well, which is a whole other workload related issue that I didn't want to get into in this post :)

Anonymous said...

I agree NK that the overall class sizes in a given institution make a difference as far as student expectation. I did a post on that not long ago. students where I was a TA thought 30 people was small because most of their classes were more like 70-150 and they reacted accordingly. Where I teach now, most of their classes are 10-12, which makes my 30 person class seem large and intimidating. That does matter.

I still run discussion with that many, though. :)

Gretchen said...

Being a veteran of an early adopter of the "outcomes assessment" scheme, I can give you a preview of how those "outcomes" are read across the curriculum: "its your fault you bad teacher!"

It has nothing to do with increasing class sizes or anything else. Its simply that you are dragging down the department/college/university by your failure to teach well.

On another note: I continue to be entertained at New University by the insistance that the "learning objectives" and "assessment methods" must be on page 1 of the syllabus and must be long, dense statements. Why? Because as they claim here as well: "students like these." No, students want to know what the grade breakdown is and how many books they have to buy.

Susan said...

Gretchen, we have to put the Learning Objectives for the course (and relate them to those for the major) in our syllabus so our accreditor can see that we're doing this.

However, we are now asking everyone to build assessment into strategic planning, so that we can show what it costs.

FrauTech said...

So I'm in a totally different field, and as TR and Dr. Crazy have already said, context is everything.

My stats class is enrolled up to about 100 but as it's at the painful hour of 9am, only 40-50 people show up regularly (the professor commented on this, he is a character and I suspect would be a great lecturer for either a 30 person class or a 300 person class). I'm used to my classes ranging from 100-300 people. There was an interesting class I thought about enrolling in but it had an enrollment limit of 13. This was too intimidating for me.

I'm in a German language class in the evenings that's only got about 20 people in it. Besides the fact that it's a language class, I really was terrified at the small size. From a student perspective, there's something nice and anonymous about a large class. I know I can be tested on my knowledge on homework and tests alone and if I make a mistake it doesn't get back to me in a personal way. I also can take time to digest knowledge or have a bad day if I need to without always being on my toes or having quick answers at the ready. Perhaps it's cowardly, but that's my view. Also, I'm not in the disciplines many of you teach in where class sizes would be completely different to suit the needs of the students.

PhDLadybug said...

Reading all the comments, I think Dr. Crazy generated a very interesting discussion.
I do agree that context is everything. I have a contract with a 3/3 teaching load while tt faculty have a 2/2 teaching load. Remember that Canadian Universities are public. And they have different criteria to judge the work of the professors: some are research oriented, some are teaching oriented. Our splits things in three: research, teaching and service. Caps are set by departments. But last year I went to another province to find that in their language classes caps are at 90 students! I could not believe that! Here they are set between 25 and 40. For me 20-25 is the perfect number.

Doctor Pion said...

With a word verification of "pinatas", I'll take another swing a outcomes assessment!

Faculty here are also doing the heavy lifting on this project, because only faculty can decide what the educational objectives of a course actually are. Right now we are limiting it to classes I don't teach, so I remain an observer, but we interpret the charge as requiring that there be agreed upon outcomes for a particular course (say Composition I or College Algebra) and that each outcome be assessed more than one way - but with as much uniformity as possible. For example, some assessment in College Algebra will be done via carefully chosen problems on the common final exam. There is even talk of doing some of that assessment at the start of the next class.

You might be doing this differently, but that was the context of my observation.

Now we don't have to prove that every student who passes the class has met that specific objective, at least that is my understanding of the charge at the present time, but we do have to study the results and learn from what they tell us as a mechanism to improve our courses over the next decade.

And I don't think it will escape anyone's notice that this might be a lever on the ones who pass students without improving their writing or math skills to the level expected in the next class.

Firefly said...

Dr C, You really have had some lengthy posts lately and put so much into them. Hope you are OK and just insanely busy. We miss you!