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.
2 years ago