Sunday, June 17, 2012

Teaching Loads

I've been pretty silent lately. Creeping around when I can, but I've actually been whole days away from the internet. The end of term was pretty rough and full of enormous stacks of essays as I sailed around multiple universities. Then I had a quick research trip abroad, a family reunion, and a two-day conference before settling into a summer teaching gig.

Oh summer gigs. You know the type of course I mean: 35 students, 5 hours every single bleeding day, supposedly the equivalent of a whole year smashed into the summer months. I suppose the technical number of minutes in class is equal, but it is not the same. It's brutal. People's brains burn out by the third hour. Assigning 3 hours of homework does not allow for careful thought or analysis. For the teacher, it's an exercise in marathon-levels of resistance training.

It makes me think of my first year teaching: working 12-hour days and scrambling constantly to adjust to the abilities of each class while also balancing the necessary alterations of a new institution. It's so much tough work and forced creativity. It just goes and goes and goes, never ending at all.

I think to myself: some people come directly out of undergrad and begin teaching like this in our schools. I realize, had I been given this summer class as a twinkling 24-year-old, I would have failed myself and my students. No one would have won.

Yet this is precisely what the majority of new teachers much do, from kindergarten to college. They are thrown into full swing, 0 to 60 in a split second. The first full time job is often the first job itself. Oh, sure, adjuncting a class while writing the dissertation... or being a TA... or even "student teaching." But these teaching games are like watching from the sidelines compared to experiencing the first year of a 3/3/1 load or a full-time high school gig. The 60-hour workweeks collide with your need to tighten a manuscript or finish your research or schmooze with new colleagues and establish a network. Part of you slowly dies and you live for those first 9 months in a state of continual hyper-awareness, constantly imagining new teaching approaches, activities, assessments, discussion questions, readings, essays.

Why do we do this? I mean, why is this the system of apprenticeship?

I imagine a situation where all teachers begin with one class per semester. You have graduated with a PhD, you are given a lectureship at a school, you polish your dissertation into a book manuscript while teaching, and then you move on to a fuller load. For high school, you start with  a similar 1/1 load with another 1/1 student teaching appointment. You observe, you grade, you practice, you fail, but all at a nice low load so you can practice and get better before you have 4 classes' worth of students' lives in your hands.

How long does it take to become a good teacher? Five years? Ten? For many, the answer is never... they continue only because they have friends in the right places, or because the institution doesn't have a clear method of observing teaching ability, or there is some very lenient union and no one else to replace them should they be let go. Or an institution privileges research over teaching. Which is fine, because research is tremendously important, but I personally find teaching to be tremendously important as well. The presentation of new information assists our development as relevant scholars.

Perhaps this musing will be met with comments about how I am living in a dream world. We cannot find jobs for half our PhDs, let alone adopt a new easing-in teaching system of a 1/1 first year. Yes, this is true. I am living in a fantasy world. But this is also a blog where we imagine talking back to our asshole students, or screaming at administrators, or seducing that one foxy colleague, or drinking ourselves through a committee meeting. So surely I can dream about a better apprenticing program for our teaching, can't I?

Probably, but only if I realize it's just a dream.


  1. What you imagine is called being a research professor. They begin with one class, probably a graduate class in their field of expertise. This serves as a recruiting grounds for the prof's research group. The major difference between this reality and your dream is that honing teaching ability isn't the point at all. The light teaching load allows the faculty member to bring in $350K per year in grants. If that doesn't materialize then it's adios to Dr. Washed Up Researcher.

    1. What's wrong with science bias? Presumably your comment is not pure fantasy: there is something wrong with the world and you would like to fix it. It might actually be a good idea to look at how other departments deal with these issues. Of course some stuff (like $350k research grants) may not apply in your world, but you shouldn't dismiss their perspective entirely. Take the good ideas or adapt them to your situation.

      I'm a mathematician. In terms of subject matter I'm probably closer to science, but in terms of grant money we're not so far apart from you. My first teaching experience was a section of calculus while I was in graduate school. We had a course coordinator to help with lesson planning. The task of drafting weekly assignments was rotated among the pool of instructors (9 sections total). Grading was shared by all, and lectures were done entirely on my own. The main difference between this and a TA is that I was 100% responsible for all the lecturing for my section.

      I think that giving graduate students sole responsibility for one section of a multi-section course with some assistance from the other instructors and the course coordinator is a great way to give them the right amount of teaching experience, in a controlled environment, at the right stage of their career, without overly delaying the progress of their graduate studies. In fact my Ph.D-granting institution requires at least one semester of such experience, school-wide, as a requirement for the Ph.D. I'm really glad my school did this. It's just one step along the way to teaching proficiency, but it's a big step. Your idea of a reduced-load teaching apprenticeship is quite similar except for a few details -- my apprenticeship took place in graduate school, and it was only one class as opposed to one per semester (although I ended up doing it three times, partly for money, partly because I actually liked teaching, and partly because I could tell that it was helping me develop my teaching skills).

      The biggest difference is that my experience was not a fantasy or a dream. It is a reality and I see no reason why it shouldn't be possible in the humanities. In fact, in certain disciplines (notably foreign language), I'm quite certain that graduate students are already exploited for slave labor as section instructors. Such excessive teaching loads are counterproductive, of course, but the point is that if excesses already exist then it's at least conceivable that a middle ground could be found.

      I make a point of reading and absorbing ideas from people outside of my area in order to help me gain a broader perspective on the issues facing me and my work. I wouldn't be reading this article otherwise. I think it would be good for you to do the same.

  2. I have to say that I appreciated my institution giving me a reduced load in my first semester. This reduced load was meant for me to prep my other courses and to attend faculty orientation sessions that had been prepared for us each Friday. Each week, a different area would present and inform us of their student services or role in the college. It was a great way to learn about and adjust to my institution.

    1. My college got some grant money and did that for one year (long after my first year). I'm sure the new proffies were grateful for the reduced teaching load. I know I would have been. As soon as the grant money was gone, however, so was the program, except the newbies still had to attend the Friday sessions on top of their course loads. At least the administration lessened it to every other Friday instead of every Friday.

  3. One reason our apprenticeship system dumps a full load on junior faculty is that the up-front costs are lower. Of course there are other costs, such as quality of instruction, and stress on the new teacher, but if we eased new faculty in gradually, we'd need other faculty to teach the courses they're not teaching. I hesitate to advocate that, since too often this extra is carried on the backs of the contingent faculty, who are overworked and underpaid too much already, but that's one reason it is the way it is. (I know that a standard perk for new faculty hires in the sciences is a reduced teaching load, but that's not primarily intended for breaking them in gradually for teaching: it's to provide time for them to write proposals for external funding.)

    Some of it is plain, old-fashioned, mean-spirited hazing. Look what young physicians go through during their residency. Consider the killer hours they work. Far too often, the result is errors in judgment because of fatigue that quite literally kill their patients. Whenever confronted with this, the medical profession often doesn't justify this practice with anything better than "Well, that's what I had to do when I was young." (Another rationalization I’ve heard for this is “It prepares the residents for working during disasters.” A comeback to this should be, “So you cause a disaster?”)

    I remember what that was like to be an Accursed Visiting Assistant Professor. I also remember what it was like to be a so-much-more privileged tenure-track Assistant Professor, working for unsupportive and clearly jealous senior faculty, who'd never had research programs and felt threatened by mine, even though they were ostensibly why I was hired. It wasn't fun. Therefore, whenever I serve as department chair, and also whenever I don't, anytime I see senior faculty bullying junior faculty, I tell the senior, as loud as I can where everyone can hear, "EXCUSE ME, but the point of mentoring is to HELP our junior faculty, NOT to see how much extra stress you can dump on them!" It’s up to those of us who have tenure to use it well.

    P.S. There are no foxy colleagues here. But of course, this is the physics department.

  4. My department gives new academics a lighter teaching load in their first two years (not hugely lighter, 1-2 modules less than the rest of us), in addition to a course release to attend classes to get a post-grad certificate in higher ed teaching. Yes, it's a pain that the rest of us have to cover the extra classes for those years, but it means we get better colleagues at the end of it. Maybe we DO do something right...

  5. My department gives new academics a lighter teaching load in their first two years (not hugely lighter, 1-2 modules less than the rest of us), in addition to a course release to attend classes to get a post-grad certificate in higher ed teaching. Yes, it's a pain that the rest of us have to cover the extra classes for those years, but it means we get better colleagues at the end of it. Maybe we DO do something right...

  6. Frod's point about the abuse of medical residents is accurate but not entirely relevant. We are talking about giving a typical load to new faculty, not more than typical. Do any occupations take a year to ease their new hires into the job?

    1. But for new faculty, it is more than typical, in that they don't have sheaves of notes from previous years. Whenever I teach a course I've never taught before, it typically takes me 5-8 hours of class prep for every hour of class time, versus about one hour for classes I've taught before. (And we've all seen cases of far less: as an undergraduate, I used to hate research profs who clearly did almost no prep, picked up the book two minutes before class, and wrote the book on the board---and there were cases who didn't even bring the book.)

      It's worse if one has to do this for multiple classes. And no, I don't think I'm unduly slow: Winston Churchill wrote that it took him a full, 8-hour work day for him to prepare a 40-minute speech for the House of Commons, and he had a secretary to help him and was smarter than most proffies.

    2. Beaker, I would argue that teaching is more of an art than a science, and most arts have extensive layers of practice before tackling a gallery exhibit or concerto all their own.

      What we need here is practice, the ability to fail without failing too many at once, the chance to hone a craft before taking on 80 or 150 or 250 students at once.

    3. I remember wondering this during my first years of teaching, all too well. My first year, as an Accursed Visiting Assistant Professor, was particularly difficult.

      The person whose leave-term replacement I was gave me my main briefing for how to teach. It was: "do what you did in your previous classes." He'd clearly forgotten that I hadn't taught any classes before. When I tried to tell him this, he interrupted me, in the way he did with everyone: he was always very full of himself.

      I had an utterly humorless blob of a department chair who took everything he read on anonymous student evaluations at face value. He sat me down in his office as soon as the first set was in, and yelled at me for every bad one, and ignored every good one. And this from a physicist, who's supposed to be trained in statistics, but then he'd never published a thing in his life.

      How can one become proficient at anything if there's no guidance, and passing is apparently 100% on the first try? Is it any wonder I started getting a feeling that the lunatics had taken over the asylum?

      When I went to my t-t job, things improved in some ways. We have peer review, and read student evaluations with a wary eye. It didn't improve in other ways, though. We had this old faculty "expert" on "physics pedagogy" with a thick German accent and the sinister air of a child molester, who clearly enjoyed hazing the junior faculty. An utterly incompetent department chair whose modus operandi was to avoid all conflict at all costs abetted this, by doing nothing about it.

      At least I wasn't the only one to get this treatment, and knew it. That was 12 years ago, though. Now, I have tenure and sufficient seniority, particularly after having served more than once as department chair, so that the minute I see him giving any junior faculty a hard time, I yell "STOP!"

      I don't often use that command voice I learnd in the military, but it's nice to have it, when I need it. I wish I could make him retire: the thought of driving a stake through his heart has occurred to me.

    4. AM, art is just science incompletely understood.

    5. Ben, that is a beautiful line.

  7. I agree with Frod about prep time -- after 20 years of teaching, I can put in 2 hours of prep per one hour of course time for an undergraduate course I have taught before (this includes rereading the material). But a new course or a grad course is 4:1. None of this counts conceptualizing, reading for, and writing the syllabus, or prepping and grading assignments.

    We give a one-course release and a research-only quarter to first-year hires. So they teach something like 1-0-2. The smart ones figure out that they should do no more than 2 new classes a year after the first year, and spend their first 3 years developing a suite of 5-6 courses they can rotate in and out over the 6-year tenure track.

    Also, Beaker Ben's profile of a research professor bears absolutely no relation to what happens in the Humanities, where you teach a full load, always, unless you are on fellowship/sabbatical or getting course release for institutional service.

    1. "Also, Beaker Ben's profile of a research professor bears absolutely no relation to what happens in the Humanities, where you teach a full load, always, unless you are on fellowship/sabbatical or getting course release for institutional service."


      In my case, I taught 6 courses/quarter (!) for the first year after my MA. My usual adjunct gig for the next few years was 6/6 (semester), all but one of those courses was a composition course.

      Getting a 4/4 TT gig was like being on vacation--almost. Where I am, service and PD are supposed to comprise less of what we do (we are a teaching institution) but the reality was that the campus expected a metric fuckton of service, and the department expected the same, but for PD. So it really sucked. Especially when the incredibly low salary is factored in.

      Unsurprisingly, we are having trouble hiring qualified candidates in a variety of disciplines. They come here, interview, go back to their diss advisor, who asks them point-blank, "Are you fucking crazy?" Whereupon we end up with another failed search. But the voters think we're overpaid, so the legislature keeps cutting our budget, so the ship is sinking. Hooray.


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