Sunday, February 21, 2016

It's Not the Students For Me Right Now...

It's an administrative structure that mandated larger classes and a department chairperson who accepted the mandate without a fight.

I teach writing, yes, one of those poor, sad sacks. (I shoulda got the MBA.)

I've been teaching 4 sections of 20 students for years, which is one more section and 20 more students than is recommended by the major organizations that oversee writing instruction in the US. (And that number is higher than when I started teaching.)

Now we have 4 sections of 25 students. So I have a 100 students instead of 80. These aren't lecture courses. Every extra student means more papers, more pages, more rough drafts, more grading.

It's astonishing, the number. I sat with my colleagues Friday afternoon and did the math. Based on the averages, here's what we face now.

100 students.
5 major essays.
5 minor assignments.
Essays have at least 2 drafts and a final version.

Total essays read, commented on, graded: 2000

In our first semester classes, our minimum page number for students is 20.
In our second semester classes, our minimum page number is 40.

So, first semester classes involve 40,000 pages read and second semester 80,000 pages.

Too much. I can't do as thorough a job as I like. I spend 3-5 hours every Saturday and Sunday reading and responding to rough drafts or grading final versions. I haven't taken a weekend off since Christmas break.

I know it's a first world, academic problem. But I am going to burn out, burn up, and bail out much earlier than I'd like. I know now that by the time I'm 40 I'm going to have find a new career. And it's a shame.

Lisel from Lafayette


  1. It is, indeed. Efficiencies achieved by reducing quality are not really efficiencies, so much as expressions of diluted values.

    And, as I and others have said, our working conditions are students' learning environments, with all that entails.

  2. What strikes me as most ridiculous is that you have to read drafts. Your administration needs to get off its ass and open a writing center where people will read students' drafts and critique them for a living.

    Honestly, if I had my way Professors would not do any grading. Because Professors are highly compensated and knowledgeable comparable to the pay and knowledge that being a professional grader would require. So you should have them dedicate close to 100% of their time doing the high-level thinking/course composition/teaching things that only they can do.

    Having professors do grading is like having electricians do their own payroll. On paper it seems to make sense, but you're paying people 50 dollars an hour to do something you could pay someone 15 dollars an hour to do.

    Professional graders, grading submissions anonymously, would also retain objectivity and remove the possibility of the students blaming the Professor for bad grades, thereby impeding their ability to respect them/learn from them. Professors would also hopefully enjoy teaching evaluations more focused on their teaching and material.

    Efficiency would be achieved by specializing MORE, not less.

    If they did this, they could increase your class size from 20 to 30 without increasing the number of essays you'd have to read, and probably REDUCING the numbers of pages you have to read given that any editor worth their salt will cut things out rather than add them in.

    1. I suspect, though, that administrations think of faculty time as "free," in the sense that it costs them no more to ask extra hours of faculty on salary, where hiring graders, or tutors in writing centers (even students working hourly) costs additional in an institutional budget.

    2. At least for writing teachers, a lot of our expertise is in providing feedback on writing-in-progress (and doing so is a legitimate professional activity/skill -- think about what editors do -- and also provides us feedback on how well our assignments are working). It might well be different in other disciplines, and I'm for writing centers, but the idea of separating the grading/commenting from instructional design/content delivery is actually one of those ideas that edupreneurs love and writing faculty hate.

    3. I had one professor in graduate school who refused to use teaching assistants because none of the graduate students ever knew enough to credibly lead discussions in his courses that were worth more than having him lecture. He did use graders, though, because there were hundreds of us in the class.

      But while some of what I do as grading could be ... outsourced, a lot of it also provides me feedback on how the course is going, how the students are doing. When I get a question from a colleague about a student, and I look back at my grading notes, it's immediate recognition and detailed. My lectures aren't stand-alone performance pieces; I adjust them (at least some) based on the performance of the class. And discussions are usually based on prepatory homework, so how am I going to have any idea what the discussion is going to be like if I don't look at the homework myself?

      Sure, if I had graduate students and budget, I'd find a way to use them, preferably ways that actually helped the graduate students learn something about the professoring they might themselves do. But I don't know that scaling up in that sort of way is actually productive, which is to say, it's not truly efficient.

    4. I never want someone outside my class reading drafts of essays. There are too many elements of what is assigned for someone who's not in class to be able to direct a revision properly. It'd create worse papers, not better. And, as you can tell, I don't have my own TAs.

    5. It's true: as much as I recommend the Writing Center to students who do need help, I've seen some really bad results from Consultants who didn't really understand the assignments.

  3. Don't minimize your situation as a "first world problem." Sure, it's a problem that people in the first world have to deal with, but we live in the first world because people in the past taught students how to read, write, think, etc. We are in the first world largely because of education. It's not a first world problem, it's just a problem, and a damn important one.

  4. It is, indeed, a very real problem (and it's very, very depressing that those guidelines have been around since sometime in the '70s/early '80s, and have mostly been honored in the breach, so much so that the NCTE finally gave up on them, though the ADE still embraces them). Rubrics help a bit, but only so much, and besides, as far as I'm concerned, it's part of our job to design assignments that will provoke responses idiosyncratic enough that individualized feedback is actually necessary, at least to some degree.

    The other option: in another decade or so, students will be handing papers written mostly by machines to grading machines that have replaced teachers. Of course there's already "journalism" produced by machines, and some of it is indistinguishable from journalism produced by humans. This strikes me more as indicating a problem with the journalism-producing humans (or, more likely their bosses/the conditions under which they work) than representing a triumph of technology.

    Also, I challenge any machine to be able to say something useful about a complex situation (e.g. Syria at present, or the current presidential race). Heck, most humans haven't got much useful to say about either of those situtations (but we could certainly use even a few who do).

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  6. I’m a student, not an educator in academia. Thank you for what you do. Really.

    If I understand you correctly, what you have now basically amounts to another class (in addition to an already full courseload) without any additional help/relief/pay. That's fecked up. There are only so many additional duties people in any situation can be given until it becomes more than they can reasonably bear.

    I'm eternally grateful to my writing instructors (Comp 101 and 102) for helping me to not only write correctly--but think clearly, critically, compassionately. And, they told us--take time to think about what you’re reading. We had maybe 12 students there, a night class for adult students. I learned more in their classes than that Critical Thinking class we were mandated to take years later. (Any writing mistakes here are my own.)
    They spent a lot of time going through our drafts and comparing our later papers with the early ones to correct, grade and make overall decisions. I realized how much work and commitment it took only a lot later, after running into this site and having to do similar work on my own in another job.
    Those instructors I had didn’t seem like super humans or anything; they didn’t give us donuts or try to be entertaining. Just people who took the time to be rigorous about educating us and called us out on any of our bullshit.

    Seems to me: since the admin structure has no concern for writing instructors and what they really do, discuss how the institution could be failing at educating students now who really care or might need help. Maybe talk about how they’re so precious or something. Poor little snowflakes/customers. Yeah, I might include the word, “customers.” That seems to get the admins’ attention.

    Thanks for what you do.

    1. Sorry, but I have to add something. I don't see this as a first world problem. As if it's a problem that should be dismissed and scolded as, I dunno, unworthy somehow. It's a legit problem.

  7. Hmmmm, you must be down the hall.