Thursday, September 08, 2011

Loaded

Some colleagues and I were talking about teaching loads over dinner recently. First, let me say that I do not think that the word load implies that we find teaching a burden. It's just a term that means "how much one teaches per unit time" (term or academic year).

I hope that longtime readers have the impression that I like and value teaching (and students), as that is, in fact, how I feel about teaching (and students). That does not, however, mean that I want to teach a lot. By a lot, I mean more than 2.5 classes/year. OK, maybe 3.

If I teach a lot -- and there have been years when I taught > 3 classes -- I like teaching less because I don't have time to focus on doing it well. I don't have time to give my students the attention they need and deserve. Excessive grading erodes my mental and physical health.

If I teach more than 3 classes in an academic year, I don't have as much time for my graduate students and postdocs and undergrad research students, and it's more difficult to find time for research, papers, proposals, conferences, and all those things that are the other major component of my job. I have a very active research program, and it requires a lot of time to keep that going.

Although I am an epic multi-tasker and am happy work late into the night and on weekends, there are limits to what I can do in terms of doing both research and teaching well, and my personal limit -- given the size of my research program and group -- is about 2.5 classes/year.

Fortunately, that happens to be my average teaching load. It doesn't have to be 2.5 classes every year. It can be 3 some years and < 2.5 other years; that's fine. It's good to have flexibility.

Yes, I know that other faculty teach 4 (or more) classes in a year and also manage to get other things done (research, life), but I am not one of those people who can do all of that well.

Are my university and the people it serves getting their money's worth out of me? How would I fare in an evaluation of my usefulness to the university? That depends on the factors in the equation. I have brought in a lot of grant money, advised and graduated a lot of students, published a respectable number of papers, and received high teaching evaluations. I would fare well if those efforts are considered.

I would not fare well if the number of courses taught/year is a major factor (although my teaching load is not out of line with my department or similar departments). The low number of courses (relative to, say, humanities faculty teaching loads) might be somewhat offset by the fact that I teach some large to moderate sized courses, but there's no getting around the fact that many of us science professors teach less than our colleagues in other units of the university.

Should I teach more? Would it be better for the university overall if I taught more and did less research and advised fewer graduate students? I don't know.. that's a loaded question.

30 comments:

Pippin, the Gentle Pup said...

Reading your post gave some clarity to why I can't find the love for a job that I should love. If I taught one fewer course than I do, I might not feel like quitting so much of the time. I like all three of the major components of the job (research, teaching, service) but the one with the least specific set of deadlines (research) is the one I love most but get to do least.

Anonymous said...

that sounds like paradise to me. As a newly tenured professor in Germany, I'm still overwhelmed by the 4.5 classes *per semester* I have to teach.

This is such an incredibly stupid system, because it encourages, no, forces you to devote to teaching the minimal amount of time you can get away with without facing disciplinary action, just because otherwise there would simply be no time left for anything else.

And the funny thing is that any kind of official appreciation you can get (which translates into salary raises) hinges on things like publications or amount of funding raised. So in fact the incentives even work towards "just do your teaching pro forma".

2.5 classes per year. I would strive to be teacher of the year in such circumstances.

Doc said...

I think this question is less about you and more about the goals of the university. I was shocked when I discovered how little teaching is valued at universities with strong research programs, and the distribution of faculty time is often a representation of that.

Are you valuable to your university? That depends on how they are paying the bills...

Anonymous said...

Doesn't it depend on who is paying the piper? Presumably the funds for your pay come from several sources (tuition, state -- if you're at a public U, grant funds). Students have a reasonable expectation that their tuition funds should be spent in ways that benefit them. Grant funds are usually pretty specific about what they are planning on supporting. State funds, I think, haven't been so clearly designated. The state may have an interest in funding students, in funding people who will attract grant dollars, in increasing the intellectual/economic vibrancy of the city/state/institution.

It's reasonable for each of those pay sources having an idea of what you should be doing with their money. I think this is a discussion that universities need to be having, and they have to refrain from using the personal development of their faculty ("It made me a much better person; I had a fabulous time, . . . .") as the justification for use of funds.

(I cite that because I noted that as a primary justification for sabbaticals on a recent faculty thread I was following. If, for example, student tuition funds were being used to support a sabbatical (and, I'm not saying that they were), then the faculty might need to show that their sabbatical improved the teaching of those who were paying to be taught. If grant funds were used, they should be able to show that the funding agencies aims were supported, . . . .

Anonymous said...

I think it's important to note that supervising grad students *is* teaching. It's the labor-intensive bespoke teaching of an apprenticeship, instead of "wholesale" teaching in the classroom, but it is most definitely teaching.

Yes, you can teach fewer student at a time as graduate advisees than you can as classroom students, but you have to teach them so much more that it really is the most efficient way we've found to complete the task.

When people who don't know any better talk about how little professors teach, it's because they don't understand this.* I think it's important that we clarify the issue, because we would not be turning out high-quality researchers in this country without teaching them the job.

*Of course, they also apparently don't understand about teaching-intensive institutions. I attended community college for a couple of years, and I don't think the professors there would recognize the descriptions some politicians like to tag us with...

GMP said...

Anon at 07:58 AM -- do you mean you teach 4.5 courses or 4.5 classes each semester? FSP teaches 2-3 courses per year; if she were on a semester schedule, that would mean she teaches 1 or 2 courses per semester, which typically amounts to 3 or 6 50-min classes per semester. (I am not trying to be obnoxious here; the reason I ask whether there may be a misunderstanding is that when I was in undergrad in Europe, my profs didn't teach more than 2 courses per semester.)

Anyway, at research-intensive institutions, it's expected that the teaching load would be lower for people who bring in research money. As Anon at 10:54 said, supervising research is teaching, students are apprentices. I think we all have to do a better job at explaining to the public what it is that we do when we say we do research.

Anonymous said...

You don't find teaching a burden, really. That's great and I'm glad there are a lot of people like you, but I suspect that very large fraction (majority?) of science professors would rather not have to teach classes. In my field, 3/4 of the senior research jobs are the tenure-track teaching jobs. I'm certain that the majority of us would rather dispense with the course loads if given the choice. So how about that for a poll? In your heart of hearts, if given the choice between a tenure-track job based only on research (with or without grad students) and one based on both research and teaching, which would you choose?

Anonymous said...

Supervising graduate students is definitely teaching, but it's not the teaching that undergraduates are paying for. The economics of universities are enormously complex, but I would be somewhat disturbed if I were to generally conclude that tuition paid by undergraduates (who were then taught by people in 300 person lecture halls and lowly paid teaching assistants) was used to subsidize the intensive education received by graduate students (though I don't actually believe this is what's happening, I do believe that we have to show, with the numbers, that it's not).

The "state" dollars, though, are perfectly fine to use for that purpose, though then the value has to be sold to the taxpayers of the state

John Vidale said...

I'm confused. It matters whether your school runs on quarters or semesters. 2.5 courses/yr would be ~20% less than one course at a time, on average in quarters, but ~20% more on a semester system. Very roughly, 1 course at a time seems the norm for the science depts at the schools where I've taught.

But comparisons are nearly impossible with the mix of large and small classes, journal clubs, seminar "courses", the possibility of team teaching, double listing of courses as upper and lower level with slightly different requirements, ... . Chairs, editors, directors of large projects, even serving on campus committees get surprising numbers of faculty excused from some teaching.

Technically, the SNR in measuring teaching loads is less than one, and I can see why legislatures complain often and loudly, and impose arbitrary formulae to try to measure at least something.

As an example of the gamesmanship, the California legislature required 1000 new classes a few years ago - UCLA responded partly by creating Fiat Lux, a new class of 1-credit courses.

Anonymous said...

I think Texas, when it did its first analysis of faculty "productivity" calculated the value of the grants + the value of the teaching (tuition X students X credit hours taught). Not sure exactly how they accounted for grants, which, of course, can employ a lot more people than just the faculty member.

Alex said...

I think it's important to note that supervising grad students *is* teaching.

+1

Also, speaking as somebody whose usual load is 2 lectures and 2 labs, I envy my colleagues who teach fewer classes. I say that not because I'm jealous of their research time (although I am) but because I envy the hours they can put into each class. I teach at a place with a heavy load, and the party line is that we are better teachers than those folks at research universities because that's what we focus on. Um, maybe in some cases, but a person who can put 40% time into one class is better than a person who puts 20% time into each class.

If I ever go for an R1 job, part of the reason will be so that, contrary to stereotypes, I can teach better.

Female Science Professor said...

I have taught in both quarter and semester systems, and my average teaching load has been about the same. It's hard to calculate exactly because I do a lot of team-teaching, and there is disagreement (even in my own department) about how to count a team-taught course and how/whether to count a graduate seminar etc. etc.

Anonymous said...

A lot of it depends on whether you are on a semester or quarter system. A teaching load of 3 on a quarter system is really low, but on a semester system is higher.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous at: 9/08/2011 11:52:00 AM wrote:

"Supervising graduate students is definitely teaching, but it's not the teaching that undergraduates are paying for. The economics of universities are enormously complex, but I would be somewhat disturbed if I were to generally conclude that tuition paid by undergraduates (who were then taught by people in 300 person lecture halls and lowly paid teaching assistants) was used to subsidize the intensive education received by graduate students (though I don't actually believe this is what's happening, I do believe that we have to show, with the numbers, that it's not).

The "state" dollars, though, are perfectly fine to use for that purpose, though then the value has to be sold to the taxpayers of the state"



I'm not quite sure where the undergrad-paying topic came from, but grad students generally either pay tuition (e.g. in professional programs) or --in the sciences anyway-- have it paid for them (i.e. it's still paid), usually by Federal research grants. When the positions are grant-funded, they are justified to the taxpayers through an extremely rigorous process with dauntingly low acceptance rates. Applicants have to show not only that their work is genuinely important, but also that it's almost guaranteed to yield the desired results.

And, of course, these grants also employ the grad students (in addition to paying their tuition), technologists, and other support staff, helping reduce the unemployment rate. So I think, as taxpayers, we're getting a pretty good deal.

Alex said...

A teaching load of 3 on a quarter system is really low, but on a semester system is higher.

Sure, but the trade-off is that the person teaching 3 on the quarter system has to put up with the misery that is teaching on the quarter system. Surely they deserve some sympathy!

John Vidale said...

as anons@11:52 and 10:11 said, if supervising graduate students is to be considered teaching, it leads to some contradictions.

In the eyes of many taxpayers in my state, the State shouldn't pay to train graduate students who come from out of state, and will leave the state (or country) again upon graduation.

So any faculty time spent educating them - advising or teaching graduate classes - should be paid from summer salary paid by grants or tuition paid by the grant. Not claimed from the 9 months of regular of academic year salary from the State. Not substituted from undergraduate teaching.

Of course, it is not that simple in the real world, but some legislators think that is how it should be, and they fund State universities, or used to.

John Vidale said...

I realized a flaw in my recent post - tuition paid does partly contribute to 9-month teaching salaries.

However, tuition covers costs of teaching ALL the courses the students take, as well as advising they receive, and other university expenses as well, so the contribution from any one student directly to their advisor's salary must be small to negligible.

PUI prof said...

I teach in a teaching intensive institution, and am loaded 24SH per year. This semester I lecture for 5 periods per week (5 "preps"), and am in lab (4 "sections") for 8 hours per week. I prep my own labs and grade my own assignments. And I serve on a lot of committees.

Ask my how productive my lab is ;)

cml said...

We play to our strengths. I am in the physical sciences and I truly love the teaching in the classroom and the lab. Doing lab based research was not expected of me at but I did try to get a couple of projects going for undergraduates (I was at a primarily undergrad university where research expected but not funded). I liked the one-on-one interaction with the students. I did not relish writing grants.

I am now at a community college where my only obligation is teaching and so I am teaching a bit more but much smaller classes (10 vs. 100) It is great for me to work with the students.

I teach 15 contact hours which becomes 3 classes (each with lab).

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Wow. Things are different in the sciences. Envy...

(And in response to the point of "I wouldn't have time to research and publish," the answer is "Yes, you would, because the job would require it. You just wouldn't have time to do anything else.")

Anonymous said...

@gmp: FSP teaches 2-3 courses per year; if she were on a semester schedule, that would mean she teaches 1 or 2 courses per semester, which typically amounts to 3 or 6 50-min classes per semester.

Now I'm completely confused. Surely you can't mean 6 50-min classes per semester, as in 6 x 50 minutes teaching altogether per semester? That's per week, right?

Which would bring it closer to my load, actually. I teach 9 45 minute sessions per week during the semester. (I.e., 6075 minutes, or 101 hours. Oh my god I want to kill myself now.)

That's the norm in Germany. (The law, actually.) It's very hard to get a reduction, no matter what the status is of your university.

EliRabett said...

Markers are missing in this discussion. Marking is a huge driver of teaching load, and having markers makes the task much easier. At R1's you have markers, not so much elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

"I'm not quite sure where the undergrad-paying topic came from, but grad students generally either pay tuition (e.g. in professional programs) or --in the sciences anyway-- have it paid for them"

Yes, they have. But if they're being offered a labor-intensive form of teaching (i.e. their 20K pays for 20 hours/week of one/one instruction) v the 10K paid by an undergraduate for 20 hours of group instruction where they are one of 20-500 students, and if tuition dollars were the only source of funds (of course they are not), one group of students would be subsidizing the other group.

State institutions have largely sold themselves to legislators on the grounds that they are educating resident undergraduate students (well, and some professional students, though this has been changing over time), an extension of k-12 education. Of course, many institutions are much more than that, but if they want funding for that value, they should be selling that value.

From a tuition point of view, too, students have a right to know what their dollars are supposed to be paying for. If indeed there are fields where the tuition dollars are paying for the research activities of the faculty, the faculty need to make a good case for why that payment results in a better education for the student paying the tuition (they can reference value to the world in general, but then I suspect that the grounds for having 18 year olds take on student loans to pay for that value to the world is morally iffy).

So my answer to FSP's initial question of whether 2.5 is reasonable teaching load depends on what percent of her time is spent on educating the students compared to her other activities and what percent of her salary is generated from sources that are supposed to support the education mission. I think this calculus is often balanced in some sense or another with release time for research being based on funds generated, certification of faculty effort, etc.

GMP said...

Anon at 5:45 PM: yes, of course, 6 50-min classes per week (that's 2 courses on a semester schedule; one typical course is 150 min of lecture time per week). You seem to teach the US equivalent of 3 courses per semester, which would be considered very high...

Do you have salary over the summer in Germany though? Because US faculty are not paid over the summer by the university funds (only the 9 academic months) unless they teach summer courses, which would bring the overall annual load closer to what you have. (US faculty in the sciences and engineering typically cover their summer salary from the grants though).

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

My teaching load has fluctuated from year to year, with a high this past year of 5.4 courses, not counting independent studies and lab-group meetings (which are also courses). Those are semester courses taught in a quarter (35 lecture hours a course), which made for a very intense teaching year. Almost no research or writing got done.

At least only one of the courses was new this year. My first year
as an assistant professor at my current university involved 4 new courses (one of which was a labor-intensive tech writing class, and one of which I was handed the book on the second day of class and asked to teach it because the scheduled instructor was in the hospital and not able to teach that quarter). My second year had 5 courses, one of which was new.

Note: this is at an R1 university, where research is absolutely essential for tenure. Needless to say, my progress was somewhat slower than average, but I did eventually make it to full professor.

Anonymous said...

Re: Anon @ 6:57

I could be wrong (it's happened a number of times before, actually...), but from what I have read I believe that undergraduate tuition at most public universities does not meet the operating cost per undergraduate. That is, the undergrads are paying less than it costs to educate them. So I don't think undergraduate subsidizing of research (or research students) is a major issue. The reverse might be true, however, given the AMAZINGLY high overhead fees universities charge on Federal grants.

I almost wore my coffee when you wrote: "(i.e. their 20K pays for 20 hours/week of one/one instruction)." I know some people who saw their grad school advisors for one hour once a week (assuming there was no need for more). Those were the highly-engaged sort in my field. I saw mine less than once every 2 months, and then usually for 30 minutes. (Busy advisor; huge program.)

I suppose it's theoretically possible that in some lab-based disciplines where the advisor and advisee work in the same physical space, that they might occasionally manage to spend 20 hours a week in proximity to one another... but I haven't seen it. Generally, the people I know spend too much time stuck in meetings to manage anything of the sort.
:-)

Anonymous said...

The trick is to teach the same courses year after year. That way you only have to put effort into designing the corse notes, and lectures once. From that first year or two on you just repeat, repeat, repeat. Like any job it becomes easier with time.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

"The trick is to teach the same courses year after year. That way you only have to put effort into designing the corse notes, and lectures once. From that first year or two on you just repeat, repeat, repeat."

Ah, to be in such a static field that nothing changes from year to year. I suppose it is like that teaching freshman physics (17th century-19th century material), but it is not that way in bioinformatics, where the interesting questions change with the technology, which changes very rapidly.

Anonymous said...

You seem to teach the US equivalent of 3 courses per semester, which would be considered very high

Oh, to teach 3 courses/semester. I wouldn't know what to do with all the extra time. (Even with a double-prep--that is, teaching 2 or more sections of the same course--with each class the workload increases exponentially. 4/4, like everyone at my wannabe-research institution teaches, is very common in the US.)

The trick is to teach the same courses year after year. That way you only have to put effort into designing the corse notes, and lectures once. From that first year or two on you just repeat, repeat, repeat. Like any job it becomes easier with time.

Wow. Well, I suppose that's sort of true, but if you're not up on the latest research, even in a so-called "static" field (I teach 19C literature), then you're doing your students and yourself a disservice. Personally, I have little respect for that approach.

Anonymous said...

My department handles doctoral student supervision by giving us a course release based on the number of points we're earned by supervising dissertations, independent studies. This is an appealing way to give teaching credit for all kinds of teaching activity and balances things when there is large variation in the number of doctoral students in a program.