Category Archives: mathematics: teaching

Teaching load, itemized: part 2

This is a continuation of my earlier post on teaching workload.

I must say that I got quite tired just from writing that post, reinforcing my feelings that this gig might not last. Academic teaching as it is now is awfully work-intensive, and this workload goes all but unnoticed by those who are benefitting from it. Some of this is of course complaining about the Romans who have not done anything for us lately, but the more important question is whether the service we are providing is really needed on that kind of scale. In 1900, half of American kids did not go to school at all, and only a very small fraction ever went to university. In the 1950s, the proportion of the U.S. population aged 25 or more with a Bachelor’s degree was less than 10%. It’s about 30% now. But every homework assignment still has to be marked by hand. We’re making hand-crocheted sweaters for one-third of the population.

Sweatshop wages is one way that could go. I get paid well enough, thank you for asking, but too many educational institutions depend increasingly on cheap adjunct labour with no job security. Or else, we could question whether everyone really needs a hand-crocheted sweater with pompons. Engineers, for instance, should have a pretty solid knowledge of math. I want to be able to walk into a building without worrying that it will collapse on me. But quantitative literacy for the general population might be taught using other models: online courses perhaps, or internet accounts with a point system a la Khan Academy. It’s not necessarily the kind of deep knowledge that I, personally, would love to be able to impart to everyone. But it might be enough, and all that people are willing to pay for, and all that we can do anyway.

More on that later. For now, I’ll finish what I started last time.

How my teaching practice has evolved. It’s been almost 20 years now. Obviously, technology has changed since then. When I started out, course syllabus and handouts were printed, xeroxed and handed out to students in class. We had email already, at least at universities, but course announcements were made in class rather than emailed to the course mailing list. There were no computer projectors or clickers in classrooms. I’m not sure that the technology has reduced our workload, really. We no longer have to print out 100 or 200 copies of each midterm solution set (no, the secretaries don’t do that for us). We post the solutions on the course webpage instead. But the expectations have risen, too. We have to provide midterm solutions, homework solutions, lists of topics for midterms, practice midterms, solutions to practice midterms, and anything else that students might request. The more dedicated instructors post additional handouts, pencasts and Java applets.

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Teaching load, itemized: part 1

Some time ago, in this post, I committed the sin of mentioning teaching workload a couple of times. Mostly, I was speculating if it might be possible to combine research with other types of part-time work instead of teaching, in similar proportions, for those researchers who would be so inclined. The reaction was… interesting. I was told repeatedly (and rudely, in one comment that I have since deleted) that I should stop complaining and exaggerating. Physicists said that they could always use their research grants to buy out their teaching if they need more research time, and in any case there are plenty of teaching-free research jobs out there.

This is all against the constant background of newspaper noise about college professors getting paid a full-time professional salary to teach for a few hours per week, with the entire summer off and a long winter break, too, courtesy of the taxpayers. Naturally, we complain about too much teaching anyway, because we don’t care about the students and have too much free time on our hands.

I would not worry much about newspaper editorials and Gawker posts if they did not rub off on people I meet in real life. As a rule, my non-academic acquaintances assume that I don’t have to work at all in the summer. When I mention “research” or “administrative work”, they’re not sure what I mean exactly, although “working with graduate students” can get a nod. They’re surprised to hear that I prepare for classes – don’t I have the notes from last year or whenever? They get the general idea that teaching 200 students is a lot of work, though, and I don’t have to explain why I don’t read or answer student emails on evenings and weekends.

The WaPo article and Gawker post linked above are especially obnoxious even by the standards of the genre, in that they actually attack faculty at teaching institutions – those with 4-4 and 5-5 teaching loads – for not working hard enough to earn their keep:

An executive who works a 40-hour week for 50 weeks puts in a minimum of 2,000 hours yearly. But faculty members teaching 12 to 15 hours per week for 30 weeks spend only 360 to 450 hours per year in the classroom. Even in the unlikely event that they devote an equal amount of time to grading and class preparation, their workload is still only 36 to 45 percent of that of non-academic professionals. Yet they receive the same compensation.


This is nonsense that does not pass the smell test.
For more responses, see here, here, here, or here.

The truth of the teaching profession is that no matter how much we are doing already, no matter how much time and energy we put into it, there is always more that could be done. There will always be someone eager to point it out to us, too. We’re supposed to do it out of a personal sense of obligation to our students, driven by our “calling” and passion for teaching. But it doesn’t count as work, because we’re not actually teaching a class, we’re just helping people we should care about.

It’s been shown beyond doubt that stretching the work week past 40 hours lowers productivity, compromises the quality of work, and raises safety concerns. I care about my students. That’s why I don’t want to walk into my 10 am class already visibly tired and low on energy. I don’t want to subject them to lectures that are full of mistakes because I’m fried and can’t focus. And I certainly don’t want to kill or maim them in a car accident due to sleep deprivation.

That, at any rate, is the only response I’ll ever have to the guilt-inducing arguments that shame us for taking a weekend off (clearly, we’re not thinking of the students!) and equate it with slacking out and working less than half-time for a full-time salary. There are more sensible conversations to be had, though. How can we explain what we do to the general public? Can our work be organized more efficiently? (Very likely.) How has it evolved since the mythical golden age of academics walking leisurely around campus, dressed in tweed jackets and thinking deep thoughts? Did that golden age ever actually exist? How will academia evolve in response to the advent of online education? Which parts of our work will be displaced?

That’s enough material for several posts, and now that I’m done with this semester’s teaching, I might actually have the time to write them. First, though, I’ll have to describe the teaching workload here in some detail. For now, I’ll limit this to undergraduate courses; I’ll save graduate teaching for next time, along with comparisons to other departments and universities. I have to say that it feels petty and boring to have to itemize the components of midterm preparation in a blog post. On the other side, though, there’s the myth of 20-minute class preparation time, with no office hours or midterms ever and TAs who work magic like a genie in a bottle.

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