The Accidental Mathematician

Teaching load, itemized: part 1

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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.

Overview. The standard job contract for research faculty at R1 universities, including here, is 40% research, 40% teaching, 20% service. Assuming 50 weeks of full-time work per year, this translates to the equivalent of 20 weeks of teaching, 20 weeks of research, and 10 of administrative work.

The normal course teaching load for research faculty in mathematics at UBC is 3 courses per year. Each course is semester-long (13 weeks plus exam period) and meets in class for 3 hours per week. (Additional teaching credit is given for 4-hour courses and for extra large sections with 200 or more students.) The supervision of graduate students and undergraduate research projects is in addition to that. We get no teaching credit for it, but on the other hand, the current NSERC policy makes it a mandatory condition for holding a research grant.

Undergraduate courses. I would estimate the workload involved during the semester at 5 hours total per 1 hour in class, not counting pre-course preparation (fixing the syllabus, choosing a textbook) and final exams. With those added, most 3-hour courses average out to 6-7 weeks (a month and a half, roughly) of full-time work. Multiply it by 3 (the number of courses), and that’s 20 weeks already, even without counting graduate supervision. This is the total workload, including everything from class preparation to grading to answering student emails.

Exactly how this breaks down depends on the course. The last two undergraduate courses I taught were Math 220 (Mathematical Proof) and Math 317 (Advanced Calculus IV), both in Fall 2011, so I will be using these as a benchmark. Math 317 had 2 midterms, bi-weekly homework assignments, and a final exam, which is the generally accepted standard here. Math 220 was similar except that homework was due every week, but on the other hand it was common for the two sections of the course, so I only had to prepare it every other time. (This is an “introduction to proof” course where the department pays special attention, so I did not have all that much freedom with that one.) I had not taught either course before, although I had taught other versions of the calculus course. In Math 220, I was the “Instructor In Charge” (an official term) of the two course sections. I had TAs for both classes.

Excluding pre-course preparation, midterms and final exams, the workload amounted to about 12 hours per week per course, which breaks down approximately as follows.

In case you’re keeping count, 13 weeks of this brings us to about 4 weeks of full-time work. We still need to add a couple of things.

That’s additional 2.5 weeks right there.

The workload distribution can vary from course to course. For example, large calculus classes can require less preparation time given that the material is easier, and there are additional TAs hired to help with marking the exams, but more time is needed for individual meetings with students and responding to student email. Calculus classes with specified target audience (for life sciences, for social sciences, etc.) cover standard material, but the presentation is quite different from the usual calculus for science and engineering, so some preparation may be required there. You might spend less time on grading finals in the smaller honours classes, but more on syllabus design and finding additional resources.

Teaching assistants. Many of our TAs (about half, probably) are undergraduate students who may have only taken the same course the year before. Typically, they’re diligent, conscientious and hard-working. What they’re not is experts on the subject. It would be insane to expect otherwise. They’re often first-time graders as well, and training them in that regard is considered as part of our duties as instructors. Graduate students can come from countries where a standard undergraduate mathematics background is different, or at least differently presented. There have also been occasional problems with unreliable or unqualified TAs (I have had a couple).

What this means is that we cannot simply leave the midterms or assignments in the TA’s mailbox and pick them up a few days later. At the very least, we have to provide an answer key and a fairly detailed marking scheme for each assignment (how many marks for each part of the solution, how to respond to common mistakes, etc.). I also meet with each TA at the beginning of the semester to discuss their duties, and if the first problem set has already been handed in, we mark a few assignments together. In my experience, this is necessary to prevent grading disasters that can be very difficult to fix and can result in massive student dissatisfaction. For the midterms, we are explicitly instructed to not leave the grading entirely to the TAs. One possibility is to meet with the TA and grade together (if the schedule permits). I tend to split the problems roughly in half, provide detailed instructions for the TA’s share of grading, and check on their work afterwards.

Buffer time. Before you start disputing my figures, I would suggest two more things to consider. One is fatigue. If answering a single email from a student when you’re fresh and well rested takes you 6 minutes, that doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to answer 20 of them in 2 hours. You’ll probably have to take a short break somewhere in the middle. OK, so we don’t usually get 20 student emails all at once, but there are plenty of repetitive and time-consuming tasks I’ve just listed.

Second, it would be really nice if everything ever worked exactly as it would be expected to work in ideal circumstances. Here on this planet, that does not happen. Just last week, the main copier in the department broke down for most of a day, right at the beginning of the exam period when everyone is busy copying their finals. TAs can be problematic. The lecture may have to be moved to a different classroom. Microphones can malfunction. The departmental remote server might be down just when you needed to upload a problem set. And so on. I don’t care if the same work could be done in less time by someone who’s always fresh and always has the best of luck with everything. That’s magical thinking, not real life.

Still think that I’m spending too much time on it? By all means, do explain. If I’m doing unnecessary stuff, I’d love to know that so that I could drop it. If teaching at UBC takes more time and effort than elsewhere, that would be interesting to know also. (I’ve said already in comments that, in my experience, a 4-course teaching load at Princeton was significantly lighter than a 3-course load at UBC.) I’ll get to that and more next time.

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