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.

It probably took me longer to prepare lectures when I started out. That does get easier with time. Even so, it does not quite go down to the proverbial 15 or 20 minutes per class. The technical term for that would be “winging it”. I might get away with it from time to time, in a class I’ve taught before and with material where examples are easy to come up with on the fly, but doing that several times in a row would not work so well.

I’ve found that more preparation time upfront can actually reduce the total workload quite a bit. If I prepare a lecture more carefully, I’ll have fewer questions to answer after class. If I spend more time on midterm preparation, proofreading several times, checking for complicated calculations or incorrect solutions with the right answer, I end up with fewer complaints and grading disasters. For homework assignments, I could pick a few questions from the textbook in a minute or two if I didn’t need to look at the solutions, but again, messy calculations and grading disasters.

Math departments at other research universities. The typical teaching load is 3-4 courses per year, for those universities on a semester schedule (as opposed to quarters). The workload involved in teaching a course may vary quite a bit, though. My 4-course teaching load as an assistant professor at Princeton (1997-2000) was significantly lighter than a 3-course load at UBC. In fact, it was probably lighter than a 2-course load at UBC in 2 years out of 3, and about equivalent to 2 courses at UBC in the one year when I was in charge of a multisection course.

Here’s how this was possible. Each of the lower level courses (calculus, linear algebra) was divided into multiple sections of about 20-30 students. Junior faculty would normally be assigned to teach two parallel sections of the same course, often back to back. This meant that, aside from having to repeat the same lecture twice, it was really a 1-course per semester workload in terms of preparation. Midterms, quizzes and final exams were common for all sections, so that each instructor only had to prepare one quiz per semester and contribute a few exam problems. (The instructor in charge was responsible for coordinating this. Midterms and final exams were scheduled for all sections together, outside of regular class hours. Quizzes were self-administered under the honour code, so again, it was possible to use the same problems for all sections.) The small class sizes meant less grading, fewer office hours and requests for appointments, fewer emails to answer.

Clearly this would not happen here. Most lower level classes here range in size from about 60 to 200+; some have comparable size, about 20-30 students, but those would be single-section courses (honours classes, for instance). I’m guessing that, were a math course to be discovered to have two parallel sections of 30 students each, they would be immediately merged into one, and one of the instructors would be reassigned to teach something else. The last time I taught two parallel sections of the same course (Math 100: Calculus I, Fall 2007), they had 118 and 105 students, respectively, and each section needed separate midterms.

Teaching institutions.. I’ve never worked at one and cannot speak to how the workload is structured. If anyone reading here would like to post about it, please do. I can say fairly confidently, though, that if a faculty member teaches 8-10 courses per year, there is absolutely no way that they could do that without working full time and then some.

Graduate courses. The workload is sometimes heavier, sometimes lighter, but mostly different. The logistics is easier: fewer students, usually no TA, less time spent on course administration. The preparation can take much longer, though: a single lecture can sometimes take a few hours to prepare, just like a research seminar. Assignments can take a very long time to grade.

Graduate supervision. This part is really hard to quantify. First of all, there are huge variations between cases. Some graduate students are so independent that they can just work completely on their own. You get monthly updates on their progress and occasional requests for professional advice. Others have to be guided, if not pulled, every step of the way. Second, this is the part of our work where the line between teaching and research is quite blurry. Writing a joint paper with a graduate student is more research than teaching. Before we got to that stage, though, chances are that the student had to read some literature with substantial guidance from me, that I had to explain the stuff and answer questions. That’s more teaching than research. Reading multiple drafts of essays and theses, commenting, re-reading, and back and forth, is teaching all the way through.

It helps when the department has a good system of graduate courses, so that the students can get to a reasonably advanced level before we have to start the individual tutoring. I did not have that luxury until recently. In my first 8 years at UBC, the department had a grand total of 4 advanced courses in areas related to my research. (By “advanced”, I mean “not cross-listed”.) Additional teaching credit used to be given for “reading courses” that provided a formal framework for such individual tutoring on an advanced level, but this was cancelled in 2002, before I’d had any graduate students. There is no additional teaching credit for graduating students, either.

Other university departments. Mathematicians, in terms of teaching loads and buy-outs, are probably closer to humanities professors than to their colleagues in the faculty of science. UBC has 9 departments in the faculty of science, but (according to official departmental data) the mathematics department does 20% of the teaching, as measured by counting the number of students enrolled in courses offered by each department. (About 45% of these students are in first year service calculus courses.)

For a reality check, I browsed a few other UBC departmental webpages and looked up the teaching loads of randomly selected (by me) research faculty. In the physics department, the usual teaching load seems to be 1 or 2 courses per year; in computer science, 2 courses. For comparison, I also looked up the English department: 4 courses per year.

Please take that with a large grain of salt. If anyone here knows the official teaching load there, please feel free to post in comments. It’s possible that some of the people I looked up had teaching buyouts or administrative reductions. Also, as I pointed out already, it’s far from true that a course equals a course equals a course. In physics courses, the lecturer often teaches a lab section as well. Many of the English courses meet only for 2 hours per week, not 3. Less work for the instructor? Not necessarily, if she goes home every week with a large pile of assignments to grade.

Buyouts. According to physicists on the internet, if you need more research time, you can use grant money to buy out your teaching. I guess that’s how it works in physics and possibly other sciences; in mathematics, not so much. For those of us in pure math, the only grants available to us on a regular basis are the NSERC Discovery Grants. The NSERC Use of Funds page does not list teaching buyouts as an eligible expense, and even if it did, the point would be moot in most cases anyway. The average DG in mathematics is less than 20K (we don’t have this year’s statistics yet), and this has to pay for graduate students, postdocs, travel for the researcher and his or her group. Meanwhile, buyouts (based on anecdotal evidence) can run up to more than 20K per course. It can be less in some circumstances, e.g. if there is an agreement between a department and an institute to let a faculty member attend an institute program. Those of us fortunate enough to win external awards that come with substantial money (e.g. Sloan, Steacie) can and do use them to buy out teaching. These opportunities are only available to a select few, and generally not on an ongoing basis.

Gender. Research studies have suggested that female teachers have to be more supportive, caring, and generally work harder to get the same ratings on teaching evaluations at their male colleagues. I also have quite a lot of anecdotal evidence, from my own classes and those of my colleagues, to the effect that students are more likely to be disruptive when the class is being taught by a female instructor. If it is really typical for male instructors to spend less time on teaching preparation, as some commenters have claimed, then it might be true after all that they can count on getting away with the kind of improvising that would get female instructors trashed in class and then on teaching evaluations. Something to talk about later, perhaps.

Author: Izabella Laba

Mathematics professor at UBC. My opinions are, obviously, my own.

6 thoughts on “Teaching load, itemized: part 2”

  1. There seems to be more than gender to discuss here. My experience is that there can be situations where a student is openly threatening in order to pass, so that only a sufficiently thuggish male teacher can handle such a student without being overly stressed. There are professions for which one of the genders is better suited for non-technical type of reasons as above, teaching might be one of them. E.g., I prefer my family doctor to be female, as I don’t need male-male rivalry to get in the way of prescribing the right antibiotic for a recurrent illness.

  2. That, and also when a woman tries to build up an intimidating presence, she’s absolutely and totally hated for that. In most cases, anyway.

  3. The observation that math is in some respects more like the humanities than the sciences was new to me, but it makes a lot of sense.

    A close friend of mine works in a part of biology where it is the norm for professors at research schools to do one or more postdocs between a PhD and a tenure-track job. But in her subfield, grad students do not teach, and there is essentially no such thing as a postdoc that involves classroom teaching. This training process shapes a very different conception of teaching. And they spend a lot less time preparing, on average, than we do.

    It helps that many results in biology are not derived from first principles as much as “found out”, and they calculate a lot less— so there is less of an absolute need for “thinking on one’s feet” during teaching, and hence less of a need for preparation. Which is not to say that biologists are “lazy”. Teaching is simply a smaller part of the job. The extra time we spend preparing to teach, they spend managing labs.

    The lesson is that in different fields, even simple terms like “teaching” have very different realities attached to them. A non-mathematician’s word “teaching” is a “false friend” our word “teaching”. It sounds the same, but it is a different language. We should remember this when people sound off on generalities like “teaching loads at research universities”.

    I would like to read more of your thoughts on the effect of gender on teaching loads. I get the impression that students expect more from female teachers, that students judge females who depart from their expectations more harshly than males, and that departments tend to regard “bad” student evaluations as more of a problem for female teachers than males. (Men are not expected to be as good at winning student approval, and when they aren’t, they are less likely to be judged on those terms.)

    I would stop short of saying that men can “count on getting away with” less. To me, this phrase implies a kind of conscious, profiteering decisionmaking process, and it ignores other factors that confound the issue. Students expect more from native English speakers than they do from non-native speakers, and more from the young and middle-aged than they do from the old. They also judge the young and old less harshly than the middle-aged, and native speakers less harshly than non-native speakers. These factors interact in complex ways and there are circumstances where gender is not the decisive factor in what one can (unwittingly) “get away with”.

    The relative impact of student evaluations also varies a lot by discipline. Mathematicians benefit as a group from the fact that we are not generally expected to please the students in our service classes. (We also tend to better appreciate, among ourselves, the degrees of arbitrariness involved in assigning numbers to non-numerical things. This is why we can care far less than many about the “impact factors” of the journals we publish in, for example.) Student evaluations have _far_ much more weight in other fields. I think this has a significant impact on the role of gender in teaching, as it varies from field to field.

  4. Anonymous – Thanks for that. Yes, part of what I’m trying to tease out is that “teaching” can mean all kinds of different things, and that we often try to have that conversation in the general context of “teaching at research universities”, without necessarily understanding that it can mean very different things in different fields. I wrote these two posts in part to explain what we do in math.

    About “getting away with”: I meant it in a passive kind of way. For instance, if a male lecturer makes the occasional mistake in calculations (as we all do), and if the students never push back on it (wait for the teacher to notice his error instead of interrupting him, don’t mention it much on teaching evaluations), the lecturer will come to believe that this is within the acceptable margins of error. Not that he plans consciously on making errors or anything, but he might not take the time to check each example twice and prepare a few more ahead of time just in case. If on the other hand a female lecturer gets challenged in class every time she makes a mistake, and many more times when she did *not* make a mistake but a student thought (incorrectly) that she did, then that lecturer will likely spend extra time doublechecking her computations before class. I agree, though, that there are many other variables involved. Also, some classes are just worse behaved than others. Anyway, yes, there’s much more to say, probably enough for a separate post.

  5. Dear Professor Laba,

    Thank you for your thorough rejoinders to David C. Levy’s preposterous Washington Post opinion piece.  By Levy’s metric, the real sluggards are the novelists.  For example, assuming John Steinbeck was typing 60 words a minute, writing The Grapes of Wrath required about seven 7-hour workdays; Steinbeck’s lifework, perhaps 40 workweeks.

    If the general public is skeptical of this analogy between the work of teaching and the work of writing, they might consider that many math textbooks are outgrowths of the authors’ accumulated course lecture notes.

    On the subject of gender bias in student teaching evaluations, there is an article by Neal Koblitz, “Are Student Ratings Unfair to Women?” Association for Women in Mathematics Newsletter, 20 (1990), no. 5, 17–19, available here:


    Of particular interest is the observation that female instructors receive a disproportionately negative response from students for teaching demanding courses.  This issue was not specifically studied (so far as I can see) in the paper cited in the link you provided, G. Potvin, Z. Hazari, R. H. Tai, P. M. Sadler, “Unraveling bias from student evaluations of their high school science teachers,” Sci. Ed. 93 (2009), no. 5, 827–845.  Nevertheless, buried in that paper is an arresting related result: high school physics teachers received significantly higher student evaluations for writing “test questions that could be solved without mathematics” (op. cit., Table 4)!

    Greg Marks

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