Category Archives: 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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Filed under mathematics: teaching, teaching

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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Filed under mathematics: teaching, teaching

Why a film critic’s blog might be the best place to talk about education

Apologies for the blogging break – the last few weeks have been busier than usual. (Don’t ask.)

The purpose of this post is to link to Roger Ebert’s recent blog entry – on education. Juxtaposing two education-related documentaries from Sundance, he draws unflattering conclusions about the American primary education system. Somewhat uncharacteristically for him, Ebert ends up simply repeating the point made in one of the documentaries: that teachers’ unions stand in the way of good education by protecting the bad teachers and blocking merit pay systems.

I felt that this was far too superficial. There is much more to it, from the social inequalities to the indifferent homes to the pervasive anti-intellectual trends in the society. Many others thought so, too, and gave excellent arguments to that effect in the 200+ comments. These comments – especially those from teachers – are the best thing that I have read about American (and Canadian, to some extent) education in a very long time. Read all of them if you have the time. It’s an eye-opening experience.

You’ll hear from teachers pointing to the large class sizes, high workload and low pay – just because you’ve heard it before doesn’t make it less true. You’ll hear about the larger picture: the anti-intellectual climate, the devaluation of education, the politicization of everything from public school funding to curriculum design. There are multiple stories of parents who abdicate all responsibility for their child’s upbringing, then call the teacher at home late in the evening to berate her for actually expecting the precious darling to do the homework. There are stories of administrators who raise the grades artificially, regardless of the students’ performance, in response to the latest political directives. And then there are stories of poverty and of inner city schools where teachers do not assign homework out of fear of being physically assaulted by students.

As for the teachers’ unions, they do come under attack from some commenters, but many others make strong arguments in their defense. On the other hand, several pointed comments are aimed at education degree programs. Based on what my colleagues and I see in university-level classrooms, there are teachers out there who could indeed benefit from taking a class or two in the actual subject they teach.

Data might not be the plural of anecdote, but this is too powerful to ignore. There’s more intelligent and thoughtful commentary on the subject, coming from multiple and well informed viewpoints, than I’ve seen in a long time. Above all, the big picture that emerges is complex, multifaceted, interconnected, and real. If you, like myself, are tired of the usual mainstream public discourse on education where each question is considered in isolation (if the word “considered” is even appropriate here), the conclusions are preordained, and the suggested solutions are as simple as they are unrealistic, then this is a must-read.

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Filed under teaching

Chewing our mud

I’m too busy this week to do much writing here, but I do want to link to the current round of posts on teaching evaluations, triggered by this Inside Higher Ed article on a recent teaching enhancement initiative at Texas A&M;

It’s not like professors to think that they are so well compensated that it’s not worth hoping for a $10,000 bonus. But out of more than 2,000 faculty members at Texas A&M University’s main campus, only about 300 have agreed to vie for a bonus being offered for their teaching — and all they would need to do is have a survey distributed to their students.

The reason for passing on a chance at $10,000 is that many professors are frustrated by the way the money is being distributed: based solely on student evaluations. Numerous studies have questioned the reliability of student evaluations in measuring actual learning; several of these have noted the tendency of many students to reward professors who give them higher grades. Further complicating the debate is a sense some have that the university is endorsing a consumerist approach to higher education. The chancellor of the A&M system, Michael D. McKinney, told the Bryan-College Station Eagle: “This is customer satisfaction…. It has to do with students having the opportunity to recognize good teachers and reward them with some money.”

That comment didn’t go over well with many professors who believe that their job responsibilities include — at least sometimes — tough grading, or challenging student ideas or generally putting learning before student happiness.

and a response from Ezra Klein:

I grew up among academics. And I have never since met a class of people so contemptuous of teaching. You’d think they were being asked to chew mud. In part, that’s a structure of the rewards system. Teaching takes a lot of time but doesn’t play a big role in tenure or promotion.

This is both incorrect and offensive. Klein has now apologized for it, so I won’t slam him further. All the same, the responses here, here, here, and here are still worth reading, especially for the comment threads. There’s a very good discussion of teaching quality in general and teaching evaluations in particular: the good and bad uses of teaching evaluations, the actual role they play in tenure and promotion cases (quite substantial, at most schools), their correlation with the quality of teaching, as well as other factors that can influence them, from gaming the system to the instructor’s physical attributes. Yes, a 5’3” female professor with a foreign accent does have to work a little bit harder.

I could say more, but it will have to wait. Right now, I have a class to prepare and a few more Putnam problems to write.

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Filed under teaching

We don’t need no certification…

John McCain, in today’s U.S. presidential debate…

We need to encourage programs such as Teach for America and Troops to Teachers where people, after having served in the military, can go right to teaching and not have to take these examinations which — or have the certification that some are required in some states.

Excuse me?

Having served in the military is not, and never has been, a sufficient qualification to be a teacher. (Or a president, for that matter.) A teacher, in addition to being a nice person of good moral character and all that, is supposed to know the subject that he or she teaches and to have a good command of teaching techniques appropriate to the level of his or her teaching. You don’t learn this from military service. You learn it by undertaking a specialized program of study, ending in, yes, exams and certification.

Now, it is possible for anyone to misspeak in the heat of a debate, and in any event the examinations and certification line sounded more like a drive-by than a targeted hit. So I went to McCain’s web site to check it again:

Encourage Alternative Certification Methods That Open The Door For Highly Motivated Teachers To Enter The Field. John McCain will devote five percent of Title II funding to states to recruit teachers who graduate in the top 25 percent of their class or who participate in an alternative teacher recruitment program such as Teach for America, the New York City Teaching Fellowship Program, the New Teacher Project, or excellent university initiatives.

Troops to Teachers, presumably one of those “alternative teacher recruitment programs,” has a web page. I started out by completing a questionnaire. My fictional alter ego completed more than 6 years of active duty, received an honourable discharge, does not suffer from a physical disability, does not have a Bachelor’s or any other higher degree, but does have “the equivalent of one year of college (24 semester hours) with 6 years of military experience in a vocational/technical field.” Turns out that I would qualify to register for referral and placement assistance, but not for financial aid programs. Is this where that Title II money would go?

I’m all for helping discharged soldiers start a second career. I’m all for encouraging young people to become teachers. But teaching is not a joke. It’s not something you do when you don’t have other options. Teachers are highly qualified professionals, should be paid accordingly, and should be able to demonstrate their qualifications in that specific profession. Yes, that should mean specialized training and certification. Want to help the veterans become teachers? Offer them placement in a training program and financial aid for the duration of it. As opposed to letting them skip the exam.

I’m not saying that the current system is perfect, either in the U.S. or in Canada. We at UBC see quite a few students whose math teachers didn’t know the subject as well as they should have; based on my teaching experience at U.S. universities, it’s significantly worse over there. On the other hand, I know of at least one person with a Master’s degree who was forced to take a year-long training program that he probably didn’t need. (That person did complete it and is now a successful teacher.) But what nobody needs is a shortcut to bypass all those annoying certification thingies and encourage unqualified people to become teachers. How do I know that 1 year of college and 6 years of military service in a vocational field do not make me qualified? Actually, I don’t. That’s why we have those exam and certification thingies. To determine who is, and who is not, qualified to be a teacher. To check whether the prospective high school math teacher can in fact solve a quadratic equation or sketch the graph of a simple function. Because, if he can’t, then he shouldn’t be teaching math, his military service or other accomplishments notwithstanding.


Filed under politics, teaching

Reevaluating examples

The New York Times reports on a recent study just published in Science:

“The motivation behind this research was to examine a very widespread belief about the teaching of mathematics, namely that teaching students multiple concrete examples will benefit learning,” said Jennifer A. Kaminski, a research scientist at the Center for Cognitive Science at Ohio State. “It was really just that, a belief.”

Instead of promoting better understanding, the concrete examples might only distract and confuse the students:

In the experiment [conducted by Kaminski and her colleagues Vladimir M. Sloutsky and Andrew F. Heckler], the college students learned a simple but unfamiliar mathematical system, essentially a set of rules. Some learned the system through purely abstract symbols, and others learned it through concrete examples like combining liquids in measuring cups and tennis balls in a container.

Then the students were tested on a different situation — what they were told was a children’s game — that used the same math. […]

The students who learned the math abstractly did well with figuring out the rules of the game. Those who had learned through examples using measuring cups or tennis balls performed little better than might be expected if they were simply guessing. Students who were presented the abstract symbols after the concrete examples did better than those who learned only through cups or balls, but not as well as those who learned only the abstract symbols.

The problem with the real-world examples, Dr. Kaminski said, was that they obscured the underlying math, and students were not able to transfer their knowledge to new problems.


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Filed under mathematics: general, teaching

A special form of preanalysis

From Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge. The year is 2025. Ms. Chumlig is teaching a class in “Search and Analysis” at a San Diego high school:

“There are many different skills,” she was saying. “Sometimes it’s best to coordinate with lots of other people who together can make the answers.” The students nodded. Be a coordinator. That’s where the biggest and most famous money was. […]

[Ms. Chumlig continues after an interruption.] “This class is about search and analysis, the heart of the economy. We obviously need search and analysis as consumers. In almost all modern jobs, search and analysis are how we make our living. But in the end, we must also know something about something.”

“Meaning those courses we got C’s in, right?” That was a voice from the peanut gallery […]

Chumlig sighed. “Yes. Don’t let those skills die. You’ve been exposed to them. Use them. Improve on them. You can do it with a special form of preanalysis that I call `study.'”

Yeah, that’s where we’re going. You don’t believe it? It’s from the same guy who imagined the Internet long before Al Gore did.


Filed under books, teaching