So, I got a bit of mail last week in response to my analysis of the COU data (as I usually do whenever I’m presenting data on academic loads) to the effect that I am being overly reductionist about the teaching loads and perhaps implying that profs aren’t working hard. Generally speaking, these comments come in two varieties and I will take the time to answer each of them.
The first line of critique has to do with unit of measurement. “Classes taught”, some critics suggest, is a pretty crude measure. We don’t know how many people are in each class. We don’t know how much assistance each teacher is getting in terms of teaching and marking. There’s no distinction between courses with labs and courses without. Are the classes team-taught? Are there technological innovations which require more instructor time to produce? All of these things (and probably a few more I am missing) affect the actual amount of effort it takes to teach a class. In other words, your 2 classes per term might take twice as much effort to teach as mine, so why do use classes taught as a scale of effort?
This is a fair point. The problem is, we don’t currently have any other metrics by which to measure teaching effort. Presumably, within universities some of these things are taken into account when allocating resources (an extra TA every 70 students, a reduction in required courses if one teaches a class of over 200, etc). But it is hard to imagine how we could do a meaningful comparison of multi-institutional summary of professorial activity, other than asking professors directly in a survey about teaching hours and comparing results. It’s not impossible to do this, but harder to do well compared to counting courses through administrative data.
The second critique is probably more important. When I write about teaching loads – as I did on Tuesday, I often make remarks which show some incredulity about how low these are on average. And yes, I happen to think that two undergraduate and one graduate class per year is low, regardless of how many students are in them. Many people assume therefore that I think professors are slacking. I absolutely do not believe this: I think they work among the longest hours of any profession. I do, however, question whether what they spend these hours on actually corresponds with what students and governments – the ones who pay their salaries – believe they are paying for.
Let’s start with the issue of how much time goes into each class. Let’s say profs work – on average, throughout the year including the summer – 45-hour weeks. Assuming four weeks of vacation that’s 2160 hours. Assuming the 40-40-20 teaching/research/service rule holds true (which I think is questionable, but we’ll work with it), that implies 864 hours of teaching. Assuming 3.2 classes per term, that’s 270 hours per class, or – assuming 3 hours of class per week for 13 weeks – seven hours of work for every hour in class. And while I am open to persuasion and have no doubt that some classes do take that kind of effort, I have a lot of difficulty believing that’s an average.
What are professors spending their time on instead? Research of course. Organizing it, performing it, writing it, disseminating it. It’s how they became profs in the first place. It’s how they get promoted. It’s how they gain prestige within the profession. It’s not exactly a mystery why they might prefer this task over another one.
But the question really is whether this the right balance. If full-time professors on average each taught one more undergraduate course, we could halve the number of courses taught by sessionals. Or reduce class sizes by a quarter. Or some combination of the two. Would we sacrifice some research? Sure. Say an extra course reduced research output by 20%. On average, that might reduce output by half a paper per year (according to the COU stats which suggest average output is 2.3 papers per year). Would that be so bad?
This is a discussion we should have. But we don’t, primarily because our provincial governments simply don’t know or care enough about research to have considered view about research (this is also true in the US, actually – one of the weird consequences of our federal systems in which higher education is funded provincially but research is funded federally). That, combined with the pro-research incentives baked into academia to begin with, inevitably creates a slow list away from teaching, which may not be in the public interest.
It’s understandable. But it’s not necessarily right. It’s a debate we should have, sooner rather than later.