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Posted at 12:08 PM ET, 11/24/2009

Trachtenberg: When professors should teach more than research

By Valerie Strauss

Today's guest is Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, president emeritus and professor of public service at George Washington University.

By Stephen Joel Trachtenberg
“If only I had more free time, I would....”

This sounds like the opening phrase of a writing contest, designed to award the winner with an all expenses paid vacation to a mystery foreign port!

But for years that is exactly what faculty have said on campuses across the country: “If only I had more time, I would write a book, discover a cure, paint a canvas or solve a thorny problem.”

And in many cases, that is what happened. Faculty were given reduced teaching loads in order to free up more of their time for scholarship, research and creative ventures and they scribbled, filled their petri dishes and squeezed paint onto palettes.

Alas, that plan didn’t work for everyone – at least not all the time. Some great teachers only have one book inside them. Some take half a lifetime to reach the conclusion that their research path is not the road likely to succeed.

As colleges and universities aspire to raise the quality of the school’s academics, two approaches are often followed: Admit smarter students and hire better faculty. It can be difficult to decide how best to accomplish either task.

Testing students before admission is one tool, as is high school ranking, letters of recommendation, essays and all the other parts of an applicant’s file. In the end, a combination of those factors is a reasonable predictor of how well a student will do once they arrive on campus.

It is sometimes more difficult to anticipate which members of the faculty will become steady producers of quality research and writing. Young faculty members are hired to teach, write, research, publish or perform in anticipation of receiving promotions and ultimately tenure, the reward of a lifetime employment contract. Their most consequential performance review occurs in the early stage of their career, usually in the sixth year of teaching.

You’re the dean. You meet the candidate for tenure and learn she has written an excellent book, published two articles and has a solid idea for another book. You’re impressed with her scholarship. Her teaching skills have received good reviews (although very few schools “grade” their faculty in any meaningful way). This person is personable, relates well to members of the department, serves on committees and is viewed as a team player.

Following the recommendation of the person’s academic department, you concur in the decision to grant this person tenure. With that move, you have committed the interest earned on approximately $4 million in endowment funds to cover this person’s salary and benefits – for years and years to come.

Frequently, the faculty member applying for tenure is not yet 30 years old and she will teach for the next 40-plus years. You have just looked into a crystal ball and made a bet.

And as is the case in the sports world, you win some and you lose some. The important point is not whether you lost a few bets but rather how to best mitigate those losses.
On college campuses, teaching loads are developed in order to provide the faculty with adequate time to concentrate on non-classroom activities.

At some schools, this amounts to faculty teaching only two courses per semester – six contact hours in the classroom per week (plus the necessary preparation time out of class). It may be less; it is sometimes more; but on average, it is what is called – teaching “two and two.”

Low teaching loads are designed to encourage scholarship and research but at the same time they can drive up the cost of instruction.

For example, if 10 faculty members each teach 2 classes, then 20 classes are provided each term. And if 25 students enroll in each class, then 500 students are taught in that semester.

But out of the 10 faculty members, only seven produce research or works of quality.

The other three are, however, wonderful teachers and the students rush to enroll in their courses. Their value in the classroom is as important to the school as is the research produced by their colleagues.

Should each group teach the same number of classes each semester? If those three taught “three and three” another 50 students would receive instruction without the need to hire additional teachers. The salary line of the annual budget remains the same but credit hour productivity goes up.

It is difficult, if nearly impossible, for a dean or department chair to say to any of those three professors, “How about taking on another class this term?”

The faculty members will strongly resist the suggestion, believing that the campus protocol provides the same teaching schedule for each professor. Can the dean require these faculty members to teach more that other members of the department? Not without fear of reproach and few are willing to do so.

Perhaps course loads as well as salary dollars should be in the merit pool – with monetary raises for publications and great teaching reviews and course reduction for book contacts or research grants.

We need to find a way to rethink this aspect of the campus social contract so that we may maintain other important aspects of that very same social contract.
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By Valerie Strauss  | November 24, 2009; 12:08 PM ET
Tags:  Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, teaching loads  
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