balance · teaching · time crunch

How much is too much, and for whom?

My first year students are pretty happy. Well, as happy as they can be, having to hand in their final papers today, and having to prepare for a final exam on new media studies next Friday. They’re not panicking, at least, because they’ve been working steadily through the various stages of the essay for four weeks already–they had full drafts finished a week ago, and they’ve been editing and finalizing since. And I know they’re better prepared for the exam than they think they might be–we’ve had five substantial online quizzes across the full breadth of term, and in class I’ve had them write up their feedback on their own learning for most units, that I’ve collated and taken up in class. There’s someone from this class at my office hours every time I hold them. There was a six person lineup in the hall when I got there on Monday. I read everyone’s drafts.

They’ve be coached and coaxed and assessed and guided the whole term.

It’s almost killed me.

The cap on my course is 40 students. I finally learned all their names by Halloween (I’m really bad with names, I admit). We had a photographer who came to take photos to use in the University’s promotion and we were all so squashed into the classroom that he took everyone’s coats and bags and put them in a different room–he even took the overhead projector away.

The course is running the best it has ever run. After running this four times, I’ve finally got it right, for students: substantial attention to and development of their voice and skills and engagement as writers, and a strong grounding in new media studies content, both historical and theoretical.

What “getting it right” has meant for me is adding a bunch of assessments to support the course’s learning objectives. Getting it right means a ton more grading and feedback for me. And I think I’ve hit peak grading. For two years in a row, they complained that the textbook didn’t matter, and I tried to link the in-class work more heavily toward that material. I made speeches and lit more scented candles. It didn’t work. You know what did work? Adding six new assessments to focus their attention on material only death with in the textbook: five quizzes and a final. Add that to the six writing assignments, and it’s pushed me over the edge.

I’m so proud to say that pedagogically I think this course is rock solid: we use class time really productively, the students are engaged, all the work comes in on time, attendance is high, the writing is visibly improving, the thinking is getting more sophisticated. But I haven’t written a word on my book in months. And I’m behind on my email and admin work, and I’m getting up at 5:30 every day.

The best solution would be to lower the cap on the course–25 would be reasonable. A smaller cap would mean that the professor could still bring her A-game but cut the grading of each of the 12 assignments in the course in half, a substantial savings. But it’s too expensive to do that, maybe. And the course is a draw for majors, so reducing the number of students taking it might be a mistake. Running two smaller sections is even more expensive!

If we take instructor time seriously–the in this case tenured professor is also supposed to be writing a book–we would instead, perhaps, suggest something different. Cut the number of assignments in half, and the same savings in grading could be achieved. In this scenario, the pedagogy is compromised, and the professor may see her teaching scores decline, because of cuts to content.

I’m no noob. I know how to spend a mere 40 minutes prepping for an 80 minute class. And I grade FAST. I think I’ve found all the efficiencies in the process it is possible to find.

My discipline is English. I think it’s always got to be writing intensive, and doing that right is going to involve a lot of writing assignments and a lot of grading. I don’t think that can be skimped on. As I use these last two days before the final papers come in to catch up on the straggler grading I haven’t had time to do, and frantically put together the text of the final exam that I guess I’ll be grading all next weekend, I am just really struck by these structural constraints: the number of students conflicts with the kind of pedagogy which undermines balance in my work life. And how to fix it–FEWER STUDENTS IN EACH SECTION–seems like the one thing we’re not able to do.

Maybe someone will invent an app to solve all these problems. But I don’t think so.

4 thoughts on “How much is too much, and for whom?

  1. The obvious (and unimplementable) solutions that would allow reduced student numbers in each section would have other bad effects on our ability to budget our time or balance our lives—increased course loads, or reduced pay for professors so we can employ more faculty, for instance.

    So the question is one of how to rationalize reducing the amount of time you're spending on any one course by reducing the number and type of assignments so the amount of marking is more manageable. I have a friend who joked last year about finding time to do research and feeling like it was a holiday, until this thought came up: “wait a minute, this is supposed to be 40% of my job!”

    It may feel like you're selling your intro students short by scaling back the assignments so your course is only excellent instead of optimal. But you also owe something to the grad students you teach and supervise—courses that offer up content from the cutting edge of the field, and reference letters from someone whose research profile gives them some clout. So, in part, making sure that you've got some time for research by being sensible about the number and type of assessments in early year courses is balancing the needs of these students throughout their academic careers.

    How's that for rationalizing? 😉 But I think there is something important about that line of thought.


  2. I'm all for excellent over optimal, too. But the idea that somehow addressing class size is a non-starter is bizarre. We find money for all sorts of things on campus; why not align our spending with our (ostensible) priorities?


  3. Why not use peer grading? Not at the beginning, but halfway through the course it could be done, after they have learned from you some standards for good/bad writing (you mention that you can see a clear improvement in writing and thinking, so at a certain moment it must have “clicked” in the students and it is just a matter of practice – the reason why you need that much assignments). Feel free to contact me for ideas (My field is a cross between educational science and organizational psychology).

    I would be cautious to reduce the number of assignments. I had 1 really good course in my master degree. We had to deliver 7 short memos (one per week) which taught us how to write introduction for research papers. the group size has doubled over the past 2 years, and even though 2 teaching assistants have been added, the numbers of assignments has been reduced to 3. I have to supervise some of the student's master thesis, and I can see that their introduction is not as good as it could be.


  4. The very idea isn't a non-starter. The “obvious solutions” mentioned though are both politically unpalatable (b/c they would require university administrations going to war with faculty associations, for instance, or displacing research activity in favor of teaching), and would have effects that a lot of front line faculty would not be happy to see.

    Other solutions, then? For those I think that the insertion of “ostensible” in Audrey's note is instructive. There is a temptation to imagine that there are pots of money hidden on campus to spend on frivolous things, and if we only gathered them together they could be spent on what is really important. But there's a constituency that will defend each bit of spending. The ones close to our hearts (salaries? teaching loads compatible with being a “research intensive university”?) get pointed to by university presidents as the source of growing class sizes, with a lot of justice. The ones that some faculty will point to—whether student success offices, student aid going to people from high income families, attempts to keep tuition low, or university presidents jetting around the globe—have defenders, too. So, many say they have smaller class sizes as a priority, but for nobody is it a higher priority than something else they deem more important still. I think it's a very difficult political issue to address … each of us feels that it's somebody else who's not really committed to smaller class sizes, and when we get the request to give something up that we think is important, we deem the request unreasonable. So, indeed, as Aimee says, we seem unable to do it, and at bottom that's because everyone would be happy to have someone else pay the cost of making it happen.


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