Thursday, January 17, 2013

Being the World's Foremost Expert on X Takes Time

According to the LA Times, governor Jerry Brown wants to see "more teaching and less research" in the University of California.

I could see the state of California making that choice. Maybe we U.C. professors teach too few undergraduate courses for our state's needs. (I teach on average one undergraduate course per term. I also advise students individually, supervise dissertations, and teach graduate seminars.) But here's a thought. If it is valuable to have some public universities in which the undergraduate teaching and graduate supervision is done by the foremost experts in the world on the topics in question, then you have to allow professors considerable research time to attain and sustain that world-beating expertise. Being among the world's foremost experts on childhood leukemia, or on the neuroscience of visual illusion, or on the history of early modern political philosophy, is not something one can squeeze in on the side, with a few hours a week.

In my experience, it takes about 15 hours a week to run an undergraduate course (longer if it's your first time teaching the course): three hours of lecture, plus lecture prep time, plus office hours, plus reviewing the assigned readings and freshening up on relevant connected literature, plus grading and test design, plus email exchanges with students and course management. And let's suppose that a typical professor works about 50 hours a week. If Professor X at University of California teaches two undergraduate lecture courses per term, that leaves 20 hours a week for research and everything else (including graduate student instruction and administrative tasks like writing recommendation letters, serving on hiring committees, applying for grants, refereeing for journals, keeping one's equipment up to date...). If Professor Y at University of Somewhere Else teaches one undergraduate lecture course per term, that leaves 35 hours a week for research and everything else. How is Professor X going to keep up with Professor Y? Over time, if teaching load is substantially increased, the top experts will disproportionately be at the University of Somewhere Else, not the University of California.

Of course some people manage brilliantly productive research careers alongside heavy undergraduate teaching loads. I mean them no disrespect. On the contrary, I find them amazing! My point above concerns only what we should expect on average.


Steven Hales said...

I teach 4-4 at a public univ and our politicians think we should teach more too. For any teaching load X, politicians think we should teach >X.

Michael Caton said...

It would be interesting to see an economic value-for-time calculation comparing research and teaching. The damn shame is the increase in university tuition is mostly a result of expanding administrations.

Brown may be doing two things here: 1) grandstanding for voters ("I'm going to make those lazy professors do more work since you're paying more in tuition") and 2) signalling to the administrators, a significant voter bloc, that they're safe during his administration.

Thanks for this post, I linked to it from my own blog,

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Agreed, Steven! I suspect that part of the issue is that classroom hours are more visibly, obviously valuable than the other sorts of things that most professors do (which besides being valuable in their own right might also increase the value of those classroom hours too).

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Michael: Your (1) might be right. But Brown comes down at least as hard on administrators, so (2) seems unlikely unless there's even more subterfuge here than usual.

Hard to do the value-for-time calculation, especially given the synergies between the two!

Tamler Sommers said...

One the ideas that has been floated around my university and is in practice in certain departments already is to tailor the teaching load to the productivity of the faculty member. The problem is that some professors teach 2/2s and do no research while others teach the same load and spend a huge amount of time trying to publish. So the idea is: if you want to devote your time to teaching, then you have to teach a higher load. If you want the 2-2, then you have to have some research to show for it. Kinda makes sense actually.

I know at least one professor in a department where this policy is applied (engineering) who is happy with the arrangement. A number of years ago he decided he was done trying to publish and really loved the teaching side of the job. And he's a great teacher. So now he teaches more classes but doesn't have the burden of producing researching he has no interest in producing. I wonder if other universities or departments are considering similar kinds of arrangements.

I suppose the danger is that there will be a lot of conflict over how much (and what kind of) research you need to produce in order to get the lower teaching loads...

Anonymous said...

I am afraid that you are not taking into account the role that politicians and university administrators see for MOOCs in all of this. MOOCs are almost always advertised as having "superstar" professors record and broadcast their best lectures. So, across the California system (and any other large state system) there would no longer be any need for high quality research in most institutions. As long as the system has a single expert in the neuroscience of optical illusions (or, whatever), then that faculty member can create a MOOC for every school in the system, and reach 50,000 students. The rest of the faculty research can be traded for higher teaching loads. Jerry Brown and the admin can point to world class research (i.e. the MOOC prof, who will have have esssentially *no* teaching duties beyond the MOOC) and everybody else can be reduced to assigning that MOOC in the classes they teach in their new 4-4 load.

Derek C. said...


I agree with you that politicians and administrators envision a large role for MOOC's to play in the future and have begun to take substantive steps in that direction -- the UVA fiasco partly highlights this trend. However, I wonder whether the implementation of MOOC's would lead to a decrease in the number of actively researching professor's; that is professors with loads lighter than 3-3? A scenario that may play out is that, as the implementation of MOOC's becomes more widespread, profits will increase and tuition will decrease -- or increases administrator's already large pockets -- as population increases. Presumably, this would also lighten teaching loads by essentially lumping all of the introductory and survey classes together -- although Graduate students teach many of these classes at Phd granting institutions. This increase in resources may cause many schools to actively seek out and hire more research professors in order to compete in the rankings. On the other hand it may be the case that many, or most, schools shift to the single expert system (using slave labor -- adjuncts -- for everything else), while the top 25 - 50 institutions attain all of the talent and perform all of the research. This would be an awful result as it would increase inequality essentially creating a haves and have-not culture in higher education. It's also easy to see this extending to the larger society creating large(r) barriers to a *quality* education.

Great Post! Imagine that California's public universities do place a heavier emphasis on teaching -- say requiring at least 3-3 loads -- do you think this would cause a mass exodus of top talent to other states? It seems to me that over time it would. It seems to suggest -- to me anyway -- that any large changes in the university system would require unified action from schools across the country, but perhaps I'm being naive!

Aldo Antonelli said...

I have to disagree with Michael above. While the administrative bloat (and the grossly inflated salaries that go along with it) are a real problem, claiming that tuition increases are traceable to expanding administrations effectively gets the state off the hook. Remember that Jerry Brown cut $750 million from UC two years ago, and now we get back 250, half of which is tuition buy-out from last year. State funding for UC is now back at the level it was in 1997-98, when UC had 75,000 fewer students and less campus. Please look at Chris Newfield's excellent write-up:

Anonymous said...

I am an adjunct and I wish that I had a 5/5 teaching load such that I would have the chance at earning a living wage.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon 09:42: I have closed my eyes in attempt to send you a good vibe through the ether.

Aldo: Thanks for the (depressing) link!

Anon 09:41/Derek C: One thought on MOOCs: Viewing a videorecorded lecture is probably more closer to listening to an audiobook than it is to having a genuine university experience (as Pam Hieronymi has argued in a recent column).

Tamler: I am concerned that in practice such arrangements often become a locus of very ugly politics, both within and between departments. Maybe there's a way to do it well, though.

clasqm said...

Not being one of the New Chosen People, I'll refrain from commenting on the specifically American/Californian aspects, but when it comes to the MOOC issue, there's one thing that always bothers me.

It sounds great for thousands to be taught by one of the the world's great experts (assuming the expert can teach worth a damn), but where do they expect the next generation of WGEs to come from? The current crop of WGEs exist because of the whole infrastructure of lesser lights against whom they can test their ideas in the earlier stages of their careers. It not only takes time, as Eric rightly states, it takes participation in a disciplinary community. Expertise does not emerge ex nihilo.

I'm not saying that what we have, in any country, is perfect or ideal, but the Moocsters seem ready to slash it away with no idea of what will follow a generation later.

The problem goes deeper than just the superstar professor in the MOOC: My university will fund me to give a paper at a conference. But there is no recognition that sometimes you need to go to a conference not to give a paper, but to listen, to learn, to be the audience. You can do that, if it is on your own dime.

Anonymous said...


I agree with you that there is a boatload of short-sightedness when it comes to MOOCS, but remember that the political and business communities (including some University admins) are not exactly famous for worrying about long-term impacts.

MOOC-inizing highed ed will, as you suggest, probably slow down the pace of progress in some academic fields. The next generation of experts will likely come from the labs of the few Superstars, from private+partner labs, and so on. Also, don't underestimate the impact that non-Euro-American research will have in the next 30 years.

In fields like political philosophy (an area that was mentioned in the OP), legislators and many admin are very unlikely to lament the Academy's loss of a few humanities types (and, as one who falls into that catgory, this depresses me!).

Katy said...

who are these academic that only work 50 hrs a week?!? (I'm incredibly lucky in terms of teaching load, but geez, I'd kill for a 50 hr week. I actually had to figure out what my average work week is for an exercise in my feminism class, and it came out to more than 80hrs a week.
speaking of which, what am i doing? I have to get back to that stack for grad admissions...