Higher Education

the calculus of workload

Given the continuing shift of higher education into the marketplace logic of global capitalism, it comes as no surprise that the calculation of workload would come to obey a similar logic. After all, is it not reasonable, given the range of differences between disciplines to establish a common currency of measurement (say, number of students taught) as the means to evaluate workload.

The fact that “number of students taught” ties directly to the generation of revenue for the institution is a mere coincidence…yeah, right.

No doubt it is difficult to evaluate the difference in workload even between two relatively close disciplines, like a history professor with lecture courses capped at 55 and an English professor with literature courses caped at 30. There are two primary differences. The first is a pedagogic preference in the literature course for class discussion, which would not be possible with 55 students. The second, and more substantive in terms of workload, is the means of evaluation: in-class examination vs. essay assignments. Now I could see this workload as roughly equivalent, particularly if the examination is essay-based.

However, what happens when one teaches a writing course. At Cortland, this means a course capped at 20-25 students. Now, the definition of “writing intensive” here is 15 pages of revised writing, but in professional writing courses the amount is much higher. For example, in my Rhetoric course in the fall, students will write 2 pages a week of informal online responses, a 5-7 page mid-term essay (which will include a draft which I respond to), an annotated bibliography, and an 8-10 page final (again revised). All told, this is around 40 pages of writing, with me reading closer to 55 pages since I’m reading drafts as well. As it turns out, I don’t have 20 students, but I certainly could: that would be over 1000 pages of writing! Now, I don’t want to hyperbolize this, as the informal writing is more like an ongoing conversation, like this blog, than something that requires formal grading. Nevertheless, it is still substantially more work than the two examples above. And before anyone might make this objection, I would add that we will be reading five books of rhetorical theory (from Aristotle to Barthes), as well as numerous essays. I will have as much work preparing for the content of this course as any faculty member might in any course.

But according to this calculus of workload, I’m doing half the work of a history professor giving lectures and grading in-class exams for 55 students.

The underlying difference, as I see it, is between teaching information and teaching practices. Literacy, reading and writing, is a practice. It requires learning information, but it also importantly requires the development of literacy skills. As we all know quite well, for students to become better writers, they need to spend time writing. Furthermore, they need to have responses to their writing–from an audience that addresses their work as communication, as well as a teacher who can help them develop their writing skills.

Put differently, I can simultaneously teach 200 students the rules of basketball, but how many students at a time can I teach to shoot a free throw? One. I have to watch that student’s performance and make comments specific to it.

Helping students to become effective readers and writers is a difficult, labor-intensive process; that’s why we don’t do a very good job at it. It’s also difficult and labor-intensive for the students; that’s why they don’t often do a good job either.

When one encounters a workload calculation like this, it is a clear indication that colleges either do not understand the task of becoming literate or do not care to understand it. Much like the students themselves, the College would like to graduate literate people, but its not willing to make the necessary investment to do so. I am certain of one thing: I will not be the person in this equation who “cares” when no one else does. That is, I can apply this equation to my workload as well.

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