Chronicle of Higher Education, The Great Disappearing Teaching Load: How Few Courses Are Too Few?:
Yale has gone 2-1," a faculty member in political science told me, in the tone he presumably used in the classroom when discussing the perils of nuclear proliferation.
It became a refrain. During my 10 years as dean of the College of Arts and Letters at Notre Dame, the question of teaching schedules — a phrase I unsuccessfully tried to substitute for "teaching loads" — hovered in the periphery of my day-to-day life. Sometimes it occupied center stage. At times I wondered if the question — "Could I have a course off for that?" — would be chiseled on my tombstone.
It’s a "first-world problem," as the kids say, and I hasten to acknowledge that deans or department chairs struggling with collapsing budgets, or faculty members routinely teaching four courses per semester, may want to proceed to the next article in The Chronicle Review.
For the rest of you, a question: How many courses per semester should a faculty member at a major research university teach?
The question is rarely asked — because it’s in no one’s interest to ask it. Not presidents, since in public institutions they, unlike faculty members, have to answer questions from more or less curious and informed state legislators about how professors use their time. Not provosts, deans, and department chairs, struggling to sustain the Maginot Line of standard teaching schedules while also competing to hire faculty members. Not graduate students, whose courses are typically taught by tenure-line faculty members anyway. And not professors, eager to conduct more research, certainly, but also craving the flexibility of a schedule not burdened by the day-to-day rhythm of class meeting times.
It’s actually in the interest only of innocent undergraduates, who don’t realize that the tenure-line faculty members supported by their tuition dollars may be teaching a decreasing number of courses. And although they don’t know it, it’s in the long-term interest of faculty members themselves. ...
John Boyer’s absorbing recent history of the University of Chicago is one of the few places where the topic is discussed. (Not coincidentally, Boyer is a longtime dean.) I suspect that the pattern he outlines there is typical: Tenure-line faculty members taught six courses per year (that is, two per quarter) through the 1960s, then five, and now, at most, four. Over time, teaching schedules, like salaries, began to vary a good deal by department or program.
Dame’s pattern was similar: Faculty members in the humanities, social sciences, and arts moved from 3-3 on a semester system in the 1970s to 3-2 and then 2-2 in the late 1980s. When I started as dean, in 2008, tenure-line faculty members in science and engineering taught 1-1, with the expectation that they would be running funded labs; those in business taught 3-0. The "0" came about when the business school identified a semester without teaching, remarkably, as the uniform policy at the top business schools. Humanities, social-science, and arts faculty members taught two courses per semester.
The first strike came in economics. "We need to go 2-1," the chair politely explained, "because otherwise we can’t hire anyone." He was right, and so we did, with the proviso that teaching would be more than 2-1 for faculty members without strong research programs. Economics at Notre Dame had a spectacular decade, zipping up the rankings. Now I’m warned, somberly, that "some faculty at Duke are 1-1." ...
[T]his is the puzzle: Why are tenure-line faculty members teaching less even as the financial situation of universities — including the most affluent ones — weakened in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis? The basic answer is that when one program reduces teaching schedules, faculty members at other programs use competing offers to begin the process of forcing change across the academic ecosystem. Anxious junior faculty members worry that their research productivity will be compared with that of peers at institutions less burdened by teaching then they are.
It’s also worth remembering that the standard teaching load — there, I said it — is generally a maximum. As programs, centers, scholarly journals, and institutes proliferate, they require leadership from successful faculty members and, for good reasons, course releases. Sometimes we give course releases as part of recruitment. Sometimes we give them for significant administrative service. ...
The long-term risk is that residential, undergraduate liberal-arts education becomes less tethered to the research university. The combination of undergraduate education and research is one of the glories of the American higher-education system, envied around the world. But it’s harder to celebrate as faculty members move further away from teaching actual courses on the ground.
An additional irony is that faculty members themselves do not realize that the most vibrant departments are not those where they see one another only at the Delta or United Airlines club. In healthy departments, faculty members talk with one another: about recent scholarship or discoveries, graduate students’ work, undergraduate theses, department curricula. Every dropped course, every incentive not to come to campus, erodes the culture upon which good departmental decisions depend. It may even weaken the capacity for good intellectual work. That less teaching leads to better scholarship remains a curiously underresearched assumption.