What Do Faculty Do?

Apparently, California State University is facing a 20% budget cut in 2009-10, about $583 million dollars.  As campuses make plans for cuts, some people have begun to ask, “Why do we need all of those professors, who only teach 12 hours a week anyway?”

I have read a couple of op-ed pieces which said that even if the state fired every single state employee, including all of the professors, it wouldn’t even begin to solve the budget problem.  It is not possible to close the budget gap with cuts only, yet some in the legislature are still trying to do that.  It would seem that most of the so-called leaders in state government are more interested in ideological posturing than problem solving or good government.  However, this post is not about that.

Professors are evaluated through a process that on my campus is called “Retention, Tenure, and Promotion” or “RTP.”  The three main categories of evaluation are teaching, scholarship, and service.  Different types of institutions have different priorities for faculty.  At a community college, the emphasis is on good teaching, and lots of it.  A community college professor could easily see 150 students a week in five courses.  At a “Research 1” university such as a University of  California campus like Berkeley, the emphasis is on scholarship.  At a comprehensive university such as a typical CSU, teaching and scholarship are weighted more equally.

University service is a wild card.  Service means serving on university and college committees, running programs, presenting at campus events, coordinating activities, advising clubs, etc.  Service is strongly encouraged, but often not rewarded.

Traditionally, scholarship means creating new knowledge through experimentation, analysis, and study using whatever methods and practices are appropriate to the discipline, and publishing the results in a peer-reviewed journal.  In recent times, the definition of scholarship and publishing has expanded a bit to include such things as curriculum and program development and publishing online, although some of these things are still controversial.  In the sciences and increasingly in other fields, scholarship cannot even begin without grant funding, so writing grant proposals is a major component of faculty workload.

Faculty have a required teaching load.  My campus is on quarters, so the load is 3-3-3, or three classes in each of three quarters.  A typical semester load is 4-4.  Faculty do generally have summer off, but their contracts are for nine months, and nine months pay is stretched out over 12 months.  Summer is typically when much of the grant writing and article writing is done.   Without research and writing, new faculty will not be retained by the campus, and tenured faculty will not be promoted.  Every year, probationary faculty must submit an RTP packet with a description of everything they are working on, all publications, student evaluations, and a plan for improvement.  This packet, which sometimes fills two three-ring binders,  must be approved by the department, the college, and the university.

So, do faculty work only 12 hours per week, nine months a year?  Let’s look a little more closely at those 12 hours.  If one has a three course load, one will indeed be in class about 12 hours.  However, if you were going to stand in front of a class of 30-40 or even 100 students expecting you to be a font of wisdom and insight for 100 minutes, wouldn’t you want to be prepared?  In my experience, even if one has taught the same course many times, one still needs to re-read the materials, go over one’s notes, and update information.  If the course is a new preparation, the professor will spend hours reading the books and figuring out how to teach them.

Designing a new course, or a new way to teach a course,  involves knowing what to teach and how to teach it.  One needs to read new textbooks, consider the goals and desired outcomes of a course and  the students who will take it, design and sequence assignments, write quizzes and other assessments, and generally imagine the conceptual and intellectual progress of the students.  Last spring I taught a seminar called “Pedagogies of Reading” that I had not taught before.  I spent much of the summer reading books that might possibly be assigned in the course.  After choosing the books, I read them again, writing reading and discussion questions, creating assignments, and making notes for lectures.

In addition to preparation time, faculty must interact with students outside of class.  Office hours are required, but email has actually increased the amount of contact that faculty have with students dramatically.  Many of the emails say something like, “Hey Professor, I’m sorry I couldn’t make it to class, did I miss anything important?”  However, we also get legitimate questions about the assignments and the course content, advisement questions about the program, career guidance questions, and requests for letters of recommendation.

I have found that the better I teach, the more students contact me.  Thus, the harder I work, the more work I have to do.  However, interacting with students is the most rewarding part of the job.

The part of the job that becomes a real grind after a while is grading papers, exams, quizzes, and other assignments.   It is hard to evaluate real knowledge and understanding with a multiple choice scantron test, although scantrons can be useful.  Evaluating written work takes so much time, and involves so many potential problems, including the possibility of plagiarism.  Many students have trouble expressing themselves in English.  If a student gets something wrong, is it because of their expression of a concept in English, or because they don’t understand the concept?  And there are so many ways to get something wrong.  Written work is hard to evaluate and grade, and requires feedback from the instructor.  However, multiple choice tests often simply hide a lack of understanding. In most disciplines, the harder way is the better way.

Any time that is left over after all of the above activities will be spent keeping up with the field by reading journals and books, participating in discussion lists, and attending conferences.

Are there tenured faculty who slack off?  Of course there are.  There are professors who just stand in front of the class and read the textbook to them.  There are some who are still reading from 20 year old lecture notes.  However, in my experience these are the rare exception, not the rule.   Most faculty became professors because they had a passion for their field of study and most remain passionate and interested in helping students throughout their careers.

About guitarsophist

I'm a guitar-playing rhetorician professor.
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1 Response to What Do Faculty Do?

  1. Jonathan Price says:

    I read with enthusiasm and interest your blog entry trying to explain what professors do and how much time it takes. You might have better things to do today than read this. It’s primarily a matter, I think, of personal interest, although the political issue (of potential furloughs and the public disparagement of professors) that besets us is a weighty one. I was going to send this to the full committee, but thought better of it as I wrote on and decided I would just send it to you.
    It’s hard to begin without quoting an aphorism derived from my year in Italy as a Fulbright, translated but no doubt reflecting a broad suspicion, fear, and secret envy: “In the year of a professor, there are nine months; in the month of a professor there are three weeks; in the week of a professor, there are three days; in the day of a professor, there are three hours; and in the hour of a professor, there are fifty minutes.” It’s hard to believe that anyone who hears this or thinks this actually believes that this is what a professor does or the amount of time it takes to do it; nevertheless, S.I. Hayakawa, despite the fact that he had been a faculty member himself, when he was President of San Francisco State berated faculty and alleged that they only worked “twelve hours a week.” H e was next seen pulling wires out of a student sound system attached to a van, then later discoursing on commas with necessary and unnecessary relative clauses before the U.S. Senate, then finally sleeping in the U.S. Senate as part of his Senate term. But I digress (you noticed).
    The primary issue for professors, I think, is what they do when they aren’t to be observed teaching a class those 12 (or in many cases
    9) hours a week. I think that’s true for them, whether they’re at the CSU, the UC, Yale, or the Universita di Roma (the source of the Italian quote). It’s also true, I believe of most dedicated professionals–not that all professors, or lawyers, or doctors, or whatever, are dedicated, or dedicated every 40-hour week or year. Even at Tier-1 universities, according to Ph.D. programs, graduates from those programs spend the majority of their careers teaching students–but the teaching of a course is not simply determined by time in the classroom.
    Of course there are hours that can be accounted for, not quite lecturing or running a seminar, semi-private, semi-public, as when they meet with colleagues on a committee or sit in their offices waiting for students to enter, or actually requiring that students come by for specific appointments. This probably adds another 3 hours or so per week. But there is great variation within the profession and with an individual professor’s experience. I served on one committee that evaluated part-time faculty (of whom there have been as many as 60) that required observing them, writing up reports, attending meetings, and one a year reading the files of these 60 in order to evaluate them–at one point some had “files” that were entire cardboard boxes. Serving on this committee was often the equivalent of the time devoted to a 3-hour-per-week course.
    But the basic idea here is that much time for professors and professionals spent in work is hidden, that mysterious element you mentioned in your blogpost: it’s spent reading texts (novels, plays, poems, works of literary theory, works of literary criticism, cultural histories, biographies); it’s spent writing; it’s spent designing courses, creating exams, reading 5-page essay papers from students, and sometimes 90-page theses; and evaluating these, and commenting on these. And again, it varies tremendously. But one of the patterns here, for college teachers as for other professionals, is that a few moments of public presentation (class lecture or leading a discussion, evaluating a peper, writing a professional essay) emerge from a much larger time segment of preparation, thoughtfulness, careful research, experience. And that is why they spend 3-5-7 years in graduate school, where they may not be working for compensation, but are being “trained” via careful preparation. No one would want a doctor whose hour of surgery was the only time she’d devoted to investigating the patient’s case, or understanding the mechanics of the human body, or practicing on all the new technology that had become available to surgeons since she graduate from medical school. Of course college professors are not life-and-death critical in this way, but much of what they do for their dollar goes unseen and assumed.
    I tire of this argument, though I think it’s a key one these days when apparently the administrators want us to go on furlough, achieving the same intellectual results with students, spending the same time in the classroom (but on fewer days), and accepting less pay.

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