On time and teaching

My hiatus from posting this Spring

I had every intention of keeping up with this blog this year. Things started off pretty well, but during this Spring term (Jan-April) I found I had zero extra time to devote to blogging. There were numerous things going on in my professional and personal life, most of them due to my own choosing–such as a year-long workshop on the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning that has been fantastic but a significant amount of work. I copy here a post that I did for my blog for that workshop. I decided that the points I was making are important enough to share more widely.

Taking a toll on teaching

All of the things I needed to do this term led to my having to work seven days a week, plus nights after putting my son to bed (I took Friday and Saturday evenings off, to keep my sanity, but that was it). Perhaps this is normal for many academics, but I found it utterly and completely exhausting and unsustainable. And more than the physical and emotional toll it took, I realized it took another toll that I found intolerable: my teaching suffered.

I was not only that I did not have enough time to prepare as I wanted to, as I felt I needed to, in order to be as effective as possible. It was also that I was so exhausted and spent that I could not think as well on my feet as I usually do. And that was the worst part–I have found that sometimes having less of a “planned” class meeting can actually be beneficial for the sort of teaching I do, but then this must be balanced by the professor being able to work spontaneously and think in the moment during the class. Many of the classes I teach involve quite a lot of student discussion, and I try to find ways to encourage the students themselves to take the lead in what to discuss and what to say about those topics they themselves choose. This doesn’t, can’t, and shouldn’t happen all the time, of course, but one of the things I hope to promote in my classes in Arts One and Philosophy is practice in independent and original thinking, and thus standing back sometimes and letting students think about and discuss what they want to makes sense. It can be chaotic at times, and some students find it too confusing therefore; I am sure I need to refine my techniques. But I still firmly believe in the value of the potential results of that sort of student-driven learning.

So my usual way of planning class meetings is to take notes on the main arguments in a text (or themes, images, etc. in a literary work), and present some of those things in class to make sure we are all on more or less the same page with the text before either providing questions to discuss or asking students to raise questions to discuss. Then the class moves from there into a discussion mode that I try, with more or less success, to steer such that we at least remain on track with a question for enough time to exhaust students’ comments on that question before moving on to a different one. We may not resolve any of the issues, but that’s not the point–the point is to raise questions, consider possible answers, and leave things open enough for students to explore these (or other) issues further in their own written work.

Well, that’s the ideal, anyway. I found that when I’m too worn out from various responsibilities I cannot run classes this way well. I cannot think well enough in the moment to keep the discussion on track, to come up with potential objections during the discussions, to evaluate well the arguments people are giving. As a result, the discussions are not as effective as they should be. In a formative assessment I asked my students to do of one of my courses this term, a student asked for more “leadership” from me during the discussions. I tried, but was unable to do so because I was simply too exhausted this term. I find this entirely unacceptable.

A bigger issue for universities

This personal problem has links to a wider one. Though I myself chose to take on too many things this term, what I found through this experience is an important issue to consider for academia in general. The more work we expect of teachers, whether it be through greater class sizes, greater numbers of classes, or new course preparations, the less effective they are going to be at doing much more than lecturing from prepared notes. That can be done pretty well even when one is tired and overworked (though I got to the point where I had trouble even doing that well), but the more spontaneous, in-the-moment, on-your-feet work that active learning strategies require cannot be done very effectively when people are overworked.

I think this is a useful issue to consider for universities like UBC that are developing a “teaching” career track as well as a “research” career track. Universities have already been thinking of ways to try to ensure that researchers have enough time for their research (though arguably that isn’t happening for a lot of people), such as buyouts for courses through the use of grant money, reducing teaching loads in departments from (3-3 to 3-2 to 2-2, to even 2-1 in some departments), allowing some people to double up their teaching in one term so as to have another one off entirely from teaching, allowing people to sometimes teach two or more sections of one class to reduce course preps, etc. But I’m not sure we’ve thought in similar ways about people on the teaching track. I’m not sure that those who don’t focus extensively on teaching, who don’t read scholarly research on teaching or reflect significantly on their own teaching practice, have really thought seriously about just how much time it takes to do it well. At least, I have not heard these issues discussed in very many conversations (outside of those between those on the teaching track themselves).

Some examples

I have in the past heard an argument that it might be best for a department to allocate TA hours on the basis of giving priority to research faculty members (Assistant, Associate, Full Professors) over teaching faculty members (Instructor I, Sr. Instructor) and sessional faculty members (not sure where faculty on non-permanent appointments or teaching postdoctoral fellows were to be placed in the priority list). The rationale seems to be that research faculty needed more time to do research and thus need the TA assistance more than teaching faculty. This doesn’t make good sense to me, for a number of reasons (including that making sessionals work even harder for their meagre pay seems to make an unjust situation even worse). Consider that one could make the same argument for teaching faculty as for research faculty: just as research faculty need time for research, teaching faculty need time for teaching. Good teaching is not something one can do in a rush, as I have amply demonstrated to myself this term. The point is that while the argument of research faculty needing time to do their research is common and easily recognized, the structurally similar argument for teaching is not as common and has to be made specifically.

Another issue I have come across at UBC is Instructors being hired a few years after others, being asked to teach more courses than those hired earlier–there may be a push in some Faculties to get Instructors to teach more courses. Alternatively, I have heard of Instructors being asked as the years go by to teach larger and larger classes, without enough TA support to make this teaching work well. I can understand the impetus to try to get Instructors to teach more courses or more students, in part to free up more time for research faculty, and in part to get faculty who love and are good at teaching into more classrooms. Nevertheless, the argument must be made (and was made by the person I am thinking about) that if the university would like to have people in the Instructor track who not only can but do teach well, then there is good reason to limit the number of courses per term one must teach in order to do this teaching as effectively as possible. And we all know that putting more and more students into a course does not always lead to the best results. One can only be so creative in trying to teach effectively to a very large group, especially when one does not have enough TA hours to help with marking.

Instead of extra teaching or extra students, I have heard of a couple of cases of departments or Faculties trying to get Instructors to do a significant amount of service work on top of the teaching they are asked to do. The problem here is the same–such things take time away from teaching as much as they take time away from research. And if we’re serious about having good teaching at the university, we need to consider seriously the conditions under which good teaching is and is not possible.


I have gone on a bit of a rant here, but it actually does not apply specifically to my own situation. My own position is very good in terms of teaching and service. No one has asked me to do an inordinate amount of either, and I am very happy with my place in the University, the Faculty, and my Department. The concerns I raise are not ones that led to my own problems this term; those occurred because I took on too many things, voluntarily. I have learned my lesson in that regard.

But in the process I have had another lesson brought home to me in more than a theoretical respect: the crucial importance for universities of ensuring that teachers have adequate time to teach. Especially for a place (like UBC) that is developing a teaching track with three levels that mirror (somewhat) the levels of research faculty–Instructor I, Sr. Instructor, Professor of Teaching. To reach the highest level one must not only be an excellent teacher, but show leadership in areas such as curriculum development, professional development re: teaching for others (e.g., leading workshops for other faculty and TAs), or research in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. If Instructors are to head towards Professor of Teaching, they simply must be treated like research professors in terms of valuing their time. Otherwise, the rhetoric that research and teaching are equally important rings hollow.