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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Good and Bad in the Teaching Report

There are two ways to read the important document, “Academic Performance Indicators at the University of California.”  I’ll call them Jekyll and Hyde.


This report is a breakthrough for the administrative recognition of faculty labor.  Among other things, it notes that:

  • Contrary to nationwide claims that faculty have shifted out of teaching, UC faculty teach 13% more student credit hours (SCH) today than twenty years ago, with most of that increase coming since 2005-06.
  • Budget cuts mean that student-faculty ratio increased 17.5% in the past twenty years, and is slated to increase another 7.7%, for a 25% increase overall.
  • These increases occur on a base of a typical faculty workweek of 61.3 hours (6). 42% of that is spent on instruction (not 54.3% as stated in the report; h/t Charles Schwartz). If we assumed that salaries cover a forty-hour week, one third of faculty workload is performed as unpaid overtime. If faculty worked a forty-hour week, the university would lose a third of its faculty output.

The study on which UCOP bases the 61.3-hour workweek is almost thirty years old. It was conducted during what turned out to be the waning years of full-scale Master Plan funding.  Given subsequent increases in the student-faculty ratio and in SCHs taught per instructor, very crude arithmetic would get total faculty hours to something closer to 65 today, assuming (dubiously) that not too much of the additional student workload was passed on to TAs or computers.

That fits with my experience and the anecdotal evidence. A normal faculty workweek is, for example, 5 ten-hour days per week (say 8am to 6 pm) plus another 6 hours on Saturday (perhaps 8 to 2, or all afternoon), plus another 10 hours per week via 2 hours Monday through Thursday evenings (e.g. of email), and at least a couple of hours on Sunday to get ready for the week.

That’s a routine week.  Grant deadlines, midterms and finals grading, membership on a search committee or grad admissions, problems with a course—these kinds of things can spike hours well beyond the 60+ norm.  Also, this is a typical professor, not a blue-chip PI of the type discussed in my post about the UCLA neuro-imaging lab, who must organize many simultaneous projects and a large staff, or a professor who throughout the academic year travels one to three times a month to lecture, as has been happening to me.

If you think about changes in research since the mid-1980s, current overall hours may be higher than 61. For example, grant acceptance rates have fallen below below 20% in many STEM fields and below 10% in others.  A PI needs to submit between 5 and 10 applications per grant received. There is more unfunded administrative reporting and compliance.  If we continued like this we could get the weekly average for a grant-active STEM professor, or a self-funded researcher in the humanities doing all research as an overload on while teaching 300-500 students a year, into 70 hours a week fairly quickly.

The report also makes a good effort to tie UC research to instructional quality.
Ladder faculty research also provides an important foundation for the entire undergraduate curriculum. UC undergraduates learn not only the basics of a field but also the big questions, the latest findings, and the methods by which scholarship is carried out. Not as well known is the fact that an increasing number of undergraduates participate directly in research.  As of 2010-11, according to the 2012 University of California Undergraduate Experience Survey (UCUES), 56 percent of seniors had done some kind of research or creative project with faculty and 54 percent had taken at least one student research course. These experiences help develop the critical thinking, communication, and problem solving skills, as well as domain-specific knowledge, that employers are looking for and that are useful across many different careers, many different life circumstances, and in all areas of citizenship.  (7)
This is a good starter description of the baseline “creativity learning” that public universities need to offer their students in the 21st century.  Routine white-collar work is increasingly hard to find, and undergrad teaching needs an upgrade, not an austerity-driven, ongoing demotion. “Research learning” is a key to the upgrade.

Finally, UC faculty’s “degree productivity” is double that of private institutions in the Association of American of Universities (AAU), a high-end research group (Display 7). If you reduce education to crude accountability metrics, you get the same story that you do if you evaluate research content: UC faculty members are extremely productive. They are, if anything, over-productive.  And excessively self-exploiting.


But there is a second way to read this report:  as a justification for turning UC into an undergraduate school, and a mid-level one at that.

The first problem is UCOP’s time-honored claim that state funding cuts haven’t hurt quality.  The opening paragraph is a nice tribute to the extra efforts undertaken by UC faculty, staff, and students. But since all this has “enabled UC campuses to maintain excellence in the educational enterprise while reducing costs,” who’s to say the cuts were a problem?  And why not cut public funds even more? Won’t it just force faculty and students to become even more efficient?

To head off this interpretation, this Academic Performance report would need to offer some evaluation of UC educational quality, beyond output metrics like percentages who obtain degrees after X years of enrollment.  The higher ed world has made this shift from looking just at outputs to trying to assess learning. One milestone in this shift was the 2011 book, Academically Adrift, which used results from a test called the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) to estimate that after four years of college, over one third of college students show no gains in writing, complex reading, or critical thinking.  The culprit was a lack of rigor in many college programs, combined with a lack of student seriousness about their studies. (An often-omitted detail is that majors in the liberal arts and sciences did much better than this.)

UCOP doesn’t try to show that UC degrees are at least as rigorous as before, but shows that they are even more numerous.  The report doesn’t even raise this issue of quality and rigor.  Anyone familiar with current issues of student learning will be disappointed by this quantitative approach—as will anyone who struggles in underfunded UC classrooms to offer rigor on a mass scale.

In addition, the section on graduation education is underdeveloped. The takeaway is that UC is average in doctoral productivity.  There is no argument here for the longstanding ambition of the younger campuses to increase their proportion of PhD students.  They are slated in the report to remain near the bottom of the AAU in this measure. UCOP should have mentioned that shrinking doctoral programs will hurt the research ecology and undergraduates at the same time, since grad students do much front-line teaching.  There’s no case made here for starting with average productivity and then investing in order to do new and special things with public university doctoral programs.

Having not asked the question of whether state cuts have undermined educational rigor at either the B.A. or Ph.D. level, the report ends with a series of efficiency strategies that could make B.A. degrees cheaper--and less rigorous.  The efficiencies are familiar: simplify (and reduce) B.A. requirements, use more online courses, and improve transferability (pp 21-22).   But the report has already shown that UC B.A.s are cheap enough, and in reality are probably now too cheap.   There are no big new savings to be had here, because UC has been squeezing undergraduates for over 20 years.

Finally, here’s the report’s vision of the future:
Projections of student enrollments and total faculty numbers, as described earlier, indicate that faculty will be asked to increase their instructional workload over the next few years.  They will expect to do so. Based on current projections, SCH per ladder faculty member should grow by approximately ten percent over the next five years. Though not calibrated in courses per year, additional hours would represent a further increase in teaching effort.
Having shown that UC faculty teach more than ever—on a 60+ hour week--the report says they will be asked to teach even more.  It suggests for some unknown reason that faculty expect this, when in fact every faculty member I know opposes it.

The text then goes on to suggest that “UC must maintain an environment in which it can recruit and retain such pre-eminent faculty,” for the bizarre reason that such faculty “will work far beyond a 40-hour work week and devote about half their UC work time, and about two-thirds of a 40-hour work week, to instructional activities and carry them out very well.”  So the stated point of a having the best faculty is that they are best at overworking themselves!  UCOP seems to accept permanent operational austerity, which implies that faculty will spend more of their time on teaching but not be able to add much quality to the teaching they do.

What Jekyll gives here, Hyde takes away.   The presentation of the report, and any follow-ups, should make the following points:

  • Budget cuts have hurt UC instructional quality (in spite of everyone’s heroic efforts)
  • Instructional quality depends on adequate per-student outlays, which, given the cap on tuition, means significant public funding restoration
  • The faculty’s professional responsibility is to increase rigor, not to water it down
  • Quality and rigor, not quantity and output, is the real service to the public mission today--in research and instruction alike.

That said, it's great to see the general campuses at the center of the Regents' agenda.


Jennifer Holt said...

Thanks Chris, excellent post!!
Indeed, a 60 hour work week sounds like a vacation

TB said...

"Budget cuts mean that student-faculty ratio increased 17.5% in the past twenty years, and is slated to increase another 7.7%, for a 25% increase overall."
Not to be nitpicking, but that's not how percentages work. A 17.5% increase followed by a 7.7% increase is a 26.5% increase overall: 1.175*1.077=1.265. In fact, here are the raw numbers from the report:
"A commonly used indicator of instructional workload is the student-faculty ratio, which has increased by 17.5 percent, from 20.0 to 23.5 ... If the recent trend continued over the next five years, the 20-year high
student-faculty ratio would increase another 7.7 percent, to 25.4."

25.4/20 = 1.27 or a 27% increase, which is even bigger. Not sure how they managed to lose 0.5% along the way...

Lisa Parks said...

Thanks for your lucid evaluation of the report!! Much appreciated!!

Chris Newfield said...

true TB thank you.
I hope the film professors are enjoying their "vacations"

Anonymous said...

I wonder whether the folks at UCOP attended UC campuses? They seem to be masters of spin and deception, not rigorous analysis and interpretation. Maybe we faculty should teach ethics along with other skills.

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Nwoha Chidinma M said...

great post! very explanatory! http://www.unn.edu.ng/

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Anonymous said...

With regard to increasing the amount of online courses, perhaps it is instructive to note that three of the above 'comments' are actually advertisements for services promoting online cheating.

Chris Newfield said...

yes- thanks for a partial redemption of the spam

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