When You Don't Want to Teach That Course

March 30, 2009

Dear Survival Guide:

My chair just asked me to teach a course I've never taught, and which I think is beneath me. I went to see my chair and she said this has always been a faculty-taught course It’s obvious that Professor Macleish or Dr. Ramirez should do it. My chair replied that Dr MacLeish had taught it seven times in four years and Dr. Ramirez four times in two years, and that they deserved an opportunity to teach something else, too. Now she's saying that because we have seven sections of this course each year, it's likely that we'll all have to teach it every year. It's a course central to our discipline, but I don't like teaching it. Why should I? And how do I persuade my chair that this isn’t a good use of my time?

--Unfairly Assigned

Dear Unfairly Assigned:

Your letter raises interlocking issues: how the faculty of your department have jointly decided to shape the curriculum; the policy/practice of how courses are assigned; the terms of your employment; and what you have to offer in a negotiation about your role and contributions.

The answer to “Why should I?” question will turn on the answers to some questions falling into first three areas. The first step is to do your homework. At American universities, the curriculum is generally understood to “belong” to the faculty as a whole. Ask someone knowledgeable or check your institution’s governing documents or faculty handbook about it how it works on your campus. The relevant documents are usually a combination of the institution’s governing documents and the bylaws of your department.

In practice, does your unit have an active curriculum committee or discussions about curriculum at faculty meetings? Does your chair’s representation that this has always been a faculty-taught course match what the practice has been? Did you know that when you arrived? Have you ever taught the course? How large is your department? How many faculty members have been sharing in the load? Has there been a discussion about this? Are others also being asked to teach this course once a year? Equally important, what do the terms of your employment contract provide? Did your letter of offer or contract when you were hired specify a teaching load? Are you fulfilling that obligation? Were promises made to you about what you would teach, when? Or, do your documents just indicate the teaching load per year? How has your load been determined in the past? These are the parameters that will govern the likelihood of a successful outcome to your quest. These factors, you’ll note, didn’t include anything about whether or not you want to teach the course They turn instead on policy and precedent, which is how these things get decided.

You also need to understand the responsibility and powers of the chair. It is common for course assignments to be made by the chair, sometimes in consultation with a faculty committee, sometimes alone. Again, the bylaws of your department and your university’s practices will be key to the outcome. Wherever the responsibilities lie, you should prepare to address the fairness/division of the labor issue to which your chair alluded.

To persuade your chair that this isn’t a good use of your time, you will need to have something to offer that meets her interests, beyond your dislike of teaching the course. While it is relevant that you do not like teaching it, it’s not likely to be convincing. One option you should avoid is threatening to emulate others you’ve seen who purposefully do a bad job to get out of teaching a course. This is neither an honorable response nor a smart one, especially in today’s bad economic climate when money is tight and it’s likely to get worse before it gets better. (The incentive to take action against non-performing faculty hasn’t been higher in quite some time than it is in today’s climate.)

Review recent events in your department and your chair’s stated agenda. Has she talked about goals or tasks that you could offer to assume instead of teaching the course you dislike? It will help if what you offer to take on is something not seen as desirable by others, so they will see it as a reasonable trade-off for them to assume the additional burden of getting the core course taught. What can you do for the department that would justify your release from this course? You will need to be able to articulate how your workload compares with that of your peers and why what you propose is fair to all. It’s likely that all of your colleagues would like to have more time to pursue their own scholarship and other activities; what distinguishes your request other than your dislike of the course? Is there another course that you like better, particularly one that contributes to the core curriculum, for which you could pull extra duty to make a trade here attractive?, Remember, you might be negotiating not just with the chair, but also with the curriculum committee or the faculty as a whole if your department is very small, as your letter suggests it might be. Either way, the outcome of this negotiation will become known to all; will you be able to co-exist peacefully once that happens?

A good rule of thumb for a successful negotiation is that you spend at least the amount of time preparing for it that you expect the actual negotiation to take — if not more. If you’ve determined that the assignment is up to your chair alone, think carefully in advance about not only her interests, but about the rhythm of her work. Pick your time and place carefully for when she’ll be in a receptive state of mind. The day the budget, strategic plan or promotion papers are due, for example, would be poor choices. Pick a place where the two of you will have time to talk and exchange ideas. Can you go out for coffee to a place she likes?

The research literature and common sense both tell you that people are more open to options and brainstorming when they’re in good moods than when they’re in neutral or bad moods. Your goal is to propose an alternative approach that meets your interests — not teaching a course you do not like — while at the same time meeting your chair’s stated interests and whatever you can infer about her unstated interests. Does she talk a lot about fairness? Everyone contributing? Quality of education? Focus on her interests, assemble a creative proposal and pick a time when she might be receptive to an approach that hasn’t been tried before. And good luck.

--Survival Guide

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