The Price of Cutting Course Loads

Vassar professors want to reduce their teaching loads, but some question a new plan to do so at the expense of course offerings.

July 18, 2016
Classroom at Vassar

Faculty members at Vassar College generally agree that teaching five classes per year makes it hard to keep up with research and the one-on-one interaction that students expect. Many professors also worry that students are taking on too many courses at one time. So a new proposal to address the issue -- shrinking the teaching load to four classes per year while adding a new student supervisory component, and cutting the number of units students need to graduate -- has attracted significant faculty support.

Yet others remain wary of cutting course offerings -- and not adding new faculty members -- to accommodate the plan.

“As it currently stands, the semester in which we teach three courses tends to be very busy, and many people feel that the quality of what they’re doing in that semester really suffers,” said Alison Keimowitz, an assistant professor of chemistry at Vassar and a member of the faculty committee that drafted the proposal.

“There’s also a sense among faculty that some of the most meaningful work we do is the close work with individual students in any number of different contexts,” Keimowitz added. “The proposal is re-emphasizing that.”

Professors at Vassar, who are overwhelmingly tenured or tenure track, now teach two courses one semester and three the next. Keimowitz and her colleagues’ “Proposal on rebalancing the curriculum and the teaching load,” called “2-2-1” for short, argues for a teaching load of two courses each in the fall and spring, along with a new requirement.

The “dash-1” portion of the plan, left intentionally vague, seeks to reward professors for nonclassroom work that leads to student credits, such as supervising theses or fieldwork or other independent research.

Other possible examples include creating a short-term course, such as one on the refugee crisis offered last spring. Advocates of the plan say the current system offers little flexibility for such opportunities.

Benjamin Lotto, dean of studies and a professor of mathematics who worked with the faculty committee to represent student interests, said the dash-1 requirement seeks to recognize faculty involvement in what is “the lifeblood of the curriculum and student experience.” Before now, he said, “We’ve never really found a way to include that work in the workload in a formal way.”

Teaching loads of 2-2 or 2-3 might seem like a dream to those working at other teaching-intensive institutions or in teaching-intensive roles elsewhere, in which eight courses per year or more are often the standard. And of course there are many adjuncts who teach five or more sections a semester, with the added burden of moving among multiple campuses to do so.

Yet 2-2 loads or similar are increasingly common at the selective liberal arts colleges that make up Vassar’s self-selected peer group. Amherst College is 2-2, for example, while both Williams and Middlebury Colleges require 2-2 teaching loads, plus a winter term course every other year. Such course loads would have been more common in years past at research universities, where expectations for publishing or landing grants are much more intense than at liberal arts colleges.

Not all Vassar’s peers have moved in this direction, however. Oberlin College, for example, requires four courses one year and five the next, or 2-2 alternating with 2-3. And even some research institutions still require 2-2 teaching loads.

But professors at Vassar tend to say that teaching and research are similarly valued on their campus, and that the most effective instructors are often those most engaged in inquiry in their fields.

Lotto also said he supported the proposal’s notion to reduce required units (each about equivalent to a course) for graduation to 32, from 34. That means enrolling in a maximum of four classroom units each semester, instead of five. Students also would be involved in some half-unit-bearing activities related to the dash-1, according to the plan.

“Students are spread somewhat thin,” Lotto said, recalling a incident in which an advisee determined she’d only be able to choose one elective over four years if she wanted to pursue a double major and a minor and study abroad.

“Encouraging students to take fewer classroom courses would help them engage more deeply,” Lotto said, not only in their remaining classes but also in the deep-impact learning experiences that presumably would be expanded under dash-1.

The proposal includes a two-year planning period. While the 2-2 course load would not be mandatory, and departments would be able to keep to 2-3, the reduced student graduation requirements would force all programs to rethink their own offerings -- about what really matters, Lotto said. For him, that’s perhaps the biggest draw.

“Having the whole college think simultaneously about curricular issues would be a fantastic benefit to everyone’s education.”

To some, however, the plan has a major downside: an approximately 15 percent reduction in courses or sections offered to accommodate the change in workload.

“It’s unlikely we’ll be able to improve the curriculum by cutting the number of available courses,” said Donald Foster, the Jean Webster Chair in English and a critic of 2-2-1.

Foster said he doubts anyone on campus hated the idea of a 2-2 load, and that he values time for research. But the plan proposes no new faculty lines, and his own department is already down a number of professors due to retirement and other factors. That’s led to a reduction in possible course offerings already, he said, and the program can’t sustain much more.

“Vassar is now moving to diminish classroom instruction even further, with a scheme to reduce faculty teaching load (a good thing) without adding new faculty (a bad thing),” Foster wrote in a recent op-ed called “When the Vassar Bubble Pops, What Then?” for a student publication, Boilerplate. Addressing larger concerns about the direction of the college, Foster also criticized the 2-2-1 proposal as a kind of Band-Aid.

“Students will simply take fewer courses,” he wrote. “No longer will anyone be permitted to take more than four units per semester. Fieldwork and various nonclassroom activities will count for academic credit. Fewer credits will be required for graduation. Less homework will in turn relieve ‘the persistent student experience of overload.’”

In an interview, Foster said the college needs to reinvest in its core mission of teaching. And while the 2-2-1 plan is well intentioned, he said, there might be other ways to address the problem of faculty workload, such as adjusting it to reflect individual professors’ research output.

Other faculty members share Foster’s concerns, or at least want more time to consider the proposal; it was put on ice at a faculty meeting at the end of last semester. The plan needed a two-thirds vote to end debate but fell slightly short. It’s up for discussion again this fall. To pass, the proposal needs enough votes to end debate and then a simple majority of favorable votes to be adopted.

"I would be much more supportive if there were a clear commitment that such a shift would be accompanied by the appropriate dedication of resources by the administration," rather than "on the cheap," David Kennett, the Elizabeth Stillman Williams Chair of economics, said via email. "In simple terms, reducing the courses for the major and the degree would be at best a 10 percent reduction in courses to be taken by students, while the elimination of a teaching course to be offered by each currently teaching member would reduce available seats by about 20 percent. Given that in several departments courses are already severely oversubscribed, it is not at all clear how the resultant excess demand could be accommodated."

​Advocates say the 15 percent course cuts might translate to fewer course sections in some instances -- not necessarily fewer courses offered in all departments. And opportunities for alternative study would be expanded under dash-1, they say.

Candice Lowe Swift, associate professor and chair of anthropology and a member of the proposal committee, said she’d love to add faculty lines, but that she and her colleagues were working with what was available to them.

“I do understand there are some departments that feel they’re already teaching at the core of their majors and current course offerings are exactly what’s needed in order to accomplish their objectives,” Lowe Swift said. At the very least, she added, “These are the conversations we’re encouraging people to have. What have peer institutions done?”

For now, Vassar has no plans to add faculty lines. But its administration backs the plan, which is up for faculty approval again in the fall.

“We have done some modeling and think that other curricular adjustments involved in the proposal (like the new load and unit requirements) will allow us to keep average class size approximately constant without adding faculty,” Jonathan Chenette, dean of the faculty, said via email. “We anticipate pressure points in some parts of the curriculum as students adapt to the new curricular structure. But I’m confident we will be able to make the necessary adjustments over the phase-in period if the proposal is adopted.”

Chenette added, “Our faculty are creative and restless, and they'll come up with ideas for new curricular components that we can't imagine in advance. Our students could have a hand in proposing dash-1 possibilities, too.”

J. Bert Lott, Matthew Vassar Jr. Chair of Greek and Roman studies and a member of the proposal committee, said 2-2-1 seeks to "rebalance the course load, not to diminish course offerings." Some faculty time will be shifted away from teaching traditional courses to leading dash-1 offerings, he said, while the student experience will involve more of this kind of learning. Some savvy students already know to ask for independent studies and similar opportunities, but now they'll be advertised to all.

"The change is really in the way students access the curriculum, not the size of the curriculum," Lott said. "We do not expect there to be a large cost associated with implementing the proposal, and we think it emphasizes exactly the best aspects of a Vassar education."

Harry Roseman, the Isabelle Hyman Chair of Art, remained unconvinced.

"The result of this policy if implemented will be fewer classes overall probably having larger class sizes, fewer credits required for graduation and tighter restrictions on how many credits a student can take per term," he said in an email. "A cap of 10 credits for any major is proposed, which will impact some majors in a highly detrimental way and, from my point of view, erode educational effectiveness."

One of the justifications of the 2-2-1 plan is an opportunity for students to take a dash-1 learning experience, he added, yet with 32 credits required for graduation at four credits per term, "students need not take even a single dash-1 class to graduate." Many students also already elect independent studies or other alternative learning experiences, he said.

Roseman added, "I am reminded of when I was young and chocolate bars stayed the same price but were reduced in size by half. Even as a child I felt scammed."


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