Myth of the deadbeat professor 'Good teachers work hard'

Mary Ellen Elwell

September 02, 1992|By Mary Ellen Elwell

A spate of books critical of higher education and a severe budget crunch have combined to put college and university faculty on the spot. As never before, we're expected to justify how we spend our professional time.

Faculty responsibilities include teaching, research and service, with different blends of the three at each institution. But what parents (and voters) understand best about college teachers is that they're supposed to teach. Parents expect to send their children to an affordable public college or university with a dedicated faculty that spends time in the classroom, not on the golf course.

At Salisbury State University, the primary mission is education of undergraduates, so most faculty spend most of their time teaching. But even here, typical teaching loads are not easily described. Changing student populations, altered course content and shifts in time and place of instruction influence the workload.

Enrollment in universities is increasing and students are changing. Higher education is attracting more minority students, more low-income students, more students learning English as a second language, more disabled students, more older students. In the University of Maryland System, the number of students over 25 increased by almost 12,000 between 1980 and 1991. These older students now comprise 45 percent of the total enrollment.

So while there is greater variety on a campus than ever before -- and campus life is enriched by it -- there are also greater demands on teachers. They have to provide more individual attention and adapt teaching styles to the new students.

And the curriculum changes constantly. Teachers have to be alert for changes in their fields. The explosion of knowledge leaves all faculty struggling to stay current.

Outsiders sometimes look at the workload of a typical faculty member who might teach four three-hour courses a semester. Even with time added for preparation, paper grading and student advising, it sound like a gravy-train job!

But there is more to it than that. Many teachers cover weekly laboratory sessions. Some courses include internships in schools, social agencies, medical settings and businesses. In professional programs faculty spend eight-hour days supervising students' clinical work with patients. The emphasis on writing frequently includes required individual conferences on papers in progress. Drama and music professors don't even calculate the actual hours involved in preparing performances with student artists.

The days are gone when higher education was delivered on campus, in classrooms or labs, from 8 to 4 Monday through Friday.

Universities schedule to meet students' needs. Classes are offered late afternoons and evenings. Classes scheduled for Sunday mornings, Friday evenings and Saturdays are so well accepted by students that they are regular features of academic schedules.

Distressed taxpayers observe college faculty members tending their roses or playing tennis on weekday afternoons. Actually, higher education is the ultimate flex-time environment. Of course, class schedules, office hours and deadlines for grades are rigid. But must academic work is solitary, practiced in libraries, laboratories and offices.

Teaching is rewarding, frustrating, time-consuming. Twenty-five years ago, a colleague told me that the only way to get students to work hard was to work hard yourself. With all the changes in higher education, this is still true. Good teachers work hard.

Mary Ellen Elwell is a professor of social work at Salisbury State University.

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