For Professors, How Much Teaching is Enough?

August 14, 1994|By STEFAN MARTIN

How much (or how little) teaching should be expected of the typical college professor? Some state legislatures (like Ohio's), spurred by cartoonish images of professors of Old Frisian mowing their lawns on Wednesday afternoons, have already provided a blunt answer to the question: more. In an attempt to head off such a heavy-handed mandate, the University of Maryland's Board of Regents will consider a rather general policy document on faculty workload in a meeting this week at Frostburg State University.

The matter has some urgency, because the Maryland General Assembly has withheld a total of $20 million from four-year state institutions pending the receipt of such a policy. With this pressure, we can probably expect some progress on the issue of faculty responsibilities this year.

Considering how badly debate on the issue has gone in the past, we should be glad. Higher education, rightly fearing the manhandling that often results when legislators try to manage, has traditionally held itself above justifying its priorities, and even when it has agreed to do so it has performed the task poorly. A new policy on faculty workload may push institutions, particularly large research universities, to reorder their priorities more in favor of teaching.

Legislators, many of whom know or care little about the duties of professors, may get more teaching for the dollar by withholding funds. But if they do, they should harbor no illusions that education offered in state colleges and universities will necessarily improve, even though (as many employers who hire college graduates will attest) it needs to.

That's because a number of other factors essential for better teaching and better-educated graduates are absent from the University of Maryland's policy document and must still be faced at the campus level. What follows is a list of these issues, and how they must be reckoned with if public higher education is to fulfill its teaching mission.

Teaching methods

Colleges and universities have traditionally avoided any examination of the way their professors teach their subjects, and the prevailing practices are faulty. Few institutions provide substantial, ongoing teacher training to their tenured and tenure-track faculty. Nor do many graduate programs do so for ** their teaching assistants. Those that do make it very clear (albeit implicitly) that teaching is secondary to research, even though many new Ph.D.s will make their careers as college teachers. Far too often, professors lecture to their students, a practice based on the assumption that a college teacher's primary responsibility is to "cover the subject." This notion of coverage suggests that a certain amount of "content" must be presented to students in the allotted time. Students, kept in a passive role by the lecture format, are expected to absorb the content for later use. But since they receive little direct instruction in how to use the content for higher-order cognitive tasks, they retain little. Analysis of classroom interaction has shown that even in classes designed for discussion, teachers do most of the talking.

To be effective, colleges must encourage teachers to adopt strategies that require active student involvement on a daily basis. For example, it makes little sense for an introductory biology class to be structured around lectures that do little more than restate the contents of a textbook. If this means scaling back lecture time in favor of more lab time, so be it. In an age of information technology, using Ph.D.s merely to impart information wastes their time and expertise.

Class size

Of course, intensive classroom interaction and training in higher-order thinking depend on relatively small classes. But if one follows a group of first-year university undergraduates around for a few days, one discovers that many introductory and general education classes are very large, some numbering in the hundreds of students.

Even if a professor were to teach four classes of "only" 40 students each (a total that would exceed the load of many high school teachers), the possibility of meaningful interaction in or out of class is slim. Higher teaching loads would lower class size somewhat, but if colleges and universities really wish to reduce class size to effective levels across the board, they will almost certainly have to hire more faculty, and these faculty should be interested and trained in teaching undergraduates.

Assessment of learning

The proposed policy on faculty workload gestures faintly at accountability measures for professors. But in the absence of carefully designed assessment schemes or any verifiable definition of student proficiency, any claims for effectiveness amount to mere assertion.

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