Talking Teaching

April 24, 2010

being an academic – some days it’s like herding cats

Filed under: education — Tags: , , — alison @ 7:18 pm

I’ve had one of those weeks. Actually, I’ve had one of those semesters… You know, where you are running just to stay in one place. Sometimes I think an academic’s life is a bit like herding cats. This post isn’t intended as a whinge, but more a consideration of all the demands on our time – maybe you can weigh in on how best to balance them?

I’ve been a teacher for more years than I like to count (oh, all right then – I began secondary teaching in 1983, after completing my PhD, & returned to the tertiary system in 1992). So I know what the pressures on teachers are like. And I think that we’re lucky in the university system to have less in the way of pastoral care requirements & paperwork – for a start, there isn’t all the work surrounding moderation of internally assessed standards; we don’t write reports :-); there isn’t playground duty! On the other hand, there is the expectation that staff are also active researchers (including supervising MSc/PhD students) & that they’ll be involved to a greater or lesser extent in some form of admin.

My job’s a bit more complicated because I’m 0.5 in my teaching role & 0.5 admin in the Dean’s office. (As Associate Dean with responsibility for undergraduate students I spend a lot of time working one-on-one with students, plus attending meetings of this committee & that, plus… could go on but I won’t. I even manage to fit a bit of research in there somewhere.)

Anyway, we’re working on implementing a workload model across the institution that’s intended to make sure that everyone’s spending roughly the same amount of time on teaching, research, & admin, (less admin, more & equal amounts of the others, & room for variation depending on the individual’s role in the institution). And that’s sparked some interesting discussions.

You’ll sometimes hear it said that we ‘over-teach’ ie spend too much time on teaching. But how much is too much? How much time should you spend preparing for a one-hour lecture, for example? What if it’s a new lecture? What about all the harder-to-measure things like time spent with students out of class, or working in the e-learning environment? (I say harder-to-measure because you can’t actually predict how much demand students will make on your time in a given week or month.) And of course, there’s the marking – I still remember how much time I used to spend assessing students’ work when I was in the school system (evenings & ‘holidays’, mostly) & I don’t imagine much has changed. There’s less of that for most uni lecturers, but the assignments tend to be bigger & more demanding of time & attention.

It’s a really tricky one to answer, because – well, I think this, anyway – there is always going to be variability between teachers in how they prepare for a class. And someone who spends 15 minutes reviewing a lecture that they’ve given a few times before & don’t intend to change substantially this time round, may do just as good (or bad!) a job of delivering it as someone who works for an hour or more on each presentation. So it’s kind of hard to see how to address that. And I mean, if you’ve used up the ‘allowed’ proportion of time on your teaching & there are still tasks to do, do you just stop??

But I do think the workload model’s good, though, because it should make people assess what they’re doing & maybe consider ways of doing it better. Maybe there are more efficient ways of teaching than doing it all face-to-face? Do things like peer assessment (which we talked about in another thread) make it easier for lecturers to focus on the ‘core’ business? What is the ‘core’ of teaching in a particular discipline, in terms not only of content but of numbers and types of papers?

I don’t know the answers; maybe some of you do :-)

And I’d better get back to my marking!

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