Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Professor for one year (week 47): Teaching investment and payoff

This is the 47th post in the series "Professor for one Year."  Initially, I had planned to post something every week.  However, my year is over and I still have some weeks left in the series.  The topics for the missing posts are already planned, so the only thing I need is some time to write ...

Apropos of time:  How much time do you spend on teaching, including preparation, interacting with students, assessment, grading?  As I wrote two weeks ago and also in week 24, teaching did take up a lot of my time.  I argued that the time allocated to teaching -- including preparation and grading -- should be the same as the time students have to invest to take a particular class -- i.e., the ECTS credits should describe the amount of work students and instructors have to invest.  However, for a regular seminar with 9 ECTS credits, this would mean 18 hours per semester week.  So, no more than three courses (54 hours per week) and then you would have to do some of the other work in the non-lecture time aka semester break to stay at least somewhat healthy and within the regulatory framework of labor law (41 hours per week).

Let's have a look at the workload of professors; 39 to 41 hours per week include:

  • administrative work (keeping track of all the different contracts for your PhD students and PostDocs, help with finding new researchers, mentoring your PhD students, hold staff meetings, etc.)
  • committee activities at your local university (attend faculty meetings, serve on appointment committees, attend senate meetings, etc.)
  • committee activities in your scientific community (attend meetings of societies, have some duties there, review for conferences and workshops, review for funding agencies, etc.)
  • write grant proposals (you don't get much state or university money for staff)
  • teaching
  • doing research
  • publish about research
There are studies on professoral activities, showing that professors work more than the 40 hours they get paid for, and that they spend only little time on activities one would usually associate with "being a professor" -- teaching and doing research.

Having a social live, too, and assuming that maybe you don't want to work every weekend, but roughly 50 hours per week -- of course, you think about some issues during your non-working time and you have ideas outside you office --, the question remains: which of the activities are really important and where could you spend less time?  You cannot cut on administrative work, but you could try to delegate some tasks.  Most of the committee activities at your university are related to the status of a professor, so no chance of delegating something there.  You can delegate tasks for your scientific community like reviewing conference or workshop papers -- however, as an author, you'd rather want to get feedback from senior researchers, not from PhD students, so this is a bit tricky.  You could hire someone for writing grant proposals and you could even let your PhD students and PostDocs write most of the articles on which you appear as co-author.  Even the research you could delegate to members of your group, at least part of it.  So you are the one who has ideas and then somebody else is experimenting if they are worth to be investigated much deeper -- for computational linguistics, this means that you find someone who does the programming along the lines of your roughly sketched new approach.  So most of the activities could be delegated to other people, and maybe the quality even improves because you profit from including more people and thus more ideas and more skills than one could have oneself.

And for teaching?  Oh, that's easy: You take the slides and exercises you developed years ago (or you even borrowed from somebody) and use them term after term without changes.  You find teaching assistants doing all the tutoring and exercises with students.  You cut short on mentoring: students have to come up with topics for theses themselves, and somehow they should know by then how to write a thesis, don't they?  This way, you can drastically reduce the time spent on teaching.  And to be honest, that's the most obvious way:  I didn't have duties in committees at the university during my year as professor, but even then, I could hardly keep up with my scientific community activities, and I did have absolutely no time to write grant proposals, do research, or even publish.  In other words: I had to invest almost all of my time in teaching and I definitely couldn't afford this for a real professorship.  On the positive side, I now have quite a teaching record, from which I can benefit in the future.  But honestly, I also enjoyed mentoring and advising students even though this takes up a lot of time.  And in the end it's the only way to have someone try an idea and report some results I might be able to use for proposals or further research (eventually resulting in publications, too).

However, having a teaching load as high as 9 SWS must result in reduced teaching effort, and thus in  lower-quality teaching as professors cannot afford investing most of their working hours in teaching. So one solution would be to value teaching more, or to reduce teaching load -- students then could expect good-quality teaching and mentoring.