Faculty may have to teach fewer courses

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The course load for Swarthmore professors may be decreased in the near future to keep up with the policies already in place at our peer institutions. While such a shift has not been officially proposed, it is likely that the school will pursue something similar to that in years to come. Strategic Planning’s Knowledge, Teaching and Learning Committee is currently discussing the prospect of transitioning from a 3-2 course load to a 2-2 course load over the next few years, which would require professors to teach only four courses a year, rather than the current five courses.  

The Knowledge Committee will likely issue a formal recommendation for strategic planning regarding professor course loads in the fall.

Swarthmore professors shifted to a 3-2 course load system in the 1980s, which meant that a professor would teach three courses one semester, and two the other, for a total of five courses over one academic year. However, professors at similar liberal arts colleges, such as Williams College, Pomona College, Bowdoin and Wellesley, currently teach only two courses per semester.

“It looked like it was going to happen before the economy tanked in 2008 … It’s looked like it’s going to happen for years,” said Professor Peter Schmidt, department head of English Literature, about a change in course load.

Many see no other alternative than to change course loads for professors in order to make the school attractive for young professors.

“I think it’s inevitable that we’re going to [change to a 4 course load] … we’re near the higher end of teaching load for a school like us, and it’s going to get harder and harder to attract young faculty members if your teaching load is much higher than some of your competitors,” Mark Kuperberg, professor of economics, said.

Such a disparity may make professorship at Swarthmore with its current 3-2 system less desirable than at one of these other institutions. “I interview finalists for tenure track jobs and the two things they are more aware of are what the salary comparison is and what the teaching load is,” Provost Constance Hungerford said.

Transitioning from five courses to four courses is also a way to recognize the increasing workloads that professors take on outside the classroom. “One of the reasons for [changing the course load] is that the faculty workload has shifted over time and we’re doing a lot more teaching outside the classroom than used to be the case … so you can argue that we’re assigning the fifth credit to the informal kinds of teaching we do: advising theses and research and working intensively on people’s writing and things like that,” Hungerford said.

Professors will be able to spend more time working on innovating and revamping courses if they teach fewer classes. Under the current system, the professor has more or less an increase of a third in his or her workload during the three-course semester. Under the 2-2 system, professors won’t have the same drastic fluctuations of time commitments as they do under the current system.

However, there are a number of potential problems that could arrive under the new system as well. The most worrisome issues are the potential increase in class size and the decrease in number of courses offered. Kuperberg draws a comparison between reducing the course load for professors and reducing the number of the school’s professors by a fifth. Such a change would, of course be drastic and nearly inconceivable. “I would expect that some departments would argue that they need more faculty assigned to them,” Hungerford said.

One source, who wishes to remain anonymous, worried about what reducing the course load means for Swarthmore academically. “We could do other new things instead with the same faculty and the same money, and be able to keep classes as small as they are right now,” the source said.

The source also worries about the effect the change would have in departments that already have faculty shortages. “There are already some departments that need more faculty that don’t have them and … even if you add 20 percent more [professors across the board], they would be no better off,” the source said.

The change could also be hard when professors are already limited in the number of courses they could offer because of other commitments, such as chairing a department, that are the equivalent of teaching a course. Schmidt, for examples, raised the point that many English professors are called upon to chair other, interdisciplinary departments. “If we have several people that year being asked to lead interdisciplinary programs, that could have an even bigger effect on the curriculum and the courses we offer,” Schmidt said. “The benefits are clear, the problems are sort of speculative,” Schmidt added.

Hungerford was unsure how gradually the school was going to go about the process of changing course loads. “I could imagine discussions about how to implement taking place next year and, depending on how costly they are, it may be possible to start implementing … I think there’s a pretty strong interest in doing it as soon as possible,” she said. However, as Schmidt reminds us, “change is very gradual here.”

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