Observing the Higher Powers: 2-2 Course Load Would Hurt Students

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Without a doubt, one of the most contentious ideas to emerge out of Swarthmore’s strategic planning is the idea of a 2-2 teaching load for our faculty. The change would result in faculty teaching four courses each year instead of the current standard of five. While not officially in the just-released Strategic Directions, a change to the teaching load for faculty seems, troublingly, still to be on the table as part of the plan’s implementation as a de facto part of the plan.

Strategic Directions claims, “We will carefully examine and recalibrate faculty responsibilities in terms of coursework, research, and other forms of collaborative engagement with students to ensure that there is adequate time to balance all of them, since all support student learning in different ways.”  While that passage might imply that Swat will just investigate its options, past statements by the administration suggest that they have already done much more.  As reported in the Daily Gazette, Provost Tom Stephenson and professors involved in the Strategic Planning process have confirmed that the change in course loads is set to go ahead. Despite having heard the arguments from professors and administrators in favor of the policy change, I remain unconvinced that a 2-2 course load is a good idea, for Swarthmore or its students. Why?

1.  Under a 2-2 system, a decrease in course offerings and corresponding increase in class size is inevitable.  If Swarthmore implemented a four-course load tomorrow, the picture would be pretty bleak. There would be 20 percent fewer courses, and they would undoubtedly be bigger. I predict that avoiding many more lotteries for classes would require pushing up enrollment caps for courses as well. Obviously the administration would not impose this overnight or without planning a transition. To mitigate the disaster of having to switch the course load immediately, the college would have to hire additional faculty to replace some of the lost courses and to ensure that curricular breadth is not seriously damaged.

But at the same time, it is safe to assume that the college is not going to hire enough new faculty to replace all of the courses lost as a part of this switch. Doing so would make no financial sense for the college, as a 20 percent increase in the size of the faculty would present enormous financial and logistical challenges that Swarthmore is unlikely to want to tackle. What is more likely is a world in which the college moves to 2-2, but does not replace all of the lost courses. In such a world, class sizes would be bigger and fewer courses would be offered each semester.

2. A 2-2 system would worsen an existing problem: some departments have too many students relative to the number of faculty. The student-faculty ration for the school as a whole remains low, at 8:1. However, those eight faculty are not distributed to departments based on the number of students in that department.  Some departments have plenty of faculty and few students, such as Russian and Philosophy. Others have few professors and more students, so courses are regularly lotteried or relatively large . As an Honors Major in Political Science, I am highly attuned to this problem, where many seminars are either over-enrolled or lotteried each semester, and most mid-level courses are larger than the campus average class size of 14.7 students. Departments such as Biology and Psychology have high levels of enrollment and too few faculty members to teach their courses as well as they could in a smaller setting. A 2-2 system would exacerbate these existing problems. Even if the administration replaced all of the slots lost through the 2-2 system in these hardest-hit departments, they would only wind up back at the suboptimal status quo.

What these departments need is a larger faculty, not a new system that directly harms students who seek to study in their departments.

3. My experience suggests the 2-2 system won’t allow faculty to have more time available to devote to mentoring and developing relationships with the students that they teach and advise – as the administration claims. Though my evidence is merely anecdotal, I have not experienced a meaningful difference in my professors’ office hours during the semester where they teach two courses as opposed to three. If the College has data on the subject, I would be happy to see them, but I doubt that they show that having professors teach less means they have more office hours, or advise more directed readings, or pursue more independent projects than they do under the current course load.

4. I am skeptical that changing the course load would allow the College to better attract faculty, another point the administration cites in favor of the 2-2 plan. While I believe it is important that Swarthmore be able to recruit high-quality faculty, I do not see heavy teaching course-load as the biggest reason professors choose not to teach here. Even it professors did consider heavy course-load as a deterrent, the College could provide different incentives to counter a higher teaching load – like paying faculty more when it hires them or offering better benefits. Either solution would both lessen the impact on the student population and cost less than hiring dozens of new faculty. Ultimately, new members of the faculty come to Swarthmore because they’re interested in Swarthmore. If that interest is gone, then we need to have a larger conversation than one about the teaching load.

Ultimately, a switch to a four-course load is bad for all students here at Swat. Despite promises of a better academic environment, it will not fix the problems that already exist and will not make life better for students.


  1. The author asserts in point 4 that “I do not see heavy teaching course-load as the biggest reason professors choose not to teach here.” However, this really is–many professors out there see teaching as a burden and would prefer not to work at a teaching-heavy school like Swarthmore. Granted, many would still love to work here, but if memory serves, at least one department (Engineering) was unable to find a suitable candidate for a position last year and cancelled the search.

    Also relevant is the observation that many of our peer institutions, including several other elite liberal-arts colleges, have also transitioned to a 2-2 curricular load. A strong argument can be made that we just need to keep up.

    • Sorry, I don’t understand. Why would Swarthmore be concerned about attracting faculty who see teaching as a burden?

      • Exactly. That’s supposed to be one of the benefits of Swarthmore, that faculty really want to be teaching and devoting much of their time to students, as opposed to the opposite end of the spectrum, where some classes at some universities aren’t taught by professors but by TA’s.

  2. If you don’t mind me rearranging the order of your points, Adam, I’ll try to tackle a few responses. Strictly speaking for myself here.

    1) On how this will be done, if it is done. First, I think the ‘if’ is real. The plan acknowledges something we heard overwhelmingly from faculty, that: a) the nature of the teaching they do at Swarthmore has ‘intensified’ in a variety of ways in the last decade and they are finding it difficult to teach to their own demanding standards at a 3/2 load; b) that the 3/2 load is preventing many faculty from pursuing innovative pedagogy in their classes; c) that many faculty are finding it difficult to engage anything outside of their courses and the most directly urgent research work they are engaged with, which ultimately starves out the intellectual richness and exploration that makes a ‘liberal arts’ approach distinctive.

    So the plan takes that data seriously–it was a consistent message from almost the entire faculty, from people with a very broad range of approaches to teaching and research, across the divisions. The obvious strategy for dealing with it is adjusting the courseload, and that’s what the folks thinking about implementation are looking at. (I’m not one of them.) But the faculty are also fairly united and intensely committed in their concerns about implementing any adjustment as carefully as possible–I was personally impressed by the strength and passion of that feeling at a recent meeting. So if it can’t be done without serious harm to the curriculum or the experiences of students, it’s possible it won’t be done. At any rate, if it is done, I think it’s a guarantee that it will be done slowly, methodically, etc.: there are actually a whole series of things (new buildings in particular) that would have to be in place before workload adjustments and a corresponding increase in the size of the faculty.

    2) There was an internal study some years ago at the college that suggested that relative to our peer institutions we maintain a much broader range of courses in relation to the size of our faculty. It’s not entirely clear that this is a good or necessary decision (and of course, it’s nothing that we consciously decided to do, it just sort of evolved that way over two decades), and it might be part of what is putting so much stress on faculty. It’s possible that some change to the sprawl of the curriculum is a good thing in and of itself. It’s also possible that we could address that issue without necessarily affecting course sizes in a major way. I blogged about this issue a while back: it’s actually very difficult to tell in advance what students will do even at the departmental level when courses are made available or unavailable to them. If, for example, students seeking to enroll in very small classes had to make a second choice, it might be to to make another small class slightly bigger (say, from 4 to 10) than to make a very large class bigger still (say, from 30 to 35). This may also figure in the idea that we need a gentle expansion of the size of the faculty and student body–that we may not be at a ‘sweet spot’ where the curricular breadth we want is matched well to the resources we have available.

    3) On your concerns about what faculty will do with the reallocated time that a change in the courseload would allow: well, this is the big issue. On some level this comes down to trust: I heard from faculty with very different personalities and professional profiles some divergent ideas about what they’d like to do better or differently if they had a bit of breathing room, but almost all of those ideas were really exciting and would do a lot to sustain the college’s reputation for excellence. They ranged from supporting innovative connections between the work inside classrooms and the world outside the college (the kind of teaching the Lang Center is tasked to encourage and support) to reaching out into new fields of study that are underrepresented (or not represented at all) in the current curriculum to creating new forms of student-faculty collaboration in research. All of this exists already at the college, but the faculty and staff pursuing this kind of work told us that they are very nearly not able to do it, or to do it well, and others told us that they just can’t, or that when they have, this kind of creative and innovative work in the curriculum or advising or research is unsustainable except in short bursts. So I think you don’t want to just say, “Well, will faculty be more available to me for office hours”? Think bigger and more creatively about what we might be able to do more of or to do differently. I don’t think just comparing the semester where faculty are teaching 2 courses and 3 courses is going to give you much information. In my 2-course semester, I’m often doing infrastructural preparation for the 3-course semester. You wouldn’t want to say to yourself that squirrels don’t seem to have any problem finding nuts in the winter, because that would mean you hadn’t noticed that they spent all fall burying them.

    4) On recruitment. I personally find this the least interesting or exciting reason to make this adjustment, but that doesn’t make it any less real a concern. A number of departments have told us that they have lost or nearly lost promising candidates who wanted to teach at a small liberal-arts college (which is already a hard sell for some of the best Ph.Ds) but had offers from our direct peers that have 2/2 loads. (Most or all of our direct peers do.) It’s probably true that there are a few discipline where the supply of superb candidates is such that you could offer far worse terms of employment than we do and still recruit an excellent faculty. But I haven’t generally heard Swarthmore students or alumni advocate a tight-fisted squeezing of every last drop of value out of a job market simply because you can.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful response. In listing the things faculty would be interested in pursuing with a less strenuous course load, you mentioned “reaching out into new fields of study that are underrepresented (or not represented at all) in the current curriculum.”

      I was hoping you could elaborate on how professors might consider doing this? It seems to me that branching out into other under- or un- represented fields might be even more difficult if course offerings are more limited, and I would appreciate some insight from the “other perspective”, if you will.

      • It’s a good question. One of the issues that faculty are really concerned about, just as students are, is supporting the existing sequences of study in the curriculum, particularly within the majors. The more demanding the sequence of study, the more difficult it is to sustain even under current conditions. So I expect that if we made any change to the courseload, this question will be at the forefront.

        Caught up in there somewhere is the question of where courses that are on new subjects can come from. The less onerous or lengthy a department’s required sequence of courses is, the more able they are to offer new or exploratory courses on an ongoing basis. This is an issue that is somewhat independent of the courseload, or might be actually exacerbated by a reduction of courseload unless we had a very substantial expansion of the faculty as well, which I think is what Ashley is appropriately concerned with.

        There are ways to grapple with this challenge that don’t go directly to reallocations of faculty time or expansion of the faculty. Do we find a way to compress or reduce some of those sequences in order to open up breathing room in the curriculum? Would that be a good thing in any event, or might it lead to a net reduction in excellence and quality?

        But this is also a function of how much time a given faculty member has to do the preparatory work for a course that extends well beyond their areas of specialization. I’m facilitating the capstone in Environmental Studies this semester and it’s been at least triple the work of an ordinary class for me in terms of what I’ve felt I had to read and consider in advance in order to make intelligent design choices, and I’d still say I feel inadequate to the task in some ways. Even when current faculty have the space or option to do a course whose design or subject is a big departure from their established work, the preparation alone is terribly hard to fit into a 3/2 schedule.

    • I enjoyed reading your response, but I still feel the central issue here as gone unaddressed: If we decrease professors’ course load, and faculty size is not increased enough (as Adam has already pointed out will most likely be the case), class size will go up.

      Whether more 4-student classes become 10-student classes than 30-student classes become 35-student classes is irrelevant, because a drop in course offerings as big as 20% is bound to have a significant impact on classes of all sizes.

      I agree with you in that there are absolutely a number of benefits the college would enjoy should it switch to a 2-2 course load (namely professors with more freedom for academic creativity), but these benefits, and I’m fairly confident I speak for a large part of the student body when I say this, do not outweigh their associated cost: an increase in class size.

      • I think maybe Adam is leaping to conclusions about the class size, both because we don’t yet know what the relationship between the size of the faculty, the size of the student body and the number of classes being taught will be, except that the folks running the numbers are likely to consider the question of class size (and faculty-student ratio) very carefully. I also don’t think it’s at all immaterial whether 4-student classes grow to 10 or 35-student classes grow to 50. If we could make up much of the difference with the former shift, I don’t think that’s a big deal. If we had to do a lot of the latter, that might well be a serious problem, and I think the folks working on implementation will see it that way too.

  3. I have read the comments with great interest. We have a similar problem at our university in Pakistan. Our course load per fauclty is far greater-7 courses a year-and we want to cut the load without increasing faculty. My queries, that do take us away from this specific discourse, but pertinent to the issue in a wider context are:

    1. Possibilities for lessening our faculty’s course load, given the constraint that we cannot at this point, hire new faculty

    2. If we were to look specifically at reducing our course offereings, then what would be the criteria to asssess the courses for a liberal education undergraduate program?

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