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.