Two years ago, the college began shifting to a 2-2 course load for faculty. Under the current 2-3 load, faculty are expected to teach two courses one semester and three the other for a total of five courses an academic year. They will be expected to handle only four under the new plan. Consequently, average course size is expected to increase and the number of course offerings to decrease. To mitigate this problem, the college has begun hiring new faculty.
Currently, administrators estimate that around a quarter of the faculty are teaching four courses and the remaining three fourths continue to teach a five-course load. The full transition to the new load is expected to conclude around 2020.
Professors are expected to work closely with students on theses and directed readings and create classes that require them to supervise community-setting and problem-based projects. Many faculty feel that as a result, research has been put on the back burner. English Professor Craig Williamson said that faculty research during the school year improves the student academic experience and allows professors such as himself to stay updated with the latest works in their fields.
“I think being able to teach a little less and to keep up with my research is better for me… [and] my students,” Williamson said. “I can bring the research that I’m doing into my class and my students can see that and be a part of it … It makes for a more interactive experience.”
Provost and Chemistry Professor Tom Stephenson believes that faculty research plays a significant role in ensuring student success beyond college.
“[Research] preserves opportunities for students in terms of being able to write informed graduate schools applications, to know what’s current in the field, and also to be able to have the time to work on things like directed readings and supervised research opportunities,” he said.
The move towards allotting more time for professors beyond the classroom is not a novelty in higher education. In fact, Swarthmore is a step behind peer institutions in terms of the course load; Stephenson found this to adversely affect the college’s ability to compete for top faculty.
“We were losing a competitive battle in terms of being able to attract faculty we wanted to hire,” he said. “We found that a lot of our peer institutions have [already] gone to a four-course teaching load.” With a 20 percent reduction in the number of courses, the average class size is estimated to rise from around 14-15 to 16-17 students, according to Stephenson. Williamson believes that the projected increase in class size will be generally benign and beneficial at best.
“The number of students in your courses might go up by 20%. That seems like a lot, but if my classes go up from 8 to 10, that’s not really a problem,” he said. “I think students will feel the difference in very small ways.”
Some professors don’t think they will benefit as much as the college claims. Engineering Professor E. Carr Everbach’s course load never followed the current 2-3 model in the first place.
“It’s really just a matter of calling things I already do by a different name,” he said. His responsibilities, he explained, include co-teaching lab or lecture portions of engineering core classes — each of which counts as a full course. These don’t include his other numerous commitments outside the classroom.
“I oversee projects that have nothing to do with courses. I have research projects … that I’m not centrally involved in as the professor for research but I still put in enormous amounts of time,” he said.
Everbach speculates the load change may require him to change the mix of courses that he is able to teach every year. For example, he may have to begin offering a course biennially that was available annually. This, he believes, may increase class sizes in other courses as students are essentially displaced from an engineering course that they otherwise would have taken that particular year.
In addition to altering the course offering schedule, some courses with unfilled capacity may simply have to be cut to free up time for faculty, including first-year seminars.
“We teach enough [first-year] seminars to accommodate a class of 600, but we don’t have that many first year students,” Stephenson said.
In conjunction with these two measures, the college has resumed hiring faculty, signalling the end of a hiring freeze instituted during the Great Recession. The college hopes to hire between 25 and 30 faculty members by 2020, according to Stephenson. Maintaining the 8:1 student ratio is a stated priority for the college, as student population is slated to expand in the future.
A new framework for establishing tenure lines was established just last year for interdisciplinary programs. Currently, interdisciplinary programs receive teaching resources from departmental faculty, who essentially donate a course to the interdisciplinary program, according to Stephenson. As faculty course load is reduced, individual departments may consolidate professors’ course loads to maintain their own range of courses. The new tenure lines dedicated to interdisciplinary programs would thus relieve stress from individual departments. Although no one has been granted a tenure-track position for an interdisciplinary program so far, Stephenson remains optimistic for the future.
“We have not yet utilized that particular structure. I think it’s a question of when, not a question of if,” he said. “We’ve got five or six more years of growth in order to get to that stage.”
“The number of students in your courses might go up by 20%. That seems like a lot, but if my classes go up from 8 to 10, that’s not really a problem.”
….Okay, but what about students who are in far more popular departments?
Just because only 8 or 10 people want to take a seminar on Chaucer or a poetry workshop does not mean that the increase in class sizes is not a problem.
This is a game that faculty and administration have been playing for many years. The number of courses goes down, the hours per course go down but the required number of courses stays the same and the cost goes up. In the sciences this can be offset by giving students credit for research with faculty which is often more valuable than coursework. I do not know if anything similar has been developed in the humanities. And what about faculty that do not do research or do not allow students to participate? What benefit to the College is this and why should their teaching load be reduced?