On November 13, the Phoenix published an article examining the current state of the College’s plan to shift the annual faculty course load from five courses to four. This shift would match many peer institutions and is designed to allow faculty more time for research. Administrators expect to complete the transition from a 3-2 course load to a 2-2 course load by 2020. Due to the shrinking faculty course load as well as a growing student body, each department feels pressure to reduce class offerings and increase class sizes. To provide relief on this front, the college also plans to hire between 25 and 30 new faculty members by 2020.
It is unclear, however, at what time and in which departments these new faculty lines will open up. In making the transition to a four-course load standard, each department faces its own challenges that are complicated by this uncertainty.
“The transition to 2-2 is actually very challenging for the classics department because we are not in a position where we can just increase the enrollments of a few of our classes in order to get rid of a couple classes,” said Grace Ledbetter, professor and chair of the Classics department. “We have a very fine-tuned program, and we need every class that we have. But that means if we go down to 2-2 we would either have to teach overload … or we’re going to have to hire someone to teach those at least two or three courses.”
In many departments where such a resource gap will exist, the college may choose to create a temporary position rather than open another tenure line.
“If we had a new faculty member who was integrated into the department, that would be one thing. But if we have to hire an adjunct or a temporary person we probably would rather do it ourselves, for a number of reasons,” said Ledbetter. “And that’s because we have thought really hard about how to best teach our courses and how they fit into our overall program. It’s very difficult to hire someone to drop into one of those courses and do it in such a way that it is integrated into our program as a whole … The reality of it is that we probably will end up teaching in overload, so we probably won’t go to 2-2.”
Only some of the faculty members in the department, Ledbetter stated, would realistically be able to make the transition.
“I would hope that the college would acknowledge that for some departments, like classics, it’s not going to be possible for every professor in the department to switch to a 2-2 load and that in fact what will probably end up happening is at least half of us will end up teaching 3-2 in any given year,” she said.
Each department is experiencing the strains of the five-to-four course load transition in a different way. The size, program and subject matter of each department shape the way that they respond to the course load changes. The challenges faced by a small humanities department that requires small class sizes, like classics, are different from those faced by larger natural science departments, such as engineering.
“One of the things that is perhaps unusual … [about] our department is that though we are all engineers there are at least four or five different fields of engineering represented by this one department and therefore the course offerings are not fully fungible, or swappable,” said Professor of Engineering Carr Everbach, who spoke as a professor rather in his role as department chair. “Some of us can teach some other people’s courses, but not everyone can teach everybody else’s courses.”
The result, explained Everbach, is that if a professor in the engineering department were to make the transition to a lower course load right now, it would be exceptionally difficult for the department to cover that professor’s courses. In all likelihood, the affected courses would simply be offered far less often.
Losing courses, Everbach said, is a bigger problem for the engineering department than the problem of large class sizes.
“In aggregate, the five to four conversion means that each faculty member will on average teach 20 percent fewer courses,” explained Everbach. “Engineering is one of the few departments that has an external accreditation body … In order for our students to come out of here with the the requisite understanding that they’ll need to go on and be practicing engineers.”
In order to fill the gap created by the course load transition, Everbach said, the department will need two new faculty positions, and he hopes that the department will get both by 2020, when the course load transition is supposed to be finalized. As such, the engineering department has set aside space for two extra offices and labs in the new biology, engineering and psychology building.
“If we don’t get the [faculty] lines, we are not doing the course reductions,” said Everbach. “It’s not that I’m just hoping against hope that it will happen, it’s that we can not — we will not — reduce our course loads. Because we’re not willing to sacrifice our students. We’re a very student-oriented department,” he added.
Professor and Chair of Political Science Carol Nackenoff, chair of the political science department, noted similar problems for her department, which is subdivided into political theory, international relations, american politics, and comparative politics.
“We were really hurting for international relations courses having nothing to do with the transition from five to four. And the IR faculty were the most pressed to have to teach intros and the same things almost every year in order to just meet demand,” said Nackenoff. “We’ve needed additional coverage in comparative politics for a long time too. As a matter of fact, the external reviewers said that relative to our peer institutions we’re weak, because we have very little global coverage.”
Because the political science department offers an introductory course in each subfield and a variety of Honors seminars, noted Nackenoff, the pressure for course reduction falls most frequently on intermediate-level courses and “special topics” courses that involve topics that individual faculty members have expertise in. The political science department has been looking for ways around these constraints.
“Right now our mid-level courses are crunched, and we know it,” she said. “One of the things that we’re discussing this year is how we might redesign introductory courses to both maintain our desire to accomplish our pedagogical goals, which most of us think require small courses, and at the same time get more students in them so we can not lose those resources at the middle level.
In the meantime, the political science department is in the second year of a four year plan wherein each professor drops down to a four-course load for one year. This cycle is supposed to lead into a gradual transition from 3-2 to 2-2, but Nackenoff noted that at the current rate the transition would not be complete by 2020. The political science department has been given the faculty line for a third international relations faculty member to join the current IR faculty members, which currently consists of Professors Ayse Kaya and Dominic Tierney.
According to Nackenoff, the department would need one additional faculty line in order to avoid course reductions altogether.
Many departments came back to this point: in order to make the 3-2 to 2-2 shift without cutting course offerings significantly, many, if not most, departments will need additional faculty lines. It is unclear, however, whether the 25 to 30 planned openings will be enough to balance out losses in course load for every department.
“Not all departments are going to get lines, there’s no way,” said Nackenoff. “I’m sure the college is going to look at enrollments as one factor [and] number of majors.”
Everbach agreed, adding that many departments would feel they needed more lines. “What you’re going to find is this argument is going to be replicated for every department for which there’s not fungibility, and they can’t simply swap [classes],” said Everbach.
Nonetheless, Nackenoff agreed with the rationale behind the course-load shift. “All in all we understand that going to a four course load is important because our peer institutions have done it. Faculty members need time for research if they want to be tenured, and promoted, and be active in the profession. You just can’t do that well with a serious five course-load plus other kinds of things that we’re asked to do around here.”
Ledbetter, on the other hand, expressed that she was not a fan of the transition, even though the plan is popular among the faculty and administration.
“I think one of the things that distinguishes Swarthmore … is the dedication to teaching and a culture where you are expected and encouraged to keep developing as a teacher,” she said. “I just don’t buy it that we’re losing faculty that we could have hired because the course load is a little bit higher than at research universities.”
Ledbetter said she believes that even without changing the course load, Swarthmore is an appealing place for PhDs looking for a job, particularly for humanities professors.
“When we have a job in anything, it’s a really good job,” she said. “There are plenty of people, great PhDs, who would really want a job here. People like to complain about the teaching load a lot, they really do. We’re all busy, everyone’s busy, in lots of ways. I think it’s a type of misery poker among faculty myself.”