As part of its 2012 strategic planning initiative, the college announced a transition from professors teaching a three-two course load, three courses one semester and two the other to a two-two course load, having professors teach a total of four courses over the academic year. The college hopes the change will allow professors more time to work individually with students, and work more on their scholarship.
Nathalie Anderson, professor of English literature, says teaching three courses in a semester leaves her little time for other endeavors.
“It doesn’t matter what the courses are,” she said. “It’s exhausting.”
Anderon usually teaches three courses in the fall, but due to the new changes, she has had several fall semesters of only teaching two courses.
“It was like a ton of weight had been lifted off my shoulders,” said Anderson “Suddenly, it was so much easier to be able to make appointments to talk with students. It was so much easier to be able to read a student essay and see how it could be made more effective, just because there weren’t so many of them to fit into the time that was available. It is just remarkable what a difference it makes.”
The decreased course load also comes with an expectation that Professors will work more with individual students.
“Now as we move toward the four course load, there’s an assumption that it will be four courses ‘plus’: all of us do curricular and administrative things in addition to our class room teaching, and we’ve been doing that all along. In my case I mentor students in Directed Creative Writing Projects in poetry. Three of those projects in a semester is the equivalent of an extra uncredited class, and the new system will acknowledge that effort,” said Anderson.
Many larger universities already work with this teaching load because it allows professors to focus more on their academic careers outside of teaching. Swarthmore however sees the transition primarily as a way to increase professors connections with students and, secondarily, as a time-opener for faculty. The change will allow professors to do more independent research with students, something that the social science division has been trying to change.
“There’s a general feeling among the faculty that the college as a whole would like to move in some way towards a model, that’s very prevalent in the natural sciences,” said Stephen O’Connell, professor of economics.
In the natural sciences there’s some expectation that many students will have a research opportunity either with faculty or off campus before they graduate.
“In the natural sciences, that is really built in, not as a guarantee, but as part of how faculty think about their curriculum and about their obligations in the summer. In the social sciences and humanities, there’s a realization that having some kind of a research opportunity with faculty is a great thing, when it can work.The resources for that have been expanding gradually, but I think there’s interest in thinking through how we can broaden those opportunities,” said O’Connell.
In order to make this goal a reality, the college is in the process of hiring 25 to 30 new professors to allow departments to decrease current professors course loads while still offering the same classes. Most of these positions will be tenure tracks, but the college is not sure if all positions will be tenure. So far the college has allocated 15 tenure positions and added 17 faculty positions total. They will continue to add tenure and faculty positions over the next several years. According to provost Tom Stephenson, the first professors as part of this initiative were hired 2014-2015 academic year, and the last will arrive in 2020-2021.
The Council on Educational Policy is in charge of recommending which departments get tenure tracks each year. The CEP receives requests for tenure lines each fall and makes recommendations about which departments should be allowed to either fill vacated tenure lines or hire for a new tenure position to the faculty in the spring. The final decision on tenure tracks is made by President Valerie Smith.
Once President Smith approves the tenure lines, which indicates available positions within a department, departments may then begin searching for employees to fill that spot. A tenure line is not approving an individual person’s tenure but instead approving a tenure position for the department
Stephenson says the CEP makes recommendations for tenure lines based on several criteria including: having a balanced curricula, sustainability of curriculum, the ability to offer the classes that appeal to students, stability of a program and the existing diversity of the faculty.
However, the four-course program is difficult to follow for some departments. Although the college plans to hire the necessary professors, the transition period has proved difficult and complicated for many departments.
One such department is the computer science department. Computer science offers one of the smallest numbers of tenure track positions, despite the growing class enrollment size. In order to accommodate the increase, the department has cut many upper-level seminars, meaning many computer science majors will not have a seminar experience in their major.
“Our department is already stressed under a five course load. We’ve had to cut first year seminars. We’ve cut all seminar courses from our offerings… I think our smallest [upper-level seminar] this semester has 25, and most have around 40 students,” said Tia Newhall, computer science chair. “So computer science students at Swarthmore don’t ever have a small class experience in their computer science courses, and I think that fundamentally changes the ways in which we can teach the course and the type of learning experience we can provide to students.”
Newhall worries that reducing the amount of classes available to students without expanding faculty numbers will mean that students will be at a disadvantage.
“Under a four course load, I think that’s going to get worse. There’s two options: either that gets worse, or fewer and fewer Swarthmore students get to take a CS course.”
The department was awarded another tenure track job last year, but it has been unable to fill the position due to a national deficit of computer science Ph.Ds who are interested in teaching.
The engineering department has also struggled with the transition. Additionally they have it has to work with complications of an external accreditation process.
“We have an accredited program, so we have an external accreditation body that visits us. … They make sure that we have a program that is top quality and that can be accredited,” said Carr Everbach, chair of the engineering department.
In order to keep their standing in the professional engineering community the department has to keep up with certain community norms.
“We cannot simply chop courses out and still maintain an accredited program,” said Everbach. “So every time we’ve been asked by the college, ‘how are you going to go to four courses’, we’ve said we need additional faculty. We need to offer the program we have and just have people teach less often but still cover the courses with other faculty, but we have not been granted any additional faculty.”
According to Everbach, in order to have all professors teaching four courses, the engineering department would require two new full-time professors which have not been approved. In order to start the transition, the engineering department has had to cut courses like Engineering five, which was a .5 credit course for incoming freshman. Some professors have also had to cut interdisciplinary courses they were teaching.
More generally, the change has the capacity to effect interdisciplinary programs at the college. As professors begin to teach fewer classes during the academic year, they also have less time to teach courses outside of their department in interdisciplinary programs. There are currently no tenure tracks in non-departments. Until two years ago all tenure positions had to be in departments. Now the college is now allowing tenure positions in inter-disciplinary programs, The college has received requests from the environmental studies, black studies, and peace and conflict studies programs but has not yet approved one tenure track for interdisciplinary programs. Stephenson explained the lack of tenure positions.
“They just haven’t quite made it to the top of the priority list.”
He did say that President Smith has made it a priority of the college to improve the interdisciplinary programs, and that eventually these programs will be given tenure positions, it is just a question of when.