Dear Buried Alive

Dear Ms. Scholar, A project I’ve been working on has been cancelled and I’ve been given another course — more than I’ve ever taught. In the Spring I had 125 students. I emphasize critical thinking in my teaching, so every assignment requires writing. I had 50 online students with an essay a week, 50 students with 8 essays over the course of the semester, and a writing intensive course with 15 students. CRAZY. This semester my schedule was changed at the last minute: I will have 125 students, but a more challenging semester even than last one’s. Needless to say, I am not happy.

I am wondering if I am alone in this situation or whether others also face this daunting workload. Any suggestions? — Buried Alive

Ms. Scholar at her desk.

Ms. Scholar at her desk.

Dear Buried Alive, Unfortunately,  your experience is more and more typical, both here and at universities across the country. The pressures to keep tuition down, combined with decreased funding from state governments, the desire for more “upscale” learning and housing environments, and a tendency to downplay and diminish the job that we faculty do means that many universities are increasing their demands on faculty, while simultaneously attempting to cut costs (e.g., hire more adjunct faculty). There are many faculty across this campus who are being asked to do more with less and, like you, are feeling overwhelmed.

One of the things that you allude to is that these demands are not evenly distributed, either within your department or across campus. In some cases that is because managers do not understand — or possibly value — the work you do. Maybe they think your subject area is one that can be done well in large courses. Maybe they think that you would translate well to a larger classroom. If these assumptions are inaccurate, educate and advocate. Politely and respectfully, of course.

In other cases, work is not distributed equally because of politics, habit, “the way it’s always been done,” etc. Again, I’d argue that you should advocate for the value of what you do. Consider the ways that your work adds value to your program and the university. Be concrete and specific.

The problem is that they may not listen or, if they do, may not change their decisions because their hands are tied. Although you can’t always change others, you can control yourself.

An easy solution to this dilemma would be to cave and move to multiple choice exams. However, you clearly put your students first and maintain high standards for what you ask of them; such a change is likely to leave you unhappy. Don’t change your approach! We need and appreciate student-focused, thoughtful, and challenging faculty like yourself.

Nonetheless, you can only be stretched in so many ways without giving up your standards for quality — if you continue doing things the same old way. Consider rethinking your approach to teaching. Which assignments best serve your students and your teaching goals? Can some of these be performed in groups? peer reviewed? left ungraded?

Like you, I emphasize critical thinking and writing in my teaching. Lois Green, the director of our Writing Center when I first came here, developed a strong Writing Across the Curriculum effort on our campus. She argued that writing should be a central pillar of a student’s learning, but that we should look for ways to work more efficiently rather than only harder. She said we don’t need to heavily edit everything that our students write, and argued that we should focus our efforts, use peer review more effectively, consider whether we needed to read and respond to every journal entry (as I had been doing), and identify more efficient ways of grading and giving feedback (e.g., rubrics). Wise woman!

Like you, I continue to struggle with these issues. Still, I have found — or am finding — a better balance in performing the work in such a way that feels good to me without becoming overwhelmed. Finding such a balance allows me to continue to experience the sense of meaning and purpose that I want and need from my teaching. Talking to trusted colleagues about your experiences and concerns, as you are doing here, can provide you with new ways of approaching your teaching, as well as lighten the load. Please, keep in touch! — Ms. Scholar

If you have questions regarding teaching, student/faculty issues, or other comments/suggestions, please write to: Ms. Scholar c/o

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