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Life at a teaching focused institution is not 'easier' - some examples of why

November 19, 2018

This morning I read the blog at Small Pond Science entitled "Really, faculty jobs in teaching-focused institutions are not inherently less stressful or easier or more balanced".

 

I enjoyed reading this blog because it is true and it reflects my current status. It also speaks to a larger misconception that is often held by other academics, non-academics, administrators and students. I completely agree with the sentiments in the article - being a faculty member at a teaching focused institution (TFI) is not necessarily easier. It's definitely different. 

 

What am I adding to the discussion? A few explicit examples and definitely an ECR perspective in relation to teaching-research balance. These are not presented as poor-me-look-at-all-the-work-I-do, because I am very aware that every academic is busy. These are illustrations of just how different a 'regular' position description and workload can be, and how institutional expectations vary*. 

 

The position description: My position is at a TFI. Currently, the workload for each faculty member is based on teaching hours. Each academic should be teaching 16 contact hours a week each semester. This just counts the actual face-to-face with students in class time. Obviously, like every other academic, we have many hours on top of that once you factor in prep, marking and student meetings. Technically, according to my position description, I have no obligation to perform service or research. Of course, in reality, I have to.

 

You have teaching assistants: Wrong. My colleagues and I do all our own classes. That includes all the labs (and planning them), all the marking, etc. If we want or need to take time off during the semester we have to cancel classes. This is very unfair to the students, but we would have no choice. There is no one that can step in for us. I can't ask my neighbour down the hall - they are far too busy themselves. This definitely limits our professional development in terms of conferences and invited presentations elsewhere.

 

Once you know the material, it's easy: Not necessarily. In order to offer specialized courses for upper level undergrads we work on a rotational basis. I will end up teaching a minimum of eight courses every two years. That is quite a bit to keep up-to-date with.

 

There's less expectation for research activity: Perhaps this was true several years ago, but it seems that a large number of TFIs are moving toward teaching + research. The expectation to conduct research is not always there for senior faculty but there is definitely an expectation that younger faculty will contribute to the institution's research profile. So while not explicitly stated or accounted for in my contract (for example) it is certainly expected that I will do high-impact research long-term.

 

You get the first year off to plan: No. Sorry. This is generally not true. Technically we were hired to lecture so that is our first priority, from an institutional perspective. Myself, and others I know at TFIs, were thrust into classes from day one. This makes it very difficult on several fronts: 1) you really need to plan appropriately, 2) you may not be teaching into units in your specialty which increases prep time, 3) you may not have access to any previous material, thereby increasing prep time, 4) it will definitely impact your student evaluations, and 5) it reduces your time to work on other things like grants/papers/committees.

 

You will get teaching release eventually: Not necessarily. Every institution will be different of course. Mine provides four hours of release in ONE semester if, for example, I get an NSERC. That's not a lot. It is more than some other places though. I have a friend at a different TFI where they absolutely will not provide release for research.

 

You get summers off: Maybe. Like any other faculty member at any other university this is probably untrue the majority of the time. This seems to be the time for largely non-research academics to update their courses. It's also the time that university service obligations increase because they worked out that you have more time now. Many other faculty, particularly in the USA, will teach additional units because they are on 9 month salaries. This allows them to supplement their income if they don't have research grants that fill that gap. If you are doing research, this is the time to finally catch up and organize summer students.

 

Your job doesn't depend on grants and papers: Not as much as a position at a research focused institution, but the answer is still yes to some degree. You still need to be field-competitive in order to get the job in the first place. That requires papers and probably some teaching experience. If you can show a track record of getting funds it's possible you will be perceived as having better chances of acquiring funds on top of your teaching load in the future. You won't be expected to apply for everything or publish everything, you simply don't have time. You will (unofficially) be expected to apply for some grants. You will be expected to publish in order to continue having funding success.

 

Getting good student evaluations is easy: Ahhhhh.... no. I'm pretty sure that even if every student in the class was given top marks, with minimal effort, there would be some complaint on the evaluation. "It was too easy", "the content wasn't challenging", "I could have stayed home and read the book". That strategy would also be a horrible disservice to students and the broader academic community. As academics we spent our training learning how to understand concepts, apply for money and do research. We did not necessarily learn how to teach. This aspect is probably challenging no matter what type of institution you work at. At a TFI though, this will form the basis of your perceived 'fit', long-term, at that institution. Essentially, if you have a bad year because you are over-worked and over-whelmed, or you don't quite understand 100% of the expectations/content/assessment, the students may supply negative evaluations and this could impact your career.

 

All students are the same, that part will be easy: Again, no. Everyone learns slightly differently. Some respond well to visuals, some are more auditory learners, some prefer reading a book, some learn best with hands-on examples. Also, generally speaking, as lecturers, we have absolutely no idea what sort of 'other' pressures each student is facing. Kids, work, language, introvert, extrovert, physical/mental challenges... no idea. In the same way that a cookie-cutter approach to mentoring a graduate student won't necessarily always work, neither will that approach in the classroom. Again, academics were not trained in counselling, but at some point you will likely have to provide some and recommend professional services to help students through a variety of challenges.

 

So, what exactly are the good bits?: You have a job! But, seriously, just as publishing a paper or getting a good result from an experiment can be extremely satisfying, so too can teaching. Once you adjust to the frantic schedule you can have some incredibly rewarding moments with students. Watching them finally understand that tricky concept, see them grow as a person over the years, perhaps even see some of them change direction because they have better learned what type of work suits them. All these things are great to watch. The best of course are those few students that decide to pursue a particular topic/discipline because they were truly inspired by your enthusiasm and the level of 'challenge' that you presented them. 

 

So, yes, it's different. Both research and teaching have a lot of stressors associated with them. One likely frets more about the fickle nature of funding and lack of time for the growing number of tasks. The other likely frets more about the fickle nature of student cohorts and the lack of time for doing service/grant applications/papers. Either way, as an academic, you can expect to be very, very busy. But, if you made it this far, the chances are that you kind of enjoy being challenged and busy.

 

 

* I have been at R1 and teaching focused equivalents over the years so, while I certainly don't know everything, I have some general ideas of how things operate.

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