Sunday, March 25, 2012

Absurd Attack on College Professors in Wash. Post

An article in the Washington Post has one of the most ridiculous attacks on college professors I've ever seen.  The argument basically says us college professors don't work hard enough for the money we make.  Which is infuriatingly obtuse.  So let's take a closer look, starting with this quote below:

"An executive who works a 40-hour week for 50 weeks puts in a minimum of 2,000 hours yearly. But faculty members teaching 12 to 15 hours per week for 30 weeks spend only 360 to 450 hours per year in the classroom. Even in the unlikely event that they devote an equal amount of time to grading and class preparation, their workload is still only 36 to 45 percent of that of non-academic professionals. Yet they receive the same compensation."

First off, I don't get the same compensation as people with my same credentials get in the non-academic world.  I could make twice the money I do if I went to work for an oil company, like some of my friends from grad school did.  Good for them!  They made a choice for their life that they wanted, and so did I.  I choose my career as a professor at a small, liberal arts college because I love it, and it is worth more to me personally than the money I would otherwise make.  But let's not pretend there isn't a huge financial difference.  In fact, my first year as a professor I made about ~35-40% of the money that my friends from grad school who went to work for Shell & Exxon/Mobile did.  Yeah, that's right, a bit more than a third.  So this whole "they receive the same compensation" business is simply false, grotesquely false.  

Secondly, suggesting that it is "unlikely" that professors spend an hour prepping & grading for every hour they spend in the classroom is absurd, grotesquely absurd.  This shows a mind-boggling ignorance of what the job requires.  Writing a really good 1 hour lecture can take literally days.  Some of my lectures I've spent literally 20+ hours preparing, and that's just for the first time I give it.  What takes so much time?  To write a good lecture, you must consider the following: 1) What do my students need to know, and how can I boil that down concisely into a few learning goals?  One of the first steps of good teaching is to be able to clearly communicate what the student should expect to learn.  2) What do my students already know, which will serve as knowledge & skills from which to build?  No one learns anything that they cannot connect to something they already know.  This is one of the foundational principals of education theory, that knowledge is constructed by being built upon itself.  In other words, to learn something new, you have to connect it to things you already know.  3) What are the details of everything they need to learn?  If you are going to teach it, you've got to know it really, really well.  It isn't enough to state what they need to know (i.e., the ending point) and know what they already know (the starting point), you have to now fill it all the details of the knowledge & skills you are trying to instill.  4) How should I best organize the main ideas so that the lecture has a logical flow?  In a way, this is like building up a wall.  You have to start with the bottom layer, and work your way up.  You can't add the 5th row of bricks until rows 1-4 are already done.  With the world of ideas, the order of the bricks isn't always obvious - as the instructor, it is your job to figure out in what order the concepts should go.  5) Which figures, tables, images, pictures, graphs, videos, & other multimedia should I use to best convey the concepts visually?  Visual aids are probably the most important part of any lecture.  The pictures must convey the same things that you are going to verbalize.  And not all figures are of equal value, especially in science education.  Are the images clear, in color, labeled correctly?  6) What examples would best clearly communicate the overall ideas?  7) What physical objects might be useful to bring to class as learning aids, and where will I obtain & store these items?  8) What activities could the students do that will ask them to apply their new knowledge in order to solve some problem?  I could go on, but the point I hope is clear: writing a good lecture is a long process!  Now, the good thing is that I can store that lecture material on my computer & bring it out again the next time I teach the course - which in my case, is typically every 2 years.  So let's say I spent 20 hours on a lecture, and then the next time I teach it, I spend zero hours prepping it - that still means it will take 40 years of my life before the total time I spent giving the lecture will equal the time spent prepping it.  And a good teacher doesn't do that - a good teacher reviews his/her own work at a later time with fresh eyes, finds things to change, new information to add, better examples/visuals/activities, etc., that will increase the time spent in the classroom.  A good educator not only get an assessment of how well the students are doing, a good educator also gets an assessment on how well he/she is doing, and based on that makes changes that will improve the experience in the future.  And all of this is just for preparing a lecture - shall we talk about grading now?  :-)  Grading is another experience that takes lots & lots of time if it is going to be done well.  Why?  Because in order for students to learn from their mistakes, they need rich feedback on their performance.  They need more than a score or a percentage, they need explanation & clarification.

Finally, let's also dispel this myth that class prep & grading are the only things that professors do.  Students ask questions, want to spend time with you individually to help them on assignments, ask you for recommendation letters, ask you for advice on jobs, careers, & graduate school, attend their senior exhibition/presentation, and ask you for an opportunity to take an exam or work on a lab at another time.  Suppose you catch some students who have clearly cheated on an assignment.  Clearing that up is going to take some time, if you want to do it the right way, a way that will help the student recognize their mistake, acknowledge it, make it right, and become a better person that this world desperately needs.  You can't do that in an hour.  You also attend faculty meetings where you consider new courses & programs, listen to guest speakers or fellow faculty discuss a topic, and serve on committees for hiring, promotions, academic integrity issues, & policy making.  I could go on, but I think I've made my point.  There is more that could be said about this opinion piece - the part I quoted above is only one small portion of it.  But I've got to get back to grading.

I love my job.  I love working with my students.  I'm right where I want to be in my career.  But it takes a lot of work, and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong, grotesquely wrong.