Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. Reflections on the End of the Semester

 

The college semester is over. The tests and labs are marked, and the grades have been posted. A cat threw up on the Astronomy lab reports, possibly a critique of the work. Now my wife and I, who are both physics professors, can relax…and immediately start work on our research presentations for the astronomy conference coming up right after Christmas.

In the meantime, we’re scrambling to write Christmas cards, order gifts, and put up the tree. The last half of a semester sees the paperwork pile up (literally, in my case; there are several piles of it on the dining room floor, and I have moved my work to the dining table because there’s no more room for it on my desk), so we’re behind on everything.

Some thoughts going through my head:

1. Some new professors complain that they get pushed to do too much work to earn tenure and promotion, compared to the tenured, full professors. It sure is a lot of work to create the notes for a class, the first time or two that you teach it. Keeps you up late at night. But I’ve found that I’m actually busier now, as a full professor with tenure, than I was when I had just started. I’ve gotten senior enough that I have a lot more responsibilities than when I just had to worry about teaching and research. It’s kind of like growing up.

2. When I was new, I had a light teaching load (I got a third of my time off from teaching, thanks to being Planetarium Director) and that gave me more time for research. I had only a small number of research projects going on, which was good, because I was first author or sole author on all of my papers. If I didn’t write them, they wouldn’t get published. Now, I have a much, much heavier teaching load, and I’m in some large collaborations with more work going on there. I have little time for research but I have more work happening. At least with a collaboration, there are other people to rely on.

3. The quality of students varies a lot from one year to the next. I tend to worry that the big changes are really a reflection of my teaching varying. I don’t know if that’s really the case, though, because I’ve been using the exact same notes for years. But I have not seen any multi-year trends in student quality. I suspect most of professors’ and teachers’ complaints that “students today” are worse than five or 10 years ago is a subjective view that depends on the professor himself getting older.

4. The higher education bubble Glenn Reynolds (Instapundit) has been talking about for years is here, now. My college, a state university, has gone through seven years of enrollment declines. (We dropped from nearly 5,000 to less than 4,000!) A lot of that can be put at the feet of our admissions office, which had not been enforcing entrance qualifications and was expanding the rolls as much as they could. That built us up to an unsustainable level with low-quality students. When the state started funding us based on individual courses passed, we lost students and money. That meant we couldn’t support the staff and faculty we’d built up, so some of them had to go, too. Now with new administration and priorities, we’ve turned things around and have a sizeable increase. I hope we don’t try growing more than we can maintain this time. A lot of schools are finding something similar. Even state universities can’t expect the state to simply pony up cash if there aren’t enough students. Schools that do survive are going to have to be conscious of the cost they’re charging—both to the student and the state. I think we’re on the right path for now, but time will tell.

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  1. PHCheese Member

    A nephew of mine is the head of a department at a state school in Va. He complained that he had to teach for 12 hours a week. I remarked that was an easy day when I had my business. He said he had other responsibilities. I mentioned that I had bottom line responsibilities for the entire company including payroll for over 100 employees. Somehow I don’t think he got it. There is a disconnect between academia , government employees and private enterprise.

    • #1
    • December 18, 2019, at 7:32 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  2. John Park Member

    Our cat throws up on Mrs. Park’s favorite rug. Does that mean we should get a different one?

    • #2
    • December 18, 2019, at 7:43 AM PST
    • Like
  3. Tim H. Member
    Tim H.

    PHCheese (View Comment):

    Don’t make too light of a 12 credit hour teaching load. The actual time in the classroom isn’t much, but that’s just one part of it. It could be compared to having 12 hours of meetings a week, where you’re the one holding the meeting and doing all of the presentations. It’s probably four courses—a lot for a department chairman, and I don’t envy him. 

    Being a department chairman can be a grueling situation, depending on the condition of the school. When we had elections for the Natural Sciences Department chairman recently, nobody wanted the job, and it was only at the last minute that we shanghai’d someone into it. In a season of budget increases and expansion, it’s a lot of paperwork and meetings, but it might be an optimistic role to be in. For us, with twice-a-year budget cuts and faculty being fired and majors being eliminated, it’s like being a battlefield commander for an army that’s about to lose.

    It’s not as much responsibility as keeping a business running, for sure, but it is a lot of work, and there are a few similarities here and there for how you live your life. You never really have time off, for example. There’s always something else you have to be doing. At night, on the weekends, etc. You’re also managing a collection of professors, each of whom thinks he’s independent, and they’re usually arguing with you over class scheduling, budget, and resources. On the other hand, you don’t have the ultimate say-so, and you have to fight with the school administration and even other departments for what your department gets. It’s a stressful job that doesn’t always have an upside.

    Anyway, yes, running a 100-employee business is much more work and more stress than being a professor or a department chairman, but that’s true for running a business vs. pretty much any other job—private or not. 

    • #3
    • December 18, 2019, at 8:04 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  4. Tim H. Member
    Tim H.

    John Park (View Comment):

    Our cat throws up on Mrs. Park’s favorite rug. Does that mean we should get a different one?

    Definitely get a different rug. The cat disapproves.

    Or did you mean a different cat? Maybe go for a second opinion.

    • #4
    • December 18, 2019, at 8:05 AM PST
    • 1 like
  5. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Tim H.: That built us up to an unsustainable level with low-quality students, and when the state started funding us based on individual courses passed, we lost students and money. That meant we couldn’t support the staff and faculty we’d built up, so some of them had to go, too. Now with new administration and priorities, we’ve turned things around and have a sizeable increase. I hope we don’t try growing farther than we can maintain, this time.

    That’s a fallacy in business generally, in my opinion. Growth is a respectable goal, but it should not be an automatic goal shared by every business at all times. That thinking is an unfortunate consequence of the stock market. 

    It’s like children in marriage. Of course, a new child is always reason to rejoice. But that doesn’t mean you need a new one every year. Maybe pause occasionally to improve what you have.

    • #5
    • December 18, 2019, at 8:29 AM PST
    • 4 likes
  6. Tim H. Member
    Tim H.

    Aaron Miller (View Comment):

    That’s a fallacy in business generally, in my opinion. Growth is a respectable goal, but it should not be an automatic goal shared by every business at all times. That thinking is an unfortunate consequence of the stock market.

    I hadn’t thought about that. In our case, and possibly in business more generally, growth in students means we need more dormitory space and more courses. Dormitories means construction, and courses require professors. Then if you lose students, you’re stuck with those extra buildings and professors. Buildings require maintenance and upkeep. Professors…well, professors can be hard to fire, sometimes even without tenure. And there’s a division problem, too. Each professor teaches x classes. So as you’re growing, the existing professors start teaching overloads, which is expensive to the school and wears the professors out. Then once you have enough extra students, you hire more professors to take up those extra courses. If you’re shrinking, you have too many professors, and a lot of professors and not enough courses means they’re getting underloads, and the administration gets after them and the department. Small classes get cancelled, and your teaching schedule stays in flux, and you can’t make plans for the semester, and students can’t count on a course being offered, after they’ve signed up for it. 

    • #6
    • December 18, 2019, at 8:36 AM PST
    • 1 like
  7. Al French of Damascus Moderator

    John Park (View Comment):

    Our cat throws up on Mrs. Park’s favorite rug. Does that mean we should get a different one?

    Different cat.

    • #7
    • December 18, 2019, at 10:38 AM PST
    • Like
  8. Sabrdance Member

    Tim H. (View Comment):

    Aaron Miller (View Comment):

    That’s a fallacy in business generally, in my opinion. Growth is a respectable goal, but it should not be an automatic goal shared by every business at all times. That thinking is an unfortunate consequence of the stock market.

    I hadn’t thought about that. In our case, and possibly in business more generally, growth in students means we need more dormitory space and more courses. Dormitories means construction, and courses require professors. Then if you lose students, you’re stuck with those extra buildings and professors. Buildings require maintenance and upkeep. Professors…well, professors can be hard to fire, sometimes even without tenure. And there’s a division problem, too. Each professor teaches x classes. So as you’re growing, the existing professors start teaching overloads, which is expensive to the school and wears the professors out. Then once you have enough extra students, you hire more professors to take up those extra courses. If you’re shrinking, you have too many professors, and a lot of professors and not enough courses means they’re getting underloads, and the administration gets after them and the department. Small classes get cancelled, and your teaching schedule stays in flux, and you can’t make plans for the semester, and students can’t count on a course being offered, after they’ve signed up for it.

    I can’t speak for your state school, but my state school also attaches our allocation to, among other things, credit-hour production and classroom square footage. Yes, this was done at the request of the flagship school (who get a bonus for being the flagship school -SEC and NCAA delenda est…), but the rest of us have to live under it. That means that, as far as the state allocation is concerned -which is still a quarter of our funding -if we aren’t growing in student population, we are losing.

    Among other things that need to delenda est, USN&WR rankings use spending per student as a key part of their ranking, as well as the expense and extent of university facilities. Build a new rec center, spread the cost among the students, go up a few spots in the rankings.

    • #8
    • December 19, 2019, at 11:59 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  9. The Reticulator Member

    Sabrdance (View Comment):
    Among other things that need to delenda est, USN&WR rankings use spending per student as a key part of their ranking, as well as the expense and extent of university facilities. Build a new rec center, spread the cost among the students, go up a few spots in the rankings.

    I hadn’t known that. It will be good to keep it in mind.

    • #9
    • December 19, 2019, at 12:03 PM PST
    • Like