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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.Published in