Sunday, September 20, 2009

Why You Don't Want Margaret Wente as a Teacher

Margaret Wente has a view on what is wrong with universities in Canada. You can find it here:

For those who want the Reader's Digest version, her argument is that the problem is research. She has the normal couple of anecdotes and references to an American who no one knows as supportive evidence. We don't actually need to get into her argument. You've heard it before and you'll hear it again. (Frankly, I wish I could get paid for writing under-researched columns that simply repeat staid heard it before arguments, but then ... I'd have to be a columnist for the Globe instead of a professor). Normally, I ignore stuff like this because:

1) there is so much wrong with the argument that correcting it would require a long time and might be boring for you to read.

2) I see no reason to fight yesterday's battles. Since we have heard all this stuff before, why even bother to comment on it?

3) I like to reserve commentary for serious issues. Wente's column is so bad it would register an F in my intro class, not for the points she makes (which can be made in a serious, professional way) but for the absolute horrible quality of supporting evidence, unbalanced treatment of the issue, and simplistic analysis. In other words, it would not matter what she was saying, the way she has gone about saying it is so poor that no one who is not already convinced could support her argument. On the other hand, if you were not convinced, there is nothing in this piece that will provide you with any reason to change your mind.

So why comment on it? This line:

"Of course there's prep time and marking and so on. But it's still not much."

Which is Wente's assessment of a prof's workload.

Let me ask you folks -- if any students happen to read this blog -- how much time do you want faculty to spend on prep and marking? Let's say I teach a standard 2/3 load (six hours one semester/nine the next). Let's do our math with the six hour semester, just to keep things simple and to put Wente's argument in the best possible light. I spend six hours in class per week. How much should I spend prepping up for those six hours? A standard rule of thumb is three to one. There are those who can get things done quicker; there are those who take longer. So now my total work time is 6 + 18 = 24 hours. In addition to that I see students. Sometimes not a lot; sometimes a bunch. I meet three directed reading/honours students for an hour per week each so three more hours plus another nine hours prep = 12 hours. Quickly adding this up, I now have s pent 24 hrs + 12 hrs = 36 hrs, plus 3 hours general consultation (drop in time for undergrads with problems relating to anything in the course they want to discuss or clarify or question, etc.). Add this to the total and I've now worked 39 hours per week, fairly close to the standard (is still standard?) 40 hours work week. And ... this is my easy term.

Now note, I have not attended a meeting, I have not gone to Senate (I have not read the reports I have am supposed to read to effectively represent my programme in Senate). I have not attended any committee meetings or read any material relating to that. (I am, for example, on my university's grad committee, which is not a lot of work but we are in charge of making recommendations on admissions. How much time should I spend on these. I assume -- for students and parents out there who happen to stumble across this blog -- that you might want me to spend a fair amount of time and make a thorough assessment of you or your child. That's an assumption on my part. I'd like to believe it is warranted. Maybe you don't care and want me to decide my recommendation on the basis of odds and evens ... but I don't do that. To continue: I have not gone to Faculty Council. I have not checked with other faculty (I am in charge of my programme) to make sure all is well. I've not looked over class lists or checked with my advisees (all students at my school have an advisor to help them out) to make sure all is well. And ... I have not written a blessed single line on the research that supposedly takes so much of my time away from teaching.

But, more importantly, I have not marked anything yet. Now, I will ask you folks again the same question: how much time do you want me to spend marking your work. Let's say you're in my third year (3000 level) undergraduate class. And, you write a term paper for me. How much time do you want me to spend marking it. I can get them done quick, if you want. The marking won't be very thorough. Your grade will end up being impressionistic and you won't get any constructive criticism, but I can get them done quickly. If you want something more thorough, considered comments that (theoretically at least) can help you improve your work, then that is going to take more time. Most students feel -- and rightly -- that their grade should not ride on one piece of work. There are pedagogical reasons for this but simple fairness is another important consideration. So, we need other assignments, perhaps a mid-term or a presentation, etc. All of this needs to be grade. Even the short reader response assignments that we give the intro classes actually need to be graded. So ... how much time do you want me to spend on your assignment, paper, exam, etc.? My experience is that the vast majority of students want the thorough constructive approach and, folks, that takes time.

The good news in all of this is that these other things -- committee meetings, Senate, grading -- don't usually occur every week. We have a weekly assignment in the intro but that tends to be the exception in the humanities rather than the rule. All told, if one were to average things out, one would find that I am spending more than 40 hours a week on my job and I still have not written a blessed line.

I don't apologize for this and I don't look for pity. I have a good gig. I like my job. Otherwise I would not do it. The school for which I work does not have a graduate programme in my discipline and so I have the summer's relatively free to do what I want in terms of research. Others who work at schools with grad programmes don't have this luxury. My point is not that one should pity profs or raise a banner in our favour. My point is that Wente's argument is empirically inaccurate because she short sells how long it takes to mark and how much time needs to go into preparing for class. And, what is worse, as a supposed defender of education, she seems to not care that she's short selling. As someone defending education, she seem to be saying that we should not mark thoroughly or properly prepare for class. And ... that is a shame.

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