A Few Thoughts on Faculty Productivity

Friday, June 10, 2011
Richard Vedder isn't an easy guy to get along with, but he's good at one thing: pushing the agenda, sometimes in students' best interests.

I totally disagree with the guy when it comes to financial aid-- there's no way it's making students lazy on average, or causing them to party. On the other hand, he asks some good questions about our college-for-all movement that offers no alternatives for students who don't want to go to college right away, and he also raises good questions about institutional resistance to change.

In his latest piece, he takes on faculty. Boo-hiss, I know... The guy has the nerve to suggest that on average we don't teach enough. His analysis comes from Texas A&M (so popular these days, eh?) and finds a “sharp disparity in the teaching loads for individual faculty members” at UT. Strikingly, they find that the top 20 percent of “faculty with respect to teaching loads teaches 57% of all student credit hours” while the bottom 20 percent teach “only 2% of all student credit hours.”

His point, while overly aggressive (heck, I know something about that), is mainly that we established a way of putting students and teachers together a long, long time ago-- and since then colleges and universities have tried to save money on that approach by shifting to a part-time contingent workforce (reducing average teaching load), allowing more and more professors to buy out of teaching with grant money, and keeping class sizes about the same even while enrollments expanded dramatically and technology made other solutions possible.

When Richard says it, people freak out. A rebuttal from a Texas A&M political science professor tries to bat down the accusations. But he seems to miss the point of Vedder's approach, which is to say that every decision about staffing matters-- so we should lump together faculty in different categories given that theoretically the distributions could be changed. Case in point: "First, much of the skew in teaching duties observed by the CCAP report authors is simply a function of the fact that UT employs a large number of part-time faculty." Well, yes, but that's part of the point-- and a big problem. Universities do that NOT to serve students better but to save money on benefits. PT faculty are perfectly good at teaching but are overworked and underpaid so don't have time for out-of-classroom interaction. His second point, that there's a potential consequence for education quality is right, in theory, yet he cites not a single study showing that large class sizes are associated with diminish instructional quality in higher education. And that's because he can't-- such studies don't exist. Doug Harris and I covered this at length in our La Follette working paper released last year. I do agree that there should be adjustments by field, but this needs to be carefully done because decisions about offering fields with lower enrollments are also strategic decisions and institutions have to be accountable for them. I'm not saying don't offer them, but you can probably only do it if you high-demand fields are very productive. Finally, I see nothing about the use of our resistance to technology, especially blended learning, about faculty in the professor's rebuttal. Technology breaks the iron triangle between access, quality, and costs -- it makes it more possible to offer a high-quality lower cost accessible education. I'm on-board with that and it may be one thing that sets me apart from most other professors.

All that said, Vedder's analysis is far from perfect. It doesn't introduce the issue of impacts on students in any rigorous way. It doesn't take on strongly enough the political and economic reasons why part-time labor is being exploited across higher education. It doesn't question a business-style approach to measuring higher education "outputs." And it doesn't take seriously the need for faculty to LEAD this discussion so that reforms stand a chance of really being implemented.

I've long wondered why I teach today in approximately the same way my colleagues did a half-century ago. Why stand in front of classrooms of 30-50 undergraduates several times a week, rather than meeting with 300 of them twice a month and the rest of the time online? Some will inevitably say that will produce lower-quality instruction but they have nothing to point to-- studies of blended learning are strongly suggestive of positive impacts. Forget online-only, I'm not talking about online only and neither are most proponents of bringing technological advances into university teaching.

And let's get real: right now there are hundreds of professors who have to cancel classes in order to attend conferences, meetings, and such. They resent the requirement to be in-person all the time to teach, when nothing else in their lives requires that anymore. Some of them never reschedule, others hold makeup classes, and some use Skype to teach. The latter is a very low-tech approach and it's used because we're not given other options. What if we were? What if faculty could teach more students, more flexibly, and even with better pedagogy (for example by getting more regular feedback on student performance, rapidly, to use in our teaching) -- and this, together, helped preserve public investment in higher education because it demonstrated productivity gains? Why not?

I suspect part of the reason "why not" is because when you hear "online" you think "for-profit" or "business." When you hear "big classes" you think "community college." When you hear "improved pedagogy" you think "someone's going to tell me how to teach?" And when you hear "productivity" you think "neoliberalism, market-driven education." I know, I sometimes do too.

This is a problem-- professors are thoughtful, careful people and it's essential we not have knee-jerk reactions to ideas that aren't yet being shoved down our throats in propaganda-spun-out policy proposals. This is one we can help shape and get in front of, and make it our own. Or, we can wait until the Republicans bring it to us, and tell us what to do.

PS. One more thing. Richard's claims that faculty can do more because he's done more--juggling research and teaching--that's just plain silly. There's been a major change in the faculty workforce--it's feminized. Something I know for sure-- Richard never juggled teaching, research, breastfeeding, and taking care of small kids. We can and should do more, but there's no reason to base the model on Richard Vedder's style.