Thursday, November 12, 2015


Ask the Administrator: How to Stay Current with a 15 Credit Load?

A new correspondent writes:

I have been pondering the role of research in higher education and what role it plays in opportunity for students.

In graduate school, we train people in research.  When hiring to teach higher ed, we (generally) expect people to have PhDs or a similar terminal degree in a discipline because then they should ostensibly be somewhat knowledgeable about not only the history of the discipline, but the current trends, and how new knowledge in that field is constructed (I realize that there are fields that are exceptions to this).  And when we take them out of the field of study, that is take them away from research, do we not take them away from this endeavor?  That is to say, are we not doing the students that they train a disservice to not have faculty remain current in research?  Part of my joy is sharing my research (or heck, other people's research as I come across interesting papers) with my students, even my non-majors.  How does this translate to a community college professor teaching 5 classes, multiple preps, not doing research, and (I assume?  Perhaps I am incorrect?) largely unable to keep up with current literature?   What about students who want the chance to actually try the field on (i.e., see what research in a given discipline really is)?  Does it matter that early?

I feel like knowledge keeps progressing, techniques change, and I wonder how CC profs are able to keep up, because I really don't know.  Sure, Socrates and the first law of thermodynamics aren't going to change, but what we have learned in the past few years has.  I suppose the question could equally apply to the increasing reliance on adjuncts at other places as well as lecturers who have no research program; I understand the cost tradeoffs here (and that some people even prefer this path), but my same question applies.  I am curious what your wise and worldly readers have to say about this, as well.

Please understand, my goal here is not to make judgements but simply to ask how research informs teaching and whether it factors in at the community college level (and to educate myself).  I also understand that at research-intensive schools, there are plenty of faculty who do research yet don't give a rat's behind about integrating it in the classroom...or really the classroom at all. For what it's worth, I am largely in the SLAC world, and in the sciences, which both color my views.

It’s a fair question.  For a long time, many community colleges were wary of hiring Ph.D.’s to the faculty for fear of them either leaving quickly for another job -- it was a different time -- or growing embittered as they lost the ability to do the research by which they had intended to define their careers.  The market has changed, at least in the parts of the country in which I’ve worked, so now it’s entirely normal to hire Ph.D.’s to faculty roles, but the question of research currency remains.

Yes, teaching fifteen credits per semester will put a serious dent in most people’s research productivity.  That’s not to say that people don’t write books, but it’s not the norm.  That’s one reason why the strategy of “I’ll use a community college gig as a stepping stone to the research university job I really want” rarely works.  Very few people can write enough while teaching five classes to be competitive with people who barely teach at all.

In my observation, the folks who are able to be happiest here are the ones who stop mourning what the place isn’t, and instead appreciate it for what it is.  Given the lack of a “publish or perish” tenure process, it’s possible to read widely and based entirely on interest.  You can’t keep up with everything, but you can pick a few favorites and keep up with them.  Your interests can shift, which some of us find liberatory.  (Although my training is in political science, I’ve found that left to my own devices, I’m much more likely to read sociologists.)  

On the upside, there’s no better college teaching laboratory than a community college.  This is where the scholarship of teaching and learning finds a natural home.  If you take “how do I best help students understand x?” as an applied research question, you can achieve things here that your counterparts elsewhere can’t.  The best-received presentation I did at APSA was about teaching Intro to American Government to students who were never going to major in it.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Accelerated Learning Program -- a genuine breakthrough in the teaching of entry-level writing -- occurred at the Community College of Baltimore County, as opposed to, say, the University of Maryland.  

One of my prouder achievements at HCC was the development of the “sandbox,” in which faculty were given one-on-one support in experimenting with various kinds of instructional technology.  Brookdale has an entire Innovation Center for the same purpose.  Colleges that recognize faculty as inquisitive and inventive people, and that grasp the potential of a teaching-intensive setting, can be hotspots of pedagogical innovation.  That may not be the kind of research many Ph.D.’s had in mind when they started, but it’s real, it’s valuable, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

Admittedly, I’m not entirely objective on this one, so I’ll ask my wise and worldly readers to chime in.  Wise and worldly readers, especially those at teaching-intensive places, how do you keep current in your fields?

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.


I once helped TRAIN students to do research. None of them were freshmen. A few were juniors or seniors. Most were graduate students.

Now I EDUCATE students. All of them are freshmen and sophomores. A few are in high school. We want them to be able to think and solve problems. If they can do that, the rest is downhill and anyone can train them. Like most intro physics classes, most of them intend to be engineers but we get our share of physics majors. Some of each are in summer research programs at university or national labs each year,which compensates for the lack of research experiences for sophomores on our campus. I know several former students who are in graduate school or have completed graduate school, mostly in engineering, but the ones I am proudest of are doing post-graduate work on things like autonomous vehicles or some other next big thing that is as challenging as anything that ends up in a physics journal.

I can't recall a time when I or anyone I know actually "kept up with" all of the literature in physics, but it isn't hard to keep up with the real advances. (Thank you Physics Today.) It is easier to keep up with what students want to talk about when you are not on that research treadmill, gringing out that next least publishable unit. And, to be honest, not much is all that new. Seriously high Tc superconductivity, now that is new.

The research that informs teaching is mostly about teaching, not research. How do you find time to read the science education literature while reading the exponentially growing research literature and also adding your own part to it? Or time to do innovative things in the classroom, like design inquiry-based labs or develop active-learning activities? That is how we spend our creative time, and it is extremely rewarding.
It's actually pretty easy to stay current in a field with fifteen credits per semester. I started keeping a time diary and based on that I spend roughly 30 hours per week on classes. Another 4 is spent on general tasks like committees and student emails. That leaves 6 hours for learning about my discipline while maintaining a 40-hour work week. If I cared more I could throw in another 20 hours of learning and make it a 60-hour work week (standard postdoc hours). So the teaching hours aren't the problem with staying current. The average biology postdoc or grant-jockey is spending roughly the same amount of time as me on activities that take time away from being current in our fields.

Staying current in my discipline is really hard, but not because of my teaching load. First, I'm not willing to put in more than 40-hour weeks at this job, so that puts me at a 20-hour/week disadvantage compared to my colleagues who stayed in research. Second, my discipline has become very broad. My doctoral work was on fruit fly genetics, but I've had to branch out into microbiology and human anatomy because those are the high-enrollment classes. I've also discovered that reading educational psychology makes me way better at my work. So now I have to keep up with four fields, which would be impossible even if I cared enough to work post-doc hours. Third, there's no incentive for me to spend more time reading in my discipline. No one who evaluates me has the knowledge base to determine if I've learned anything since graduate school. My students are too inexperienced. My peers suffer from the same limitations I do. My dean is clever and surprisingly knowledgeable but she also has to be responsible for the entire STEM division. Honestly, even the six hours I spend on keeping current each week are wasted from the standpoint of career advancement. The only thing that keeps me doing it is my personal sense of professionalism.
You're exactly right. The students in my Intermediate Algebra class are really bummed that our class is not informed by the latest advances in sheaf cohomology. We all suffer for it.
The letter-writer claims not to want to make judgments, but quite glibly assumes that anyone in a teaching-intensive position couldn't possibly keep up with the literature. That assumption tells me that the letter-writer thinks we're pretty dumb. Following scholars in your field who blog and tweet will alert you to the news-worthy developments that you want to mention in class tomorrow. Subscribe to journal alerts and pay attention to themes, topics & keynotes at conferences in the field, then bookmark relevant papers. Each semester/year when you update the course, review the recent literature and incorporate the important developments. It's simply not plausible that any field changes so rapidly that an entire course would need to be overhauled each year, and making incremental updates to a course just isn't that difficult. For an upper-year lab or seminar course where recency is more important, assign the students to read the recent papers and read them alongside the students.
Being responsive to your own best uses of time and energy is helpful. If you can cluster teaching hours, that might help you free up blocks for other work. If you can start the day with some focused reading/research/writing time to take advantage of your own energy levels (or, conversely, capture one or two afternoon timeblocks for the same), do it. While schmoozing with colleagues can be vital, I also try to limit this to one engagement a week so that I'm not frittering my time away.

Not to suggest that time management is the answer, but it's another tool in the overall response to trying to get a handle on a really tough situation. Good luck!
Ditto to what Cardinal said. One way I keep up is focusing some of my efforts on journals that publish overview articles, rather than reports of individual studies. That way I can keep up with general trends in the field, which is what I need when teaching at the Intro level anyway. I also get a lot out of some conferences aimed at teachers--they will have some sessions that boil down to "Here is an overview of some hot new trends in X field of research, which you can take back to your undergrad students." The national conference in my field is sometimes cost- and time-prohibitive, but they post videos of the keynote speakers on YouTube, so I can watch those at home, then go look up individual studies as I see fit.
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In my four years now of a full time job at a CC (5/5 teaching load, and 2 in the summer), I have found that there is some time to occasionally read a good journal article or book. Here are the factors that complicate this, however:

1) Service. I find that the more service I do (and I like to serve my college), the less time I have for reading (and, imagine this, writing). This is additionally complicated by the fact that I teach all my classes face-to-face, unlike most of my colleagues, who teach at least 2 of their 5 online. There just isn't that much time in the day.

2) Exhaustion from teaching. Teaching five face-to-face classes in a semester is exhausting. On MWF, for example, when I get back to my office after teaching the same thing for three hours straight, my brain is mush, and it's just hard to focus on difficult reading.

3) Nobody cares. Nobody cares about research here. Well, not *nobody*, but hardly anyone cares. Being in this kind of environment does not inspire or motivate you to keep up.

4) Having kids. Well, if you have kids, you know.

I do not like the feeling of not feeling like a scholar anymore. I am starting to feel stale and unworthy of being called "Doctor" by my students. This is 99% my fault, but it would be nice if the ethos here were *just a little bit* different.
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