Tuesday, December 08, 2015

 

The Course Release Conundrum


“Significant numbers of faculty aren’t teaching full loads!”

Assuming that’s true, what does it mean?

By itself, almost nothing.  I’d want to know what they’re doing, instead.

If they’re getting free time to sip fruity drinks with umbrellas in them during the week, then yes, storm the barricades.  A full-time job should be, well, full-time.  And yes, there have been cases of people abusing leave -- whether as course release, sabbatical, or some other form of leave -- for their own reasons.  It can happen.

But most of the time, course releases (or “reassigned times”) are ways of getting other work done.  The public just doesn’t know that.

Yesterday’s story about course releases at the University of Missouri led to a series of comments about them being a symptom of the pathologies of research universities.  They aren’t.  Course releases aren’t unique to the research university world.  In the community college world, they aren’t given for research, but they are given for other time-consuming things of value to the institution.  

For example, department chairs routinely get teaching reductions.  They get that in exchange for their work with adjuncts, assessment, budgeting, logistics, and the rest of it.  Those tasks take time, and that time has to come from somewhere.  Paying someone else to pick up a class or two is far cheaper than hiring another full-time administrator to do those things.  Grant-funded programs often pay for adjuncts to cover course releases for faculty to work on the project for which the grant was funded.  There’s nothing sinister about that, and nobody is loafing; it’s simply making room for new tasks.

That said, I’ve noticed some issues with course releases over the years.

First, the name is misleading.  They should be called “course substitutions.”  “Release” implies that the recipient is getting something for nothing; in fact, the recipient is picking up a new task in exchange for giving up a previous one.  Misnaming them can lead low-information outsiders to jump to unhelpful conclusions.  Which they do.

Second, for whatever reason, course releases are incredibly hard to “get back” once given.  That shouldn’t be true, but it is.  I once had an otherwise-intelligent professor tell me with a straight face that he had worked far more than his course release suggested, and that in choosing not to renew it, I was increasing his workload.  I told him either claim could be true, but not both.  He literally did not see the contradiction.  The fetishization of “releases” isn’t limited to low-information outsiders.

Third, they rely on adjunct labor, with all that implies.

Fourth, they can introduce issues with evaluations.  When evaluation criteria are based on teaching, but twenty to forty percent of the load has been switched to other tasks, it’s easy to create a de facto blind spot.  That’s theoretically easy enough to get around, but in practical terms, it can happen.

Finally, they’re relatively blunt instruments.  Some tasks are big enough to require some sort of compensation, but not really the equivalent of teaching a course.  Stipends offer greater precision, and keep the full-time faculty in the classroom.  They also tend not to generate the same sort of misunderstandings; nearly everybody can understand the concept of extra pay for extra work.  Perhaps because they’re strictly monetary, people get their transactional nature much more clearly.  On paper, that shouldn’t matter, but in practice, it very much does.

The caveats are real, but there’s nothing necessarily sinister about releases.  Hearing that many faculty get them at a particular university (or college) doesn’t raise an eyebrow.  It’s a standard, inexpensive way to get work done that either wouldn’t get done otherwise or would cost far more.  Mizzou has its challenges, but this shouldn’t be one of them.


Comments:
I once had an otherwise-intelligent professor tell me with a straight face that he had worked far more than his course release suggested, and that in choosing not to renew it, I was increasing his workload.

That depends on whether, when the release wasn't renewed, the extra duties disappeared.

Up here, the government abolished release time, but didn't get rid of the duties, pay a stipend for them, or hire an outside administrator. It just got dumped on department heads, who proceeded to download a lot onto regular instructors.

Eventually that government got voted out, but the release time is still missing, and the duties still remain.

Bitter? Why the fuck should we be bitter?
 
Our administration and union just agreed to reinstitute reassigned time for those instructors who agree to take on a writing across the curriculum course (which, at my CC, is offered in all departments, involves a lot of grading and feedback as one would expect, and comes with lots and lots of training but also lots of work to get a section recognized as worthy of that designation). Many colleagues who have never participated in the program are now more willing to do so. Sounds to me like both the faculty and students benefit.
 
One downside to stipends vs. release time is that the former require someone to take on more than a full-time job. I've been offered some opportunities that sounded fascinating, and that I would happily take on if they came with release time. But I was not willing to add those projects if they meant adding to my overall workload. That's especially true because 3 credits of release time are worth far more to me financially than 3 credits of overload pay. The former represents (at least on paper) 16% of my full-time salary, while the latter is paid at our all-too-low adjunct pay rate.
 
I'll echo what Anonymous 8:01 said. In my experience, administrators often overestimate how enthusiastic faculty are going to be for a stipend, when the stipend is far less than what they'd be compensated if they were granted release time. There are only so many hours in a day, and I'd rather spend some of those hours with my family. While I do have colleagues who are driven by the stipend, it's not just me who doesn't think the $1500-$2000 is worth the time I'd give up doing other things.
 
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You are correct about the name. Words matter, and "release" is not a good description of what is happening. One of our deans is very strong about correcting any use of "release" instead of "reassign". I like your alternative of "substitution". If your college policy says "release", you should work to get that changed. You could even call it "administrative purgatory" if it refers to the job of department chair.

What bothers me the most is that many faculty, myself included, are in unpaid purgatory when we observe and supervise and mentor adjuncts, particularly new ones. In principle, that gets credited as "service", but I have serious doubts whether there is any accounting for service effort.

But that kind of unfairness is rampant. Faculty who give multiple choice tests from a textbook test bank and only have to send them off for scanning are also getting a free ride compared to those who have to read essays or lab reports or grade problems. Teaching loads ignore such factors entirely.
 
If your budget could take it, you could refactor all of the currently "reassigned time" positions to be stipend-based, and then have a system where faculty could apply to "trade in" x amount of extra duty stipend in exchange for a course release instead. This would let several smaller-than-a-course jobs "add up" to a release, and would perhaps make it clearer that the release was a way to get it back down to "just" a full time job again by taking something else out in exchange for those otherwise "extra" duties.

No idea how many people would want the stipend versus the release in practice, though. Probably depends on the exchange rate between the stipend and the course release, and how much they value their time.
 
The "otherwise intelligent" professor wasn't necessarily contradicting himself, if the course release was for admin work. If you don't renew the course release, but there's no one else there to do what the course release was enabling him to do, then you are in fact increasing his workload, especially if he was working more than the course release suggested. Admin work builds infrastructure necessary to run classes. If there's no one else to do the admin work, the professor running the class has to do it himself. It's invisible labor, because professors are overtime exempt and their man-hours are "off the clock."
 
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Good Night Msg

 
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