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.