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I heard something today that really made me angry. That shouldn’t be surprising; many things make me angry. But this made me particularly angry, and the more I thought about it, the angrier I got. It also makes me sad that the thing that made me angry starts from lots of good intentions.

So, let’s do the backstory first. For most of the time that I’ve been at the College, the College faculty have been thinking about issues of interdisciplinarity and how we give students interdisciplinary experiences. We’ve had some great projects, some of which benefitted from external funding. For example, funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute supported the development of a cool joint course in Chemistry and Studio Art that still continues. Others seem to be more internal, such as an interesting seminar on Berlin that drew from our German and Art History [1] departments or a really interesting seminar on reproduction that is taught by a triumvirate of faculty, one from each of Grinnell’s three divisions.

I also like the latest approach to interdisciplinarity: Faculty who notice that they are teaching related courses can get funding to support a third, team-taught course that draws upon the two other courses. In the normal model [2], the courses get advertised in the fall, we ask students to take both of the disciplinary courses in one semester and then they take the joint course in the next semester [3].

Today I was at a meeting to hear more about the program. I don’t think I’ll have time to teach a joint class anytime soon. Still, I’d love to think about team-teaching a digital humanities course or an art and technology course [4]. So I went to the meeting to hear about opportunities. I also learned about some current projects.

Then I asked a question. It went something like this: I assume that you are getting releases from your departments for the team-taught course. And I know that you got a small stipend for the faculty-faculty tutorial that led to the development of the course. What other funding was available?

The response? Oh, our departments couldn’t release us from a course. We’re teaching it as an overload. We’re not quite sure what’s happening with compensation for that.

That’s a problem. If the College is committed to a program, it should find ways to support it without putting an extra burden on faculty. But again and again, we ask faculty to shoulder extra load for things we think are exciting. That’s not reasonable as regular practice.

In this case, I found it particularly problematic because both of the faculty teaching the course are pre-tenure faculty. Teaching an overload is never a good idea for a pre-tenure faculty member. It almost always leads to less good course evaluations since there’s less time available for any individual course [5]. And it leaves no time for scholarship.

Here’s the hard thing: Our early career faculty members are great and creative [6]. The ability to teach a cool new course that you get to design is a really exciting opportunity, particularly as you think about breaking new ground. So it makes sense that they want to teach these kinds of courses.

It’s one thing when someone in my position [7] decides to do an overload for an exciting opportunity or for the good of the department. Doing so won’t affect my ability to stay at Grinnell or to move on to another institution. It’s another thing when someone without tenure is put in the place where they feel the must make that decision.

It feels a bit paternalistic to say that we shouldn’t allow early career faculty to teach overloads. But I really do worry about those overloads.

I would guess that few early career faculty have the clout (or, if they have the clout, also have the fearlessness to use that clout) to say It’s just as important that I teach this course as it is that I teach [some other course that the department wants me to teach]. So the Dean or their Chair should be intervening and making sure that the right thing happens [10]. That doesn’t seem to be happening. And so they are teaching overloads.

I also worry that our early career faculty members don’t have the clout to negotiate appropriate compensation for overloads. Each time I’ve discussed overloads with the Dean, he’s started with the insultingly low amount that we pay when we get a part-time faculty member to teach one of our courses [11]. I’ve generally negotiated higher amounts or, more valuable still (and more appropriate), future course releases. But the College has been moving away from accumulated course releases [12,14]. I’m not sure that early career faculty members can do so. It’s hard to do those kinds of negotiations with the people who are making your tenure decision.

It would be much better if we had a sensible policy in place that did not require negotiation. I’d suggest something like the following:

  • Whenever possible, faculty teaching an approved bridging course [15] will be released from one course from their normal teaching load.
    Because we value these courses, departments should consider creative approaches to the courses, such as counting them as an appropriate alternative to something in the faculty member’s normal teaching rotation.
  • If it is not possible to release a faculty member from another course to teach a bridging course, they should discuss the effects of the overload with two other faculty members who have attempted a similar overload [16].
  • The overload should only be in the two-course semester. Faculty may not teach more than the equivalent of twelve credits of regular courses in a semester [18].
  • If the faculty decide to teach an overload in spite of the risks, faculty may choose between one of two compensation models: either (a) an accumulated course release that can be used in a semester of their choice, but within three years or (b) one-fifth of their salary [19].
  • If a faculty member chooses a future course release, the institution will make every effort to replace that course in the semester they take the release.

Would I insist on the future course release as part of the policy? No; I don’t think that future course releases are good for the College and they don’t provide that much benefit for the faculty member now that we have full-year sabbaticals. Will the College make a commitment to what I consider reasonable compensation? Probably not. I’ve heard way too much pushback on what a course is worth. Nonetheless, it should.

Postscript: When I mentioned the issue of overloads to a colleague, they reminded me that many departments regularly have faculty teach overloads. That is, while our teaching load is supposed to be five courses per year, in departments that have a lot of courses that provide 1.5 teaching credits, the teaching load alternates between 5.5 courses and 4.5 courses. I’d say that while the 5.5 is an overload, it is sufficiently balanced by the 4.5 year to make it something that does not need additional compensation.

[1] Yes, I realize that two of the ones I mentioned have an art component. But one is Studio Art and the other is Art History; they are different disciplines. And our Arts faculty regularly do cool things.

[2] There’s enough variation that it’s not clear to me that there really is a normal model. I’m still reporting on one.

[3] I hope I got that right.

[4] Or, now that I heard about it at the meeting, something on different models of piracy.

[5] In fact, one of the faculty members involved was telling me the other week how frustrated they were that they did not seem to be able to grade work in their normal timely fashion. I sympathized. But at the time, I did not know that they were teaching a brand new team-taught course on top of their three-course teaching load. The new course is only two credits, but it’s four hours per week for the first half of the semester. That’s like teaching four courses.

[6] I can’t say for sure that all of our early career faculty are great and creative. But all the ones I know are, so I can extrapolate.

[7] I’m a full professor and former department (and division) chair. I have the privilege of tenure. Tenure lets me do importantly risky things [8] as well as stupid things [9].

[8] E.g., openly criticize the administration, take unpopular public stances, attempt research projects that may not have a high likelihood of success.

[9] E.g., take on a 1.5-course overload.

[10] The right thing is, of course, that the cool new course replaces one of their existing courses.

[11] The numbers are comparatively high for what other schools pay one-course replacements. Nonetheless, tenure-line faculty members deserve more. In addition, the high end is also exactly what I earned teaching one course at Dartmouth in Spring 1993.

[12] For example, Department Chairs can no longer accumulate their releases when they are unable to take them. If they give up a release, they must instead take an amount which I am told was intentionally kept low to discourage Chairs from giving up their releases.

[14] There are excellent reasons for moving away from future course releases. They are a complicated liability for the College.

[15] I think bridging course is the term we use for the team-taught courses. If not, you can substitute the correct term.

[16] I realize that this bullet point is not phrased well. But I do think that there’s a good opportunity to hear from others about the effects of an overload; the promoters of bridging courses in the Dean’s office may not give the full picture [17].

[17] I don’t think that’s intentional; rather, excitement about the courses may lead those in charge to forget about the downsides of overloads for faculty.

[18] I thought about pushing that to fourteen credits. But that’s what’s happening to at least one of the faculty this semester and it really does mean way too many hours in class each week.

[19] I base the one-fifth their salary on our Shared Position Policy, a copy of which I found at [20]. The relevant section reads as follows [21].

The College will make salary payments to each individual according to one of two methods.

Method one Salary payments will be made to each of the faculty members at their respective prorated salary. That is, if the faculty members teach respectively three and two courses in a given year, each will receive three-fifths and two-fifths of their respective individual base salary. Each additional course is compensated at one fifth of the respective individual base salary.

Method two Salary payments will be made to each of the faculty members at the prorated average base salary of the shared position faculty members. That is, if the faculty members teach respectively three and two courses in a given year, each will receive three-fifths and two-fifths of the average base salary calculated from the two individual base salaries. Each additional course is compensated at one fifth of the average base salary.

With either method, if one faculty member assumes the full-time position, the base salary of this faculty member will be his or her individual base salary.

Shared position faculty must chose method one or method two at the time of appointment. Subsequently, at the conclusion of every fifth year of service at the College, they may elect either method of salary allocation for the next five years.

So there’s a clear statement that some faculty at the College get one-fifth of their salary for each additional course. The same policy should apply to overloads.

[20] It took me way too long to find this policy. And I knew it existed. I wonder if anyone who didn’t know it existed would ever notice it.

[21] The emphasis is mine.

Version 1.0 released 2018-03-13.

Version 1.0.1 of 2018-03-14.