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The Weekly Blab

The Weekly Blab

Volume 6, Issue 9—October 9, 2011


The Baseball Playoffs…

Who cares?  The Red Sox aren’t in it.  Try again next year.  At least the Yankees have been knocked out.

Yom Kippur is Over, Put up Your Sukkah

The high holy days are over, ending with the fast day of Yom Kippur, where one asks for forgiveness for all of one’s sins.  This is followed by one of the three festival holidays, Sukkot, where traditionally, one puts up a temporary dwelling without a roof (called a Sukkah) and lives semi-outdoors for a while.  I hope everyone has fun shaking their lulavs and holding their etrogs (Look it up!), and here’s to a good fruit harvest.


New Models for Compensation

We are just beginning an interesting discussion at the Deans Council about workloads and compensation.  I thought I’d share some early glimpses…

Currently in some departments, faculty are teaching twinned courses—both online and live versions of the same course (or online and hybrid versions of the same course), and it counts as one thing toward their workload.  In some other departments, faculty are teaching larger “live” classes (48, 72, or 96 students) which also count as one thing toward their workload.  I’ve taught one of the 96 student versions at SPSU myself (in CHEM 1211, General Chemistry I).  In fact, back in the day, for several semesters I taught sections of 200 in General Chemistry which also counted as one thing toward my workload, and before anyone asks, no—I didn’t have a TA or a grader or help of any kind with it.  This was at a college that marketed itself as being small and intimate.  Some semesters, the very large course was balanced in part by some small courses in Advanced Inorganic Chemistry (which usually had 8-10 students on average), and some semesters it wasn’t.  Other faculty, both then and now, had much smaller student loads due to what they taught (usually specialized advanced level courses) or the small size of the program they taught in. 

So, what’s the right thing here?  If someone is teaching a twinned course, and it has 10 students in the hybrid part and 15 students in the online part, most people would probably agree that it’s no big deal.  The total is 25 students, which is hardly an unusual class size, so counting it as one thing makes sense.  Yes, preparing both “live” and online materials is a bit more work, but there’s more and more convergence between supplemented “live” and online instruction and the difference is shrinking.   Obviously, there’s a point where the fairness line is crossed and the courses shouldn’t count as one thing.  Does that point come at 25?  40?  50?  100?  It’s complicated to decide.  Does that point come at the same number for all courses?  Presumably not, but how do you decide?  

Let’s say that we decide that the cut-off is 40.  What happens, then, to a faculty member who teaches a live class that has 50 students in it?  Should this course count as 2?  1.5?  1.25?  How do you decide?   These are important questions as we try to schedule courses more efficiently and try to meet non-traditional student expectations and needs for online and hybrid instruction. 

One suggestion that has come up (that I like some aspects of, but also see some major problems with) is to treat the schools and departments like the BoR treats (or used to treat) the universities—give them a fixed amount per student credit hour generated in their courses, and let them spend the money as they see fit.  Some departments will choose to have larger classes, and therefore have money left over to hire new faculty, fund travel better, give some course releases, etc.  Other departments could choose to have smaller classes, hire fewer new faculty, buy less equipment, and so on.   This sounds really attractive, since departments could generate their own funds to allow new faculty hires and equipment as they saw fit—who wouldn’t like this idea?

Well, there are several big problems with this approach, including:

  • While some programs are more expensive than others, the tuition is the same for all programs.  If we give the same amount per student credit hour to each department, the less expensive programs will be big winners, and the more expensive programs will be big losers.  This can be solved by giving different amounts per student credit to each department, but how do you determine what that amount should be?  Accreditation requirements complicate this even more.
  • Enrollments rise and fall in a cyclical way.  From 2000-2007, enrollments were falling in CSE.  Since then, enrollments have risen fast.  From 2000-2007, enrollments rose quickly in ACC.  They’ve fallen since, due to how the recession has affected the construction industry.   Using this model, CSE would have had to lay off faculty from 2000-2007, and ACC would have to lay them off now.  Budgeting as a university moderates this problem—from 2000-2007, CSE faculty size was reduced through attrition, but less than its enrollment drop would have required.  ACC faculty size grew in this period, but less than its enrollment growth would have indicated.  Some shifts happen rapidly, and could force drastic changes on a department at the last moment.
  • Decisions made by some departments have an influence on enrollments (and thus revenue) in other departments.  If the ETCMA faculty decided to keep their classes small and not hire new faculty, this would stop every other program from growing, since there wouldn’t be any new capacity in the required English, Speech, and Fine Arts courses.
  • Different decisions in different departments could cause a lot of grumbling about how other programs “have it better”. 

Another suggestion is that as class sizes get larger, we should pay a “bonus” that would be proportionately equal to we’d pay for a new section taught by a part-timer.  For example, suppose we determined that a “standard” history class had an enrollment of 40.  For each student above 40, a bonus of 1/40 of the part time rate ($3,000) would be generated.  Thus, teaching a history class of 60 would generate a $1500 bonus.  This bonus could be paid directly to the faculty member, could pay for a grader or teaching assistant, or could go into a departmental pot for the collective good.  My gut says that this is probably a piece of the right answer, but there are a lot of details to be worked out here, not least of which is how to determine the “standard” size.  Since different courses will certainly have different standard sizes, some faculty would wind up getting a bonus when their class passes 30, and others won’t get one even when their classes have 45—surely an outcome that would be viewed as unfair.  The state auditors would also probably have some questions about this approach.

So, it’s a really complicated picture with no easy answers.  I’m curious if any of you have thought about this issue, and if so, what you think might be part of the solution.  Is anyone aware of a college that has a reasonable solution to this issue? If you’ve got any ideas, please share them and I’ll publish them in a future BLAB.


A Straighter Line Update

I’m hearing that courses from A Straighter Line (see the last two BLABs) are currently being accepted at some USG schools.  In fact, today’s Chronicle has an article about it.  (Cue the music from Jaws here.)

Trivia Contest!

Last Week’s Winner

Last week’s contest focused on passenger train names.  It was no surprise whatever that Al Churella (History) got all correct, and only took six minutes to do it!  That’s some high-speed railroading, Al!

  1. Train in a song by Arlo Guthrie, it ran from Chicago to Louisiana.  The City of New Orleans
  2. Only passenger train that currently goes through Atlanta.  The Crescent
  3. Hercule Poirot could often be found on this train, running from Paris to Istanbul.  The Orient Express
  4. Train ridden by Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in the movie North By Northwest, it ran from New York to Chicago. The 20th Century Limited.
  5. Luxurious tourist train that runs from Cape Town to Johannesburg in South Africa.  The Blue Train


This Week’s Challenge

This week’s trivia challenge focuses on The Dick Van Dyke Show, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary!  First with the most takes the swag.  No looking up the answers now!

  1. What was Rob and Laura’s last name?
  2. In what city did Rob and Laura live?
  3. What musical instrument did Buddy Sorrell play?
  4. What was Sally Roger’s cat’s name?
  5. What was Richie’s middle name, and how was it chosen?