The Inelegance of Simple Numbers

Yesterday we talked about the difficulties of data management and data definition. Let’s look at a simple example, a college trying for some degree of fairness of workload across its faculty.

Most colleges have what they consider to be a standard “teaching load,” defined either in numbers of courses (a 3/2 like I had at Duke is three courses in the fall semester and two more in the spring) or in numbers of credits, like teaching 24 credits per year (the equivalent of eight three-credit courses). Different kinds of schools have different kinds of loads; let’s take a single and simple school as our example, and say the teaching load is 3/3. That sounds fair enough: everyone teaches three courses each semester. All good.

Au contraire, mon frère.

  • What if one of those courses has thirty students and another has twelve?
  • What if one of those courses is writing-intensive, with essays to read and mark up for every student every week, and the other has problem sets and a midterm and a final?
  • What if one of those courses is a greater number of credit hours than another?
  • What if one teacher has one section each of three different courses in a semester, requiring three different preparations for each class day, while another teacher leads three sections of the same course?
  • What if some of those courses are for grad students, or well-prepared upper-division students in the major, and other courses are for not-very-carefully selected first-year students of wildly differing abilities?
  • What if some of those courses are assigned teaching assistants and others are not?

To quote Mannix and Neale: what differences make a difference?

At the most recent college I worked at, we convened a task force to try to regularize the stipends we paid to our adjunct faculty. After some conversation, I developed a conceptual model that we called B.A.S.S., for Baseline, Adjustments, and Separate Stipends. The Baseline was simple: we determined that courses should be paid at $1,000 per credit hour (which already took some struggle, since different departments had developed wildly idiosyncratic payment patterns). In practice, the Separate Stipends boiled down to an extra $500 if someone was creating a new course; the course development was treated as a separately contracted service.

So B was simple, SS was simple… but we really got bit in the A.

Studio instructors, who had six to eight students in a section, didn’t believe that courses with forty students should be paid more. They didn’t believe that courses where students required weekly (or perhaps more frequent) review of homework should be paid more than courses in which teachers never reviewed work outside of class time. The argument to increase pay for long-term and more experienced instructors didn’t get much traction; we actually spent more time considering whether an instructor who had professional licensure should get a higher stipend, something that doesn’t affect either classroom experience or teacher workload. In the end, the only adjustment that got applied was that co-instructors should each receive 75% of base pay rather than 50%, because of the extra burden of coordination. [Oh, please…]

Studio arts are totally worth having in the university, but they skew the calculation of teaching load to be almost unrecognizable. Lots of studio courses are six credits, to reflect their symbolic importance in the major, and the amount of time students should expect to devote to the work. But they’re usually small courses; usually don’t require anywhere near the preparation of lectures of the art historian down the hall; and very rarely require the kinds of nightly homework markup common in writing courses. So a studio instructor gets twice the credit of her colleagues, while doing what amounts to half or less of the work required for a three-credit seminar with 25 students in the same department.

In this and innumerable other ways, the supposed objectivity of numbers actually reflects the culture from which they spring.

Still more on this tomorrow.