On my original post about a month ago, I listed items that I wanted to address early in the semester. I have addressed two of them thus far, and I want to turn, now, to a third: the issue of student workload.
I have heard over the past two years during lunches with students about the “increasing” work load at Middlebury, and how, to some, we are becoming a place that is not in balance—that there is too much academic work assigned, leaving students unable to partake in non-academic pursuits and “have fun.”
The argument I hear most is that faculty are now assigning what has been described as “gratuitous work”—things that do not add to the students’ understanding of the material, but only to the time they need to spend on a course. The perception voiced frequently is that faculty seem not to know that most students take three other courses and therefore the amount they ask students to do each week is simply too much.
A few things to note on both sides of the issue before I invite students, especially, but others, too, to weigh in on this issue.
I have been at Middlebury for 24 years, and I have heard this complaint since I arrived. In fact, I usually hear rising seniors talk about how “smart” and “eager” the first years seem to be about their studies, and how the place is changing. I first heard this in 1984, and it hasn’t stopped.
I have spoken with two veteran faculty colleagues, both of whom have taught here for more than 30 years, and asked them this question: has the work load for students increased, in your view, since you arrived here? Both of them, asked individually, said “no.” And in fact, one of them even said that he believes he has had to cut some things from what he used to expect from his students. Each had his or her theories for why students believe that the overall work load has increased, but I am more interested in hearing our students’ perspective.
Through my work as dean of the faculty and provost, I was involved directly with the tenure and reappointment review process for many years. That process includes faculty members up for review submitting dossiers with their professional materials. Many include their syllabi. In several cases, it appears as if the traditional assignments that used to make up a course’s “content” have been supplemented as faculty are utilizing new technologies to engage students and have students engage the course materials (such as mandatory postings on class electronic list-serves; searches on the web and of new electronic data bases; etc.).
The rising popularity of the “double major” over the past 10-15 years may be playing some role for those who feel that the workload has increased. By double majoring, students need to focus on two areas of the curriculum in terms of meeting specific requirements, and therefore have fewer courses to take for “enjoyment,” and, thereby, fewer opportunities to feel less pressure.
Some faculty argue that they have indeed become more prescriptive (and expansive) in terms of weekly assignments than they used to be, because, they argue, students are less focused on their work. If they don’t give specific assignments, they can’t be assured students will do the work, and the atmosphere in class would suffer noticeably.
I am very eager to hear other points of view on this. One thing is for sure: the student of today, versus the student of 1984 when I arrived here on the faculty, takes the same load each year (four courses a semester and one during winter term). They do, however, have many, many more opportunities in terms of the number of student organizations they might join, the number of varsity, club, and intramural athletic teams on which they might play, and a whole new world of technology-driven activities to attract their attention. Video games, on-line social networking, blogging (!), and other technology-infused activities that did not exist in 1984. Even e-mail, the supposed dinosaur of communications to this generation of students, did not exist: we communicated with administrators through campus (“snail”) mail and with one another by … believe this … visiting the person’s office, or by calling. And not with a cell phone.
Just a hypothesis, but maybe the antidote to feeling that there is too much work has to do with exercising more self-discipline in the face of all the information technology-driven distractions that we now take for granted in our daily lives. Is it possible that the work load has not changed at all, but what has changed is how we spend our time, and more and more of it is being spent on things that didn’t exist even a few years ago?