01 February 2013

What Professors Do: Committee Work

I was talking to The Offspring this morning about some aspect of what it is we do as professors and it got me thinking about the fact that a lot of it is pretty opaque to people outside the profession.  So here is one salvo in what may or may not become a series.

I'll start with committees.  People in a variety of professions groan about having to go to committee meetings, and professors are no exception.  But faculty governance is crucial to a well-run institution of higher education:  It should be the faculty who make decisions about changes to the curriculum, but also to a wide variety of other issues.

One of the major issues in higher education in the past two decades has to do with what role new technologies should have in teaching, and I've served on a handful of different committees investigating various aspects of this question.

If it's to function well, a committee needs a clear mandate, which may come from a department chair or a school dean or from a different faculty committee, and an effective chair who can delegate research and analysis tasks to the committee members and then write a clear report with specific implement-able recommendations, all within a relatively short time frame.

A couple of years ago I chaired a committee that dealt in part with a question about class size for hybrid and on-line courses.  Hybrid courses combine on-line assignments with traditional, face-to-face teaching, usually via course management software that allows students to interact from computers or tablets at various times during the week or the semester.

Some of the questions we thought about: What's the optimal size for a graduate seminar in the humanities?  How does that change if the seminar is taught on-line?  What if it's a hybrid?  We looked at the practices of institutions similar to our own and we searched out research evaluating faculty work-load and student engagement at various class sizes.

It turns out there's been a decent amount of research on on-line classes. (The magic number: 16.1.  Good luck finding that one-tenth of a student.)  We had trouble finding work on hybrid classes, so the next step was to seek out colleagues in various disciplines who were teaching on line and ask them about their experiences.

Some might think it's easier to teach a hybrid class than a traditional one, because you don't have to get dressed up and show up in the classroom.  Instructors know that writing up a lecture can take a lot more time than delivering it in person, and managing an on-line community is time-consuming.  But we needed to document this in order to make a convincing case to set policy.

Other committees might look at what courses students should take, or review syllabi to make sure courses in a given category are comparable (e.g. in the amounts of reading and writing assigned, or in the amount of student collaboration required), or ask what should be done about grade inflation....

It's pretty much endless.  But I think that's the way it should be.