Four weeks from today, the fall semester begins. And that means that I am thinking about – and prepping for – my classes. And as always, I’m enjoying re-reading familiar material, learning quite a bit by reading new material, and increasingly wishing I had done more hiking while I had the time.*
And because I am now the director of my department’s graduate program, this means I also need to start laying plans for that program. I have already posted about some of my pedagogical plans, and given the success of last semester’s Thesis Workshop, I will continue those plans.**
But I also need to start planning for the administrative changes I want to make. I have already begun working with the Graduate Studies Office to develop a new recruiting program, which we both think could increase the number of applications, and ideally the number of enrollments. Given that we have only admitted two new students for the fall, we are in dire need of better numbers to justify the expense of the program.*** I am also talking with people about developing a new option for our capstone project (that students could do instead of the thesis), which could include a service learning option. I am cautiously optimistic about this initiative.^
And there is one issue I need to push, even though I suspect that nothing will come of it: workload.
If we do succeed in bringing more students into the graduate program, we will then have more students completing thesis projects (or other capstone projects, if I things work out as I hope). And this will require more faculty to advise these projects. And that’s work. “But,” I can hear you ask, “isn’t that your job?” Yes. But actually, no. Let me explain.
According to our program guidelines, students must take the Thesis Workshop course, and then register for 9 thesis credits (the equivalent of three graduate classes) to work on their projects. Students register for these credits with an advisor, who works directly with the students. (Students also select a second reader, whose involvement can be as active – or not – as the student and advisor see fit.) When students are done, they defend their theses, and then apply for graduation.
Where this becomes a workload issue is that faculty are uncompensated for this work. Essentially, this is volunteer work. Now, one might argue that this falls under “service.” However, I am not such a one. To begin, this is quite clearly “teaching.” Faculty are using their expertise to instruct, advise, and mentor students, for the purpose of completing academic work. That’s teaching, plain and simple. Further, “service” is generally done for the benefit of the department, college or university. That is not the case here; the students – and the students alone – benefit from this work. And because the students register for these credits as they would register for classes, our system recognizes this as “teaching.” I am convinced that faculty have been encouraged to think of this as “service” to avoid having to compensate us for this work.
But no, it’s not “service.” For starters, in my 10 years in the department, I cannot recall a single instance of this coming up in anybody’s application for reappointment, tenure, or promotion. And on the flip side of that coin, I cannot recall any discussion for personnel actions where not doing this work was held against a faculty member. In short, do it or don’t, it doesn’t matter when it comes to our careers.^^ Similarly, this work is not asked for on the Faculty Information Forms we are asked to fill out every year. In fact, you should notice that “service” is explicitly defined as either “administrative/committee assignments,” “college-related public service,” or “community service.” Thesis advising does not fit into this section of the form. And if you go back to the “teaching” portion of the form, it doesn’t exist there, either. While there is a space to note “academic advising,” this is for the students’ academic advisors; as director of the graduate program, I am the academic advisor for every student in the program.
In short, there is no official recognition – in any capacity – for this work. It does not “count” for anything, and at no point are faculty asked to account for it in their end of year reports. (For the record, when I do this work, I write it up under my “teaching” section. To date, nobody who has read these forms has remarked on it in any way.) If there is no official recognition, then this is not work. And if it’s not work, there’s no good reason to do it as part of the job.
But there is one more point, which I only just realized: students are paying to register for these thesis credits. The university charges students full tuition to register for these credits. Students pay to register for thesis credits, and faculty work with students on the completion of those credits; but faculty are not paid for that work, as the credits do not come out of our yearly 24-credit- hour contractual load. To give one recent, and telling example of how abusive this can be: one of my colleagues taught a 12-credit-hour load last semester, while also advising a graduate student who registered for 9 thesis credits with him. Officially, this faculty member was on the books as performing 21 credit hours’ worth of teaching, but was only paid for 12. Granted, this is an anomaly, but it’s common for students to register for 6 thesis credits in their final semesters, meaning that the faculty they work with are on the books for 18 officially-recognized credit hours’ worth of student-directed work, but are only paid for 12.
Before you ask, I have no idea where this tuition money goes. Granted, where tuition money goes is a complicated issue. But as some point, tuition money reaches the faculty members who teach the courses, even if there is no direct correlation between the work being done and the tuition being paid.
Here, we have a clear case of students paying to work with faculty, and faculty not being compensated for doing that work. And that is exploitation, plan and simple. And because we require students to complete this work, this means that someone on the faculty will have to perform this work, and will not get paid for doing it.
Just this past week, two of my colleagues approached me to tell me that they cannot do this work. For different reasons, they cannot afford to to unpaid work. Both of them recognize that this might put students at a disadvantage, given that students may want to work on thesis projects in these faculty members’ areas of specialization. And I’m sure they also recognize that, if they do not do this work, it will fall to someone else, who also will not get paid for it.
So at some point in the fall semester, I will going to speak to the provost about this (with my department chair, who has been working on department workload issues for the past year). I’m not sure anything will come of it; I mean, let’s be honest, when in the history of ever has anybody agreed to start paying employees work for they have been doing for free in the past? But if I can’t make any headway, maybe I can convince my colleagues to stop doing this work. Maybe, if students cannot register for thesis credits to complete their degrees, the university will accept that something has to change.^^^
If I’m going to serve as director of this program, I should have some direction. And if I can’t direct my efforts to fixing problems, then what’s the point of being in charge?
*I’m hoping to go hiking on Wednesday, if the current weather forecast holds.
**In time, I will work this into my undergraduate courses. Because those courses meet on a different schedule, I will need to think about this. But I am thinking.
***Even though nobody can ever give me numbers, everyone assures me that the graduate program does not cost money. But that cannot be true. My department is running two courses for graduate students, holding open seats in one hybrid course for graduate students, and I get a course release for directing the program. That’s 3+ courses that our graduate program is costing us. We currently have 4 graduate students in coursework, including the two admitted for the fall. We have to either admit more students, or we have to shut down the program. To be honest, I am torn on which would be the better option.
^The people at the Center for Applied Learning are excited, as are the people in Graduate Studies. And administration (including the Provost) likes this idea. Now, if I could only convince my department…
^^This is not unlike some of the other kinds of service work that don’t really matter. For instance, attending recruiting events. Faculty – especially untenured faculty – are often told that this is a “good opportunity” (always beware that phrase!), and “counts as service.” But truth be told, that isn’t true. It never comes up. Ever. Doing it is not rewarded; not doing it is not penalized. It literally doesn’t matter to our careers. (Whether it’s effective or not for recruiting is another question, and one that nobody seems to be able to answer, as we do not collect, much less keep and study, any data on the subject. The general belief seems to be that faculty should attend recruitment events because doing so increases enrollments. But the only evidence anyone has to support that is anecdotal.)
^^^Truth be told, I’d actually be fine with eliminating the thesis requirement entirely, and replacing it with coursework. Pedagogical arguments aside, this would allow faculty to be paid for their work.