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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

September 19, 2017   |   Ithaca, NY

News

Lightening the load

As scholarly expectations for college professors climb nationwide, faculty members seeking tenure at Ithaca College are juggling more responsibilities in and out of the classroom amid discussion to lighten the teaching load.

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Jason Freitag, assistant professor of history, lectures his Modern South Asia class Tuesday in Friends 209. Freitag and 16 other faculty members submitted their tenure files for review last month. Tenure track professors must balance teaching, scholarship and service. GRAHAM HEBEL/THE ITHACAN

As a key concern for faculty undergoing tenure review, teaching load has become a topic of increased analysis. Professors at the college have a 24-credit hour workload, which includes teaching courses, pursuing scholarship and continuing service to the college. For most faculty, 21 of those 24 credit hours are dedicated to teaching.

But talks of a decreased 18-credit hour teaching load across departments could give more legroom to professors who must remain active scholars and researchers to be eligible for tenure. Tenure secures a faculty member’s position for life, with the exception of serious judicial infractions.

As interim provost, Gregory Woodward is one of many people who must go through a tenure application before it gets approved. Woodward said altering teaching load to meet the changing needs of faculty is a goal to work toward, citing it as one of the broad
initiatives in the recently released IC20/20 vision plan. He said faculty seeking tenure are working under pressure on many fronts.

“There is no question that there is an unwritten, sort of understood relationship between the teaching load here and the ability to engage in scholarship to the level people would either like to do or the level they think the tenure and promotion process would expect,” he said.

This isn’t the first time the college has undertaken efforts to decrease workload. In 2003, the college moved down from a then-average of 24 credits to the current average of 21 credits. And just last year, former provost Kathleen Rountree created an ad hoc committee tasked with drafting faculty workload recommendations for the college.

The result was a consensus among the 10 faculty members appointed to the committee that course load needed to be decreased.

In the draft of its recommendations to the administration, released December 2009, the committee wrote: “Ithaca College will remain a ‘teaching intensive’ institution even with the recalibration of the workload recommended here. However, this change will allow the college to become more attractive to future faculty.”

Some tenured professors and faculty aiming for tenure have expressed how a course load decrease could make the tenure process less stressful.

Jason Freitag, assistant professor of history, is used to quizzing students on world civilizations and grading papers about the fall of empires. But for the first time in his seven years at the college, Freitag is the one turning in papers.

These aren’t for a class, though. They’re for his tenure file that could make or break his career. Amid grading more than 70 student papers at any given time, teaching, managing his home life and keeping up scholarly research on Indian warrior groups, Freitag also must put together a strong tenure file.

He said balancing it all can be difficult, but he said he is willing to go the extra mile to be the best professor he can. For Freitag, tenure is the “Holy Grail” of any faculty member’s career.

“All professors want tenure,” he said. “It’s just the way it is. You want the best position you can possibly get, and you want to make sure you’re secure there.”

Freitag is on a tenure track. Of the 461 full-time faculty members at the college, 16 submitted their tenure files for review last month.

After a faculty member forms their tenure file — a collection of evaluations, published works, recommendations and other materials — they submit it to their department, school dean, All-College Faculty Tenure and Promotion Committee, provost, president and eventually the board of trustees for review.

If a professor is denied tenure, he or she must leave the institution.

Nancy Cornwell, professor and chair of the television-radio department and a member of the All-College Tenure and Promotion Committee, said more scenarios need to be taken under consideration in future workload discussion.

As a tenured faculty member in the Roy H. Park School of Communications, she said a decreased teaching load would need to be streamlined to accommodate work done by production professors and faculty who normally teach four-credit courses.

“We’re going to have to come up with a language that captures the essence of reducing the teaching load without tying it to a specific number of classes,” she said. “It’s not an easy answer.”

Other faculty deal with the challenge of teaching certain courses that could be weighted differently in terms of the type of work that goes into them.

Fred Wilcox, associate professor of writing, applied for tenure almost two decades ago and said professors who teach liberal arts courses that focus more on creativity have a different set of concerns. He said discussions about course load have been circulating since he first set foot on campus in 1987.

“We’ve been trying to persuade the administration that we care about the students, we want to do the best we can and we also are human beings,” he said. “I wrote books and published books, but that’s because basically I didn’t have a life.”

Financial implications of a lowered teaching load could also play a significant role in future discussion.

Cornwell said if all faculty members moved to an 18-credit hour course load, more professors would need to be hired to fill empty course slots — positions that could cost the college millions of dollars.

“Someone’s got to teach those courses,” she said. “So then what do you do? Do you hire more adjuncts to pick up all those little three-credit courses? Do you hire more faculty lines?”

Woodward said the college could not afford to hire enough faculty to make up for the lost courses and the college is not interested in expanding faculty in any significant way, especially if it would mean increasing tuition.

Nationally, the debate surrounding workload has shifted to a microscopic look at how new professors take on enhanced standards.

In his February column in the Chronicle of Higher Education, David Perlmutter, professor and director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa, argued that increased tenure expectations make it a daunting process for young faculty.

Perlmutter wrote: “Many in the older generation of scholars were tenured with standards that, while not necessarily lower in quality, were lesser in terms of frequency of publication.”

Woodward said, however, that underlying standards at the college have stayed relatively the same.

“Certainly everyone wants to contribute to the world’s knowledge, discovery, creative work and all the things the faculty do and also be able to be the best teacher they can be. But they’re not exclusive in any way — they’re symbiotic,” he said.

Cornwell said in the end, the decrease would be welcomed by most faculty on campus.

“There probably isn’t a single person on this campus who thinks we shouldn’t go to 18 credit hours as the baseline for teaching,” she said.