• September 23, 2014

Lightening the Teaching Load at Williams College

At a time when some colleges are freezing faculty hiring and asking professors to teach more, professors at Williams College will soon be able to teach a little less.

Starting next fall, faculty members at Williams will be able to reduce their teaching load by a course. Up until now, they have had to teach five courses every academic year. The schedule varied so that in one academic year, professors would teach two courses in the fall semester, one course in the January term known as "winter study," and two courses in the spring. Then the following year, the schedule would change to two courses in the fall semester, none in January, and three in the spring.

Under the new policy, professors will continue to teach five courses in the first year, but in the next one they'll have to teach only four and will still be able to take the January term off.

"For a long time, faculty at Williams have felt that they had too high a teaching load," says Thomas A. Kohut, dean of the faculty and a professor of history. "Faculty felt the semester they'd have to teach three courses every other year was extremely onerous" and "reduced the effectiveness of their teaching."

The new policy is intended to give professors more time, not for their research, but to improve their teaching. It follows on the heels of new curricular innovations enacted this year. Among other changes, in order to graduate, students must now take two writing-intensive courses, with enrollment capped at 20 students in each. The college has been replacing some classes with those that have the new writing-intensive designation.

To accommodate the reduced teaching load, most of the college's departments will reduce their course offerings by 10 percent, Mr. Kohut says, but that may not be possible for small departments. "If you're a small department with few students, but every major has to take a course in a certain sequence, it'll be hard to take a courseload reduction," Mr. Kohut says. In those cases, the college might offer more technical support to the department or allow it to hire a new faculty member.

The department of mathematics and statistics will offer fewer junior-level math courses, says Thomas A. Garrity, the chairman. It's also considering dropping one of its two sections of beginning calculus since fewer students have signed up for the course in recent years, largely because many have already taken it in high school.

He thinks the course reduction will come at a good time. Faculty members were starting to get "frazzled," Mr. Garrity says, so "going to a two-course semester, which is more in line with other schools, will help us."

It will especially help in recruiting new faculty members, he adds: "Four courses a year versus five courses clearly shows that the college is serious about research and at the same time cares about teaching."

So much so, says Mr. Kohut, that the college plans to add 20 new faculty members over the next several years. Class size, Mr. Kohut says, will not increase drastically, and although a certain number of courses will disappear, new courses will be added as the size of the faculty expands.

The geosciences department will take advantage of the courseload reduction by having faculty members teach fewer courses in the January session and hiring adjuncts to teach them instead, says David P. Dethier, the department's chairman.

Meanwhile, the new policy has prompted the classics department to change its course offerings, and eliminate an intermediate-level course that wasn't working well in the Greek curriculum, says Meredith C. Hoppin, the department's chairwoman. The department will give students extra attention by teaching an advanced Greek course as a tutorial. While the department's teaching load will be lighter, the workload for whoever teaches the tutorial will not be, since teaching one demands much more interaction between professor and students than a regular class, Ms. Hoppin says.

Ultimately, the new workload policy will encourage departments and programs to cooperate more with each other, Ms. Hoppin says. Some departments will need new faculty members in order to lighten the teaching load and still offer enough courses. The administration, she says, will be more likely to approve requests for new faculty positions if they serve more than one department -- for example, a classics professor who can also teach a Judaism course in the religion department.

Ultimately, Ms. Hoppin says, the plan may "put a check on departments' being little fiefdoms unto themselves because you'll be rewarded if you're working closely with others."

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