Some Arithmetic

A vignette for Historiann, obliquely related to her post

One of the courses I am teaching now, I first taught when I was 21. Then it was a 5-hour course with 25 students, adequate administrative support, and cooperation among those teaching it. I was paid for 20 hours a week to do this, and between meeting it (5 hours), holding office hours for it (3 hours), preparing classes for it (4 hours), preparing materials for it (3 hours), and grading for it (5 hours), that worked out perfectly. This was in an institution where students did not have academic problems or major life problems. Everyone did well.

I was of course told by my detractors that this was too much work and one should not put 20 hours into a single 5-hour course, but I am telling you, that is why it clicked along and was low stress, and anyway, I was paid for 20 hours. Pay was enough to cover tuition (you didn’t get a tuition waiver for being a TA yet), books, rent, food, utilities, and everything; I had enough money left over to save for the summer or to spend on interesting travel at Christmas. This was another reason why teaching the course was a stress reducer.

Now the same course is 3 hours and I have 2 sections of it, for a total of 60 students. I have 3 other courses (3 other preparations) as well. According to the university I should be putting in 12 hours for each course, which adds up to 60 hours a week; I have administrative and service work as well as research on top of that and also weaker administrative support as well as a great deal of conflict to manage among those teaching different sections of every multisection course.

At the same time, foreign language teaching programs have changed and we have a lot more to grade (the number of formal exercises is dizzying and the only way to learn is actually to do them; and you can put them on autograde and I have to, but without comments they do not help students enough). There is also a lot more meta-teaching to do because, among other things, the average SAT score of our freshmen, on individual parts of that exam, is 450.


My evaluations the first time I taught the course said that it was excellent but that it was very demanding and moved very quickly. Excellent students at this highly selective university said I had taught it at a level they had only reached with difficulty. I had not realized they felt overextended — I had only thought they were doing well.

I am still the same person I was when I was 21, and I also had a long hiatus and a whole other life between that moment and the moment in which I started teaching the course again. That is why I now struggle with this course. Technically I have 12 hours per week to think about each section, but really I have less time than that, so I do not have time to figure out how to make it easier. I also have the impression I have already made it too easy — we are not covering the more difficult exercises in our book, and I do not cover the most demanding of those we do do together on the tests.

I know what people will say: the work I put into preparing the course when I was 21 should be serving me now; I only needed 20 whole hours per week because it was the first time. I say to that: no. We have other books and other contexts now, and my having learned to teach foreign language courses in the language, and inductively, is actually detrimental and not a help, since we teach now in NCLB related ways alien to me.


2 thoughts on “Some Arithmetic

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