Experiences in teaching and hour allocations

In an informal conversation with a member of my management team, I recently received confirmation of what had long been suspected, but not admitted officially: the hours allocated for teaching and research are not based on any relevant information related to these activities, but rather on how much money is available, which is then translated into an artificially constructed “calculation” of the various tasks involved.

This illustrates the problems of a one-directional top-down decision-making model: issues concerning financial resources are constantly being moved down to the next level, reshaped into forms appropriate for that level. Finally, it reaches the work floor in the shape of hour allocations, the final link in the chain. From here, there are no further levels to pass problems down to, and researchers and teachers are left to perform impossible jobs without having a voice in this situation. Ironically, this also implies that the “buck stops” at those levels that represent the two core duties of what a university entails: research and teaching.

A few concrete examples from a teaching perspective might illustrate the Kafkaesque situation this results in:

Reduction of hours:

In 2013/2014, I was awarded 144 hours for a four-week Research Master course with eight sessions. Though the course has not changed, this year the allocation of hours has mysteriously gone down to 92. Other changes are less dramatic, but add up nonetheless. In comparison with last year, this year MA thesis supervision has been reduced from 30 to 27 hours, a resit BA seminar has been reduced from 30 to 23 hours, and exam correction work has gone down from 22 to 20 hours.

Non-remunerated additional tasks:

Over the last few years, a constant flow of top-down measures has rained down on the work floor, resulting in various tasks for which no hours are allocated. One example is the BKO teaching certificate, which needs to be obtained and which involves (in its shorter version), the construction of a thick portfolio in which numerous self-assessments, peer reviews, evaluations and examples of (correction) work are to be collected and commented upon. Another is the Course Files (Cursusdossiers) that have to be set up for each course, in which preconceived learning targets and goals need to be meticulously translated into specific course activities, assessments, and justifications thereof, as well as student hours spent per activity, with detailed assessment forms attached. Other measures resulting in hidden workload include the request to have more assessment moments throughout a course, and to minimise the percentage of group work among students – basing the end grade more on individual assignments -, as well as the request for more detailed feedback, resulting in assessment forms in which papers are graded on seven detailed criteria, each of which is justified with detailed commentary before the end grade is calculated. Admirable though some of the ideas behind these measures are (the group work issue in particular), as far as the allocation of hours is concerned, these time-consuming activities do not exist.


From semesters to 8-8-4:

Looking back in my administration, I found that in the year 2010/2011 (the only overview before the 8-8-4 change that I could find), I taught ten seminars/lectures over the year, constituting six different courses. I now teach 13 seminars/lectures, constituting nine different courses. In 2010/2011 I supervised two MA theses; this year, I am supervising six. The week that used to be reserved specifically for grading papers and exams has meanwhile disappeared altogether.


Kafkaesque scheduling issues and workload

Though these changes are hard on everyone, as a fulltime lecturer, I may be more acutely aware of them, because of their implications for scheduling. At the beginning of the year, the overview of courses is still more or less evenly distributed over the year (my Program Group Leader is very considerate in coming to me first in these matters). However, invariably one of two things happen: Either a planned seminar disappears from the schedule, because the estimated number of students was higher than the actual number enrolled. Or, two courses that I am supposed to teach are scheduled in at the same time, and are impossible to reschedule with all the complexities this involves. In both cases, the allocated hours are poured back into my overview as hours-yet-to-be-allocated, in spite of any preparation work I may have already done.

These hours can seldom be allocated to tasks in the same block, so therefore move forward to a later block. This issue repeats itself over and over, as the chance that two courses are simultaneously scheduled increases with each block. The immediate solution always results in hours being taken away, and assigned to later blocks. This year, within six months, I received six new teaching plans for 2014/2015. In the meantime, I learn through the grapevine that I am gaining a reputation for being workshy. As teaching hours and fte are not officially calculated per block, but averaged over the year, the records indeed show that I am not working enough.

In the final blocks, I have a choice: succumb to the pressure of taking on more than I can handle, or have once again a surplus of hours being (partly, but still on a percentage basis) added to my hours of the next academic year. This year, I succumbed to the pressure, as I felt my ReThink UvA interests might make me vulnerable enough as it is. In this current block, a careful calculation of the allocated hours (regardless of how realistic these are) shows that I am doing 2.17 fte’s worth of tasks. In practice, this means that I am working evenings, and that some weekends I cannot see my boyfriend with whom I have a living-apart-together relationship.


Within-block peak moments

It is not unusual for full-time lecturers and teachers to teach three or four groups of 25 students in one block. Even based on the situation of three groups of 25 students, this is hard enough as it is. However, towards the end of a course, there is invariably an individual assignment (and an exam, which takes a full day at least for a first-year group), both of which need to be assessed. 75 Individual assignments which take 40 minutes each to assess (it used to be 25-30 minutes, but the elaborate assessment forms have added somewhat to this), results in 50 hours of non-stop work. At the same time, other classes continue and/or new courses need to be prepared. Officially, we have 20 working days to perform this monumental task, however, other rules and demands tend to shorten this to seven working days: Students have the right to know the results of their work a minimum of 14 days before a resit possibility. Resits need to be scheduled closely to the first deadline, as administration needs grades as soon as possible. This is because many courses serve as prerequisites for other courses, or for Bindend Studie-advies decisions, or for access to the Master or other study phases. After certain blocks quick administration is necessary for the university to obtain governmental funding on the basis of obtained student credits.


What does this mean for students?

My students have become a herd of people I often do not know by name. People with whom I can no longer sit down to discuss their individual interests and ideas. People I can no longer advise on what books or articles to read, or even just joke with and build up a personal relationship. I cannot help and support students who find some of the materials hard and difficult. I cannot give something extra to students who could handle this and would be interested. Increasingly students think they are my “clients”, but increasingly they have become even less than that: they are the products that we are churning out, all quite similar because they have been forced to do exactly the same thing, rather than follow their own interests. Very few of them critical thinkers, because in groups of 25, it is always the same three who take part in the brief discussions that we have time for. Welcome to the Unifactory of Amsterdam.