4/4 Teaching Loads, and Other Things that Go Bump in the Night

By Maria LaMonaca Wisdom

4/4 teaching load

“If I had to teach a 4/4 load, I’d hang myself.”

If you are an avid reader of the VH@Duke blog, you will remember this quote from my recent post on varieties of tenure-track jobs. It was made by a graduate student I met at a conference while I was a new assistant professor teaching—yes, a 4/4 load.

I found this comment rather amusing, but what did bother me, over the course of my 11-year stint as Someone Who Teaches Too Much, was the frequency of these sorts of comments. Rarely did others reference the gallows, but even senior academics (who should have known better) would look deeply concerned when I disclosed my teaching load, and start talking to me in a tone usually reserved for people with terminal illnesses.

It actually wasn’t that bad.

Don’t get me wrong; a 4/4 load is nothing to sneeze at, and if you are considering jobs with these loads (or anything that looks similarly intimidating) as part of your search, you should go forward with open eyes. The fear of the heavy teaching load is, of course, based on the assumption that should you have one, you will never have time for research and your career is more or less doomed.

Let’s assume you’ve signed a contract for a tenure-track job with a 4/4 teaching load. Are you doomed? Of course not.

Even if you never find yourself in this situation, it’s important to think through how you might handle heavy teaching loads. What follows are some insights and tips to help you sort out fact from fiction and help you discern whether these kinds of jobs might be options for you.

A 4/4 teaching load is not a homogeneous category.

These positions are shaped by a number of factors, including average class size and whether you can teach multiple sections of a single course (a standard practice). For example, as a faculty member at a small school with class sizes averaging 20, I was surprised to learn that some of my friends at R1 institutions (teaching large lecture courses) occasionally had more students per semester than I did.

You can often work with the administration to manage your load.

All of the following may be options: Negotiating a temporary or permanent course reduction upon receiving an offer; accepting other service obligations in exchange for teaching a full load; locating either internal or external funding to buy out your time for a specific period. All of these options, however, rely upon the goodwill of your chair and dean and are highly context-specific.

Managing the load will get easier.

I won’t deny that the first year might be one of the steepest learning curves you’ll ever experience. Likely you will soon become highly creative and efficient at course prep, and may even quickly find the challenge of teaching content far from your area of training invigorating. (So … you wrote a dissertation on Cormac McCarthy and now you have to teach Edmund Spencer’s The Faerie Queene? Bring it on!!)

If you choose to continue a research agenda, use your summers well.

Do. Not. Ever. Teach. Summer. Classes. And don’t feel sorry for yourself if summer is the only sustained period of time you have for research. Pay attention to how your friends and peers at research institutions cope with the demands they confront. They most likely are not lounging about during the academic year, leisurely writing chapters between occasional seminar meetings, with the freedom to read all the latest books and articles. More likely they are struggling to balance (more stringent) research expectations with teaching duties that include activities unique to R1s—such as supervising Ph.D. students and sitting on exam committees—along with an escalating set of service expectations. It’s also likely that in most years without sabbaticals or research leaves, they produce the bulk of their scholarship during the summer.

Finally, few scholars at teaching institutions move research agendas forward without a highly supportive network. You may discover, as I did, that the biggest obstacle to your progress resides not with a taxing teaching schedule, but with the culture of many teaching-intensive schools.

If you start your career at a teaching-intensive school, you will likely find that colleagues excited about the great new hire will be highly invested in your success, including excellence in research. There will be other young faculty who have research ambitions or accomplishments similar to yours. Almost everywhere, the faculty includes a few senior professors who are universally admired for making an imprint on the campus community and scholarship in their fields.

On the flip side, however, there could be a critical mass of highly invested teachers (and fantastic colleagues) who—despite all best intentions—may not know or understand how best to support young faculty as researchers. They may not understand if you are reluctant to be on campus every weekday because you prioritize your own research efforts over committee service. They may even interpret your behavior as a lack of interest or engagement in the shared and difficult enterprise of running a sustainable humanities program.

Whatever the situation, you need to respect and work with all your colleagues while seeking out those who can help you stay motivated, productive, and grounded, whether you choose to sustain an intensive research agenda; prefer to focus on being a teacher, mentor, and campus leader; or try to blend these elements of faculty life. You may decide to band together with junior faculty in other departments who are also working on monographs, who wish to experiment with collaborative research, or who want to explore the integration of digital projects into teaching. Even if this kind of network is available, finding support beyond your institution is still critical.

Find collaborators and mentors wherever you can.

It could be fellow alumni from your Ph.D. program, now launching their careers at other schools, or a senior member of your department. Or it could be someone you recently met at a conference session who has shared research interests. Is there an R1 institution within easy driving distance? Find ways to engage with faculty there. You may meet one or two young scholars who worry (surprise!) just as much about research productivity as you do.

While you can’t predict the future, understanding more about what to expect at teaching-intensive schools can help reduce your anxiety and inform choices you make once you complete the Ph.D.

The key takeaway here is that no one part of a job description or situation ever guarantees failure (or success) or determines how your priorities may evolve. Success in academia depends on understanding that all faculty positions (even those at an R1) present constraints, and responding appropriately. Learn to adapt creatively in ways that help you take full advantage of opportunities, figure out how you can best make a difference, and you will likely thrive despite challenges.