More than four reasons to teach more than four classes (sometimes)

To celebrate the filing of my application for tenure, I decided to indulge in a teaching sabbatical.  This involved dramatically increasing the amount of time dedicated to teaching for one semester.  If a research sabbatical emphasizes research, a teaching sabbatical focuses on teaching.

To do this, I decided to take an overload and teach a digital history practicum. This took my normal spring teaching load from 3 courses to four and a half course, and four and a half different preps.  Each class is different. I am teaching a large (100 student) online introductory course, a smallish (20) midlevel course for majors, a four-credit language class, a graduate seminar, and a 2 student hands-on practicum.  Many people offer condolences when they hear about my teaching load, but so far this semester (5 weeks in!), it has been a blast, and, more importantly, I’ve learn things about teaching, my work flow, and what it takes to be a productive and successful in academia.

1. Always Be Teaching.  Malcolm Gladwell has famously argued that expertise is only achieved after 10,000 hours of practice. My typical teaching load (2 or 3 classes) occupied 10 “contractual” hours per class per week. So each year, I earn about 750 hours of teaching practice.  At this rate it will take me about 13 years to become an expert teacher.  Adding one extra course a year, or 150 hours of expertise will cut over 2 years from that number.  I think the Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps attributed part of his dominance of the swimming world to his willingness to practice 7 days a week rather than 6 like many of his competitors. Over the four years between Olympic games, he gained 200 days of training or a 17% more practice than his competition.  While there is a line between pushing oneself to exhaustion (over-training to continue our sports metaphor), I also think that the more we do, the better we get at things. Taking a semester periodically to increasing the intensity of our teaching commitment can give us an advantage in the classroom.

Unlike many semesters, where teaching is a pretty modest part of a diverse, busy, and demanding week, I have discovered that the 4 course/4 prep combination makes it almost impossible to compartmentalize the responsibilities of teaching.  As a result, I am always teaching this semester.  So not only is one more class 10 more hours (or so) per week of experience, but, for me, those 10 hours per week are the tipping point. Teaching has become what I do this semester rather than one of the things that I do.

2. Efficiency. In order to survive my other responsibilities, however, I have had to become much more efficient.  I hear colleagues who have had children say that they become much more efficient scholars as they learn to balance professional and family responsibilities. This semester, after only 5 weeks, I am feeling similar results. I am becoming better at getting things done in the interstices between classes, reviewing lectures while walking across campus, and answering student emails as they come in (rather than letting them pile up and having to deal with them as a unwieldy batch).  I have come to think much more carefully about how I grade and comment on student papers to make sure that I focus my comments on the most valuable information and avoid my time-consuming habit of rambling remarks.  I have also begun to review my reading and writing assignments and consider how well and efficiently they achieve the stated course goals. In a semester where I can feel even 20 extra pages of reading a week, I have become extra sensitized to how closely each page and assignment contributes to what I want to do in the course.

3. Good Work Habits.  At some point in my life, I stopped working much in the evening. I tend to be an early riser and I am usually at my desk by 6 am. For some reason, I began to declare my day done around 6 pm. While this is a nice long work day, I found that I typically wasted evening hours watching TV, reading, surfing the web, or just doing … well … nothing.  This semester I have rediscovered my ability to do work in the evening.  Even just an hour of work – typically course preparation or light grading – makes my day far more manageable and allows me to use my prime working hours (typically from around 7:30 am to 11: 30 am and from 2-5 pm) to accomplish more thinking-intensive tasks. I only rediscovered the evening as potential work time when I began to push my day to the limit with short term responsibilities of teaching.  Long term research and writing goals can always be put off. Grading papers, designing tests, or working on lectures are pressing and immediate.

4. Being able to walk away.  I am teaching a mid-level language class this semester for the first time. Sometimes the class goes well and I feel like I’m a genius, and sometimes the course goes poorly and I feel like fraud. When experiencing the ups and downs of teaching in the past, I would take time to revel in the high of a good class and linger over a botched explanation for hours.  Now, I don’t have time. Quick notes in my teaching journal and, if necessary, on my to do list (e.g. re-learn the gerundive), and I am on to the next class.  Rather than dwelling on the emotions that come with teaching, I have had to channel my energies into pro-active practice. When I botch things, I note that I need to do them better. When I am successful, I write a quick note reminding myself of the success of a particular assignment.

5. Work-Life Balance. There is a good bit of talk in academia today about work-life balance. In college I developed some pretty unbalanced work habits which became more exaggerated in graduate school.  I don’t have much of life, but since I’ve never really had one as an adult, I am not sure that I understand what I am missing.  That being said, the daily demands of teaching this semester have made me appreciate a lazy Friday or Saturday night with friends or Sunday evening in the kitchen with my wife far more. Simple things like writing this blog or reading a book have become far more pleasurable and important, because I have to make time for them.

There are downsides to my all-teaching, all-the-time semester, of course. My modest research program has suffered. I am not writing as much as I usually do and when I do write it is less polished and more fragmentary. I am fortunate to have understanding colleagues who have picked up whatever I have dropped in terms of service. I am only on a few committees that have regular responsibilities.  Finally, the intensity of always be teaching is probably not sustainable, but I do hope that some of the lessons in efficiency, good work habits, and being able to walk away will carry forward when my schedule returns to a more normal pace.

Finally, I am concerned about student learning outcomes.  While it is difficult to determine at this point in the semester whether I am still as effective in the classroom as I was with a lighter teaching load, it is something that I intend to monitor both through standard assessment practices, student grades, and my own continued reflections on classroom performance.

Cross-posted to Teaching Thursday.


  1. This is a brilliant piece; well done and thanks!


  2. Richard,

    Wait, is this spam or sarcasm? Has someone hijacked your identity.

    Umm… ok. Thanks.



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