ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

“Lies, damned lies, and statistics.” UC Teaching Load Edition

August 21, 2012 by Andrew Gillen

Mark Twain popularized the notion that

'There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.'

Illustrating his point is the controversy that erupts anytime someone mentions teaching loads. In theory teaching loads are deceptively simple to calculate and only require two numbers, the number of classes taught and the number of professors teaching. The average teaching load is then just the number of classes divided by the number of professors. Thus, if 100 classes were taught by 20 professors, the average teaching load is 5 classes per professor.

In practice however, neither of the required numbers are readily available, which leaves you with two options. 1) You can use the figures from a US Department of Education survey, (available here) or 2) you can rely on universities' claims.

The problem with the second option is that some universities are (justifiably) embarrassed by how little professors teach, and take Mark Twain's statement as advice rather than a warning.

A case in point occurred when we pointed out (using US Department of Education data), "In 1988, the average professor at major research universities taught 2.9 classes each term. By 2004, that number fell to 1.8." We were immediately accused of being ignorant of the high productivity of UC faculty as shown in this report.*

Enter Twain. Since avg teaching load = # of classes / # of professors, it is clear that you can increase the reported average teaching load by 1) inflating the number of classes taught, and/or 2) reducing the number of professors included in the calculation. UC makes heavy use of the first option and not insignificant use of the second. In their tally of classes taught (see appendix E of the reported cited above), they include with class count such activities as internships and clerkships, which all-too-often entail very little if any professor involvement. And when it comes to counting professors, they exclude (see Note E from Table 11) "those on sabbatical or other approved leave."

The bottom line: in this and many other cases, universities are using misleading data on both the number of courses taught and the number of professors counted. Caveat lector: those who rely on such figures and point to them may well have a self-serving agenda.

*Note that the commenter did not distinguish between per term and annual totals. Thus the 5.1 annual total [in a quarter system] he thinks refutes our numbers works out to 1.7 per term, less than the 1.8 we claimed, making our case even stronger.

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