Teaching Tuesday: Do the Math

Teaching Tuesday: Do the Math

I’m sort of nervous about this post. Let’s see how it goes.

It’s incredibly difficult to gauge how much work to assign students and how much work to give yourself. I think you have to be in a place for at least a year or more to get it right.

Here are some things you can do to avoid mid-semester meltdowns.

  • Ask to see a sampling of syllabi of the classes you teach; how much work do others generally assign? If they’ve been there for awhile, they probably know what works.

  • Are you teaching on quarters or semesters? Are the courses 4 credits or 3 credits?

  • Ask how many classes students generally take a semester. If they take four a term, your course will probably need to be a little more rigorous than if they take five or six a term.

  • Are they on the quarter or semester system? How many students will be in your classes?


My hardest semester of teaching was my first semester in my first full time job. I went from teaching four classes a semester (eight classes a year) to teaching three courses a quarter (nine a year). I also went from teaching 15 students a section to 25.

I made two mistakes.

  1. I crammed my semester syllabi into quarters.
  2. I tried to I to do for 25 students what I’d been doing for 15, and I almost died.

Think like a lawyer.

Imagine you’re a lawyer and keep track of your billable hours. The typical college professor puts in 50 to 70 hours a week, so let’s be conservative and say you’re going to work 55 hours a week. (I work more than that.) That’s over nine hours a day, six days a week. Remember that for a college professor, “work” is R, T, S:

  • Research/Writing
  • Teaching
  • Service

Strive for a R/T/S ratio of, let’s say, 30/60/10.

[Where did I get this number, 30/60/10? Why not 40/55/5? The ratio varies depending on the institution, and it’s a good idea to ask your colleagues what they think the ratio is vs. what the institution believes it to be. Here’s a great link that talks about this. ]

Research       30% of 55 hours       16.5 hours a week      2.75 hours a day

Teaching       60% of 55 hours       33 hours a week        5.5 hours a day

Service         10% of 55 hours        5.5 hours a week        less than an hour a day

I hope this breakdown is clarifying to you. It should be.

Over the course of my career, I’ve had a variety of teaching loads.

  • 4/4
  • 3/3/3
  • 3/3
  • 3/2
  • 2/2

I’m very glad that I spent two years as a non-tenure track instructor. Once you have a 4/4, you understand how to make the best use of the others. Because, you see, my ratio applies no matter your load, which means–ideally–you’re supposed to spend approximately 33 hours a week on your teaching no matter what your load is.

Talking to Myself

I remember the first time I did the math. It was that horrible semester when I was teaching a 3/3/3 with 25 students per class, and I was dying. Here’s an approximation of the conversation I had with myself.

You’re doing for 25 at College B what you used to do for 15 at College A.

I need to give the students at College B my best.

You need to give them what College B is paying you to give them.

You’re saying I should give these students less than my very best?

No, you should always do the very best you can within that 33-hour time frame. Find other ways to teach well. There are other ways to be an effective teacher of writing without writing a freaking treatise on every single paper or story or poem.

But what about these kids! Don’t they deserve more than that?

Whether or not they knew this consciously or not, your students chose to go to College B, which devotes fewer resources to writing instruction than College A did. It’s not your job to give the students at College B the exact same quality instruction as College A, because this can only be achieved at the cost of your writing time (which is limited) and your personal life (which you need to try harder to have). 

You’re telling me to be a shitty teacher.

No, I’m telling you to be a more resourceful and effective and healthy teacher. 

You’re saying that students at College B don’t deserve what students at College A get.

Oh, no. Everyone deserves the very best they can get. A great young writer is just as likely to emerge from College B as from College A. The difference is that all students who go to College A will probably get more personalized feedback on their writing, will probably produce more pages, because their instructor has a 2/2 with 15 students per class while you’re at College B with a 3/3/3 at 15/25/25 students per class.

This sucks.

Yes, it does. There’s nothing more important than learning how to write effectively, and schools talk a good game about “rigor,” but there’s only one way to ensure every student leaves college having learned how to write well: classes capped as small as possible, and experienced, well-compensated instructors teaching as few classes as possible, all of which is really, really expensive. 

We’re doomed.

Stop it. No we’re not. Just do the best you can and take care of yourself.

Higher Ed


  1. Robert says:


    Thanks for this honest, helpful post. I think a number of teachers, especially adjuncts, are struggling with these same issues.

    And you make a great point at the end: education is expensive. Some schools decided to spend billions of dollars on their sports stadiums, dorms, and basketball coaches. Some schools chose to invest in their students and their teachers. Students will need to be more saavy (maybe they already are) in thinking about what they truly value (and what will actually count after they graduate) and choose a school accordingly.

    One time, as an adjunct, I divided my salary by the number of hours I worked per week. I figured out how much I got paid per hour, and it turned out to be less than minimum wage. It was a devastating moment, but I recommend it for any teacher. You learn to prioritize your time accordingly.

  2. Lowry Pei says:

    Excellent post. The internal dialogue is painfully true. And it doesn’t stop happening, either. It’s not as though you can ever finish this effort to coach, console, re-arm yourself with sufficient courage to carry on. Originally I must have thought that at some point I would figure out how to deal with the workload and after that I’d just teach without all the agonizing; now I know I never will get there. I’ll just retire, any semester now.

  3. ALeahy says:

    I’m glad you posted this. Some administrators can be quick to point out that the weighting of job responsibilities is not equivalent to time expended in those areas, but I think it’s a good exercise for those of us juggling the weighted expectations. I did the math in a similar way years ago, and it prompted me to rethink a few approaches and decisions. I’m still always tinkering, however, with the relationship among number of students, class time, and how much of what to assign.

      • ALeahy says:

        Yep, the percentages weight the areas of research/creative, teaching, and service for evaluation purposes. Just because one area is weighted more heavily for evaluation doesn’t mean that translates into the amount of time we are expected to expend (input) in each area, particularly from administrators’ perspective.

        Another way to think about it: we don’t get an A for effort; we get an A for performance or results. Though I don’t know whether it’s true, I’m also reminded of the 80/20 rule, which indicates we accomplish 80% of a complex task in the first 20% of time expended on it, but the refining and detail take a lot more time. Perhaps, not all our efforts require refinement–but our writing does!

        All that said, I like the way you’ve done the math, and I have done the same sort of math myself in the past and found it helpful. A little perspective. A reminder to prioritize and pay attention to how one expends one’s time.

        And like you, I was very glad to have spent two years in non-tenure-track positions so that I could figure some of this stuff out before the tenure clock was ticking.

        Alas, I’m too exhausted from working 110% to be more articulate!

  4. This is a really important topic from so many different vantage points. First, you’re absolutely right that teachers have to decide what is an effective, healthy, appropriate amount of time to devote to the classroom and not just assume that classroom should dominate everything. I actually think that sometimes an excessive devotion to the classroom leads to overteaching and overcommenting, and as a result we take necessary space away from the students. Space they need to make their own decisions and come to their own realizations. I remember an anecdote from a writing teacher who said that during one really bad semester he had kept a load of papers too long and hadn’t had the time yet to read any of them. Finally, he just gave them all back, with a stern look on his face and one comment: “Make them better.” He claimed that the students all seemed to know what he meant and, secretly aware of the flaws in their own work, proceeded to attack the papers and, indeed, to make them better. By relaying the anecdote I don’t mean to suggest that teachers shouldn’t read student work–of course not–but I do think some of us, and I’ve been guilty of this myself, have underestimated how much our students can bring to the equation and overestimated how much we need to. That’s why your breakdown of hours is really important.

    I also like that you put in Research as work time. I think every writing professional, even they are part-timers, need to think of Research as crucial to their professional profile. I hate to call it an obligation, because it should be something writing professionals are called to do, but is a kind of responsibility: to yourself most of all, but also to your discipline and to your students, who want to see their teachers actively engaged as practicioners. Sad to say, there are folks in my own department, a department of writing, who think of work hours solely as teaching and going to meetings. The labor intensive business of composing and publishing seems like fluff to them, or an add on to the real work of the job. I’ve always thought of Research as the real work of the job. Why else would anyone go into this field in the first place?

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