The invisible labor of WMU professors: Three lessons from your own workload stories

Probably the most striking conclusion of the workload comments faculty have shared with the WMU-AAUP over the past few weeks is that, when it comes to research, teaching, and service, we professors are in the best position to tell our own stories. In fact, in sharing the interesting, sometimes idiosyncratic, details of their work responsibilities, faculty have described feeling isolated and misunderstood, not just by administrators, but sometimes even by faculty colleagues.

For example, one faculty member observed that “there seems to be an assumption that because I have a heavy teaching load that I must not care about scholarship, but I never stopped writing and publishing articles even though I’m given almost no time to do it.” Conversely, another professor shared that he is almost afraid to talk about how low his official teaching load is with colleagues outside his department because “it gives people the wrong idea. The fact that my official teaching credits are low doesn’t do justice to how much time I’m actually required to spend working with individual graduate students.”

Other faculty described frustrations about how research, scholarship and creative activity are recognized and valued. As one professor explained, “Scholarship in my field takes time and my department understands this. But for people in departments that emphasize lots of co-authored articles rather than books, it must look like I’m just sitting on my ass.” Another faculty member emphasized the painstaking process of securing and managing external grants, and of how this “basically becomes an entire job unto itself, in addition to the actual research the grant is supposed to fund.”

Not surprisingly, service was another area about which faculty expressed frustration, suggesting that too much of this work was rendered invisible by “bean counting administrators.” One professor described the increased pressure he’s felt over the years as his department’s faculty numbers have dwindled. “At the same time, the service demands have gone up,” he said. “There seems to be no recognition that fewer faculty members are being asked to do more and more.” Another faculty member explained that much of what claims her time seems to fall outside the recognized workload parameters, for example, “Every single week a handful of students stop in for informal advising discussions. I want to help them, but they aren’t even ‘my’ students. Am I supposed to turn them away?”

Though no single, overarching theme emerged from the workload stories shared with the WMU-AAUP, three were repeated enough to serve as cautionary lessons.

  • First, there is the recognition that the work faculty do across colleges varies, sometimes dramatically, and that no numerical system can fully do justice to this diversity.
  • Second, WMU professors are aware that the best experts for determining what counts as meaningful research, teaching and service work in their field are to be found in their field.
  • Third, more discussion is needed among faculty across departments and colleges to better understand and appreciate the diverse value we bring to WMU. Now, if only we could find the time!

Additional examples of labor that faculty feel may be misunderstood or rendered invisible:

– writing, customizing, and uploading student reference letters for graduate schools, professional programs, and academic employment

– engaging in industry consulting work that may be both expected and appropriate to one’s academic role

– informal academic and personal advising of undergraduate students, especially those who arrive underprepared

– driving time to teach courses at WMU distance learning sites, especially in the winter

– serving on diversity and inclusion initiatives, especially for faculty of color

– remaining current in one’s academic discipline, especially when one’s field is international in scope

– dealing with the ongoing demands of accreditation reports and other documentation

– completing a myriad of WMU online trainings, for example, cyber security and bullying

– direct individual supervision of students, especially graduate students, in required internship or performance activities

– completing time-consuming academic program review documentation as periodically required by administration, especially when this work has no apparent consequences

– piecing together small funding opportunities for routine academic work in the absence of sufficient support for conference and research travel (especially when international)

– completing professional activity reports, especially when one’s accomplishments do not fit neatly into its categories

– work done for the Lee Honors College, for example, scholarships, thesis committees, and serving as speakers

– participating in curricular overhauls, for example, essential studies

– facilitating the needs of increasing numbers of students who require special accommodations, for example, extra exam time

– assisting with departmental, college, and university recruitment efforts, e.g., spending time with prospective students and their families

– multiple (rather than streamlined) progress (and midterm grade) reporting for undergraduate students, for example, those on probation

If you haven’t yet had a chance to share your workload story with us, please send it!

Note: Faculty find much of this work to be both important and satisfying, but wish that it were better factored in during formal and informal assessments of their overall contributions. Also, some details have been altered to preserve anonymity.

WMU faculty see sudden increases to teaching loads based on admin’s review of professional activity reports

With the Oct. 15 deadline for faculty PARs looming, concerns about who sees these reports and how they are used take on new urgency. And since many faculty find the reporting system to be cumbersome, incomplete, or misleading, this makes it especially alarming that the PARs might be used by administrators to assess faculty achievement, as has occurred recently.

For example, on the tail end of phased retirement, Prof. Kent Baldner is finishing up a three-decade career at WMU, one that has combined research, service, and a predictable teaching load. He was surprised, then, to receive an email last semester informing him that, with only two semesters remaining at WMU, he would now be required to teach an additional course.

“When I queried about why I was being asked to teach an additional course, the reply was that we were short-staffed that semester,” explains Dr. Baldner. “I wasn’t happy, but felt it was my turn to ‘pay my dues,’ and so I agreed without arguing or complaining. When I asked what additional course they needed me to teach, I was told it didn’t matter. That struck me as odd.”

Dr. Baldner’s experience is not isolated. A number of other College of Arts and Sciences faculty members also report having been suddenly informed by their chairs that they were to be assigned additional teaching work. As with Dr. Baldner, institutional financial constraint was sometimes offered as the rationale, at least initially.

For example, another senior professor reported that his chair insisted that his sudden extra course assignment was a consequence of “lack of college funds for part-time instructors,” as directed by the CAS dean, Dr. Carla Koretsky. “But when I asked the dean about it, she denied that that was the case,” he said, and he was no longer required to teach the extra class after all.

Financial exigency is not the reason given to all faculty members unexpectedly faced with increased teaching loads. Others, the majority of them long-time, senior professors, have reported being told by their chairs that, last year, the CAS dean had conducted a unilateral, comprehensive review of faculty professional activity reports and that their names had appeared on her resulting list of underperformers with respect to scholarly activity. Apparently, no other workload category was scrutinized, nor were details provided about what criteria the dean had used. The result, their chairs informed them, was that they would be assigned more teaching, either in the form of additional classes or higher enrollment caps.

For example, Prof. Sarah Hill first learned of the prospect of a higher teaching load from her departmental director, who explained that he had been obliged by the dean to increase it. Dr. Hill points to lengthy email exchanges she had with her director and Dr. Koretsky, confirming that the dean insisted that Dr. Hill’s work was insufficient to justify a research-faculty teaching load. Dr. Hill has been told she will face this increased teaching load for the foreseeable future, unless and until she has met the dean’s standards.

“The whole situation has been demoralizing and time-consuming,” says Dr. Hill. “After going back and forth with my director and the dean, and gaining little clarity about who came up with these evaluation standards or whether they had even been written down anyplace, I gave in and accepted that I would have to teach the extra course.” The “kicker,” says Dr. Hill, was when the “extra course” she had been assigned to teach was cancelled on August 26 due to poor enrollment, just two days before the start of the Fall semester.

“So,” Dr. Hill explains, “all summer long I worked to prepare for this extra class — further reducing my time for research, and then they cancel it.” Dr. Hill is also concerned that the consequences of this belatedly cancelled, extra teaching assignment had ramifications for students beyond the impact on her workload. “An apparent desire to punish me for alleged underproductivity,” she explains, “has punished students who were left to scramble at the last minute to find a new class.”

Although the stories shared by faculty differ in the details, they have much in common: Faculty were informed by chairs either that WMU can no longer afford part-time instructors, necessitating additional teaching labor from them, full-time bargaining unit faculty, or told that the dean had identified them as underperforming scholars based on her personal review of their professional activity reports. Again, the criteria used for assessing research, and scholarly and creative activity across the diverse departments that comprise CAS — everything from physics to creative writing — were not provided. Nor were faculty apprised of an appeals process to challenge their new designation as teaching-active, rather than research-active, professors.

Some faculty have successfully challenged the additional workload assignment through appeals facilitated by the WMU-AAUP, and this is an option that all affected faculty can explore. However, some faculty colleagues report they are giving up. Some describe feeling shamed at having been singled out through an unscheduled evaluation of their research that they did not even know was underway, and exhausted at the prospect of yet another bureaucratic battle. As one faculty member put it, “I don’t have the energy both to be an effective professor and fight with administrators about whether my scholarship is worthwhile.”

An additional damaging consequence of this administrative initiative seems to be that some mid-career and senior WMU faculty members are now considering retirement. “It simply isn’t worth it,” explained one professor, who is still over a decade away from traditional retirement age. “My department is seriously understaffed, so I was stressed out plenty before all this began. I simply can’t remain healthy working in an environment in which admin never seems to think I’m working hard enough.”

Is investment in core academics included in WMU’s plan to address its enrollment declines?

WMU’s enrollment has been in decline for years, due partly to predictable demographic shifts, and WMU is responding with another marketing initiative to make the university more attractive to a shrinking group of traditionally-aged prospective students. It’s no surprise that amid all of the plans for feel-good slogans, enhanced residence halls, and other student enticements, faculty are asking questions about the university’s investment in its core academic mission. For example:

  • How is the ongoing shift away from full-time tenure track faculty toward part-time instructors consistent with WMU’s promise to provide a world-class education?
  • Is WMU’s investment in its “research-intensive” status sufficient to help prospective students distinguish WMU from community colleges and other, more affordable, four-year institutions?
  • Will core university basics, including traditional disciplines and general education, be starved in order to feed trendy majors?
  • Will significant, ongoing investments be made in academic advisors, librarians, counselors, and academic student success programs to help students progress in WMU’s relatively open enrollment environment?

There are, of course, more general questions underlying these worries about the university’s value commitments in the midst of its increasingly assertive push to identify and draw in more students. For example:

  • How committed is the university to investing in quality over time, enhancing WMU’s long term reputation for excellence, rather than quick fixes?
  • Given that its employees — faculty and staff — have always helped distinguish WMU as special, what investment will be made in actual people, above and beyond funds spent on facilities and marketing materials?
  • How does WMU see its responsibility to respond to campus climate issues, for example, concerns about racial and gender equity, as consistent with its efforts to attract more students?

Though “austerity” is not a word WMU uses in describing its response to its enrollment decline and the more or less predictable budget contraction that accompanies it year after year, many faculty and staff feel the threat of austerity in the air. With that in mind, it is reassuring that the university is making proactive, concerted efforts to make WMU more appealing to students. But, for many of us, after years of watching our academic departments shrink and wither through attrition and disinvestment, often even as our counterparts at competing universities grow and flourish, it is understandable if WMU faculty have serious concerns.

Will faculty lines continue to melt away as state-of-the-art buildings are erected and new WMU billboards and tv commercials appear? Will faculty and staff be left to foot the bill for glitzy marketing strategies that may feel good in the moment but have little long-term impact? Whether WMU chooses to see this latest chapter of enrollment decline as an opportunity to substantively invest in the people at the heart of its core academic mission remains to be seen.

Post-tenure review, working conditions and FARs

As you may recall, last spring the WMU-AAUP fielded concerns from faculty about surprise performance evaluations leading to increased teaching loads. Since we are continuing to hear from faculty about this, we want to make sure all Chapter members are aware of the issue, and also get your assistance as we continue to assess the scope and depth of the concern.

First, the reports we’ve received are:

– that individual tenured faculty member are being subjected to surprise reviews of their “research productivity” by deans and/or chairs which is then being used to justify increased teaching loads. Some faculty are already working with this increased load, others have successfully appealed it, and others are still unaware that these changes may be on the horizon

– that the FARs (formerly PAR, “faculty activity report”) are serving as the primary, or even sole, basis on which “research productivity” is being assessed by deans and/or chairs; faculty have raised concerns about the appropriateness of using FARs for this purpose, especially given widespread questions about their legitimacy and accuracy.

– that the tenured faculty undergoing these performance reviews by their dean and/or chair have not been informed of the criteria they are being judged by, or about what process they might use to appeal this redesignation as teaching-focused, rather than research-focused, faculty members

– that there seems to be a general lack of awareness across colleges and across campus about these significant changes in faculty working conditions. While a number of individual faculty from various departments described open conversations and email exchanges about this with their deans or chairs, the flow of information is murky and partial, leaving some faculty colleagues feeling isolated and overwhelmed as they consider how best to respond, including whether or not to file a formal workload appeal

With this in mind, and so that we can get a better idea of the scope and depth of these concerns, please talk to your departmental colleagues, your chairs, and your WMU-AAUP departmental rep with the following kinds of questions:

– Have chairs received a “dean’s list” of faculty who have been designated underproductive and slated for greater teaching burdens?

– Have faculty colleagues been privately contacted by a chair or dean and informed that they should expect higher loads based on these reviews?

– Have faculty facing higher loads been provided with concrete details about the assessment of their scholarly activity and been provided instructions for how to challenge it?

As faculty members continue to come forward, and as we work to get a fuller picture of this issue, please be in touch as soon as possible with your colleagues, your chair, and with us (staff@wmuaaup.net).