Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Loving and hating the independent study

One of the things that has been making my life nuts and my blogging light this semester is the fact that, in addition to my regular course load (10 units) and my undergraduate advising, I'm teaching two independent studies this semester. And honestly, I can't settle on how I feel about that.

Let me give you the context: For those of you just tuning in, I teach at a regional M.A. comprehensive university, which means that we have a large undergraduate population, a small cohort of M.A. students, and no Ph.D. program. We teach anywhere from three to four regular courses a semester, the majority of these in the undergraduate program, and our per-semester student load per tenure-track faculty member [1] can range from 60-120, depending on the particular courses, and the fields.  With a load like this, independent studies are rare, except for M.A. students preparing for their exams or working on their theses.

And, like everywhere else (I think): these classes are taught as an overload, don't count towards our contractual obligations, and are strictly unpaid.

Yet this semester, I find myself teaching two of them.

Here's the situation: one is for a graduate student. Due to a combination of poor planning and circumstance, she finds herself near the end of her program, but needing one more content course in the field to graduate. And the fact is that I don't *have* more courses in the field. So we're doing an independent study. The other is one of our rare undergraduates who has been accepted into our departmental honors program. Part of the "honor" is that you get to take three extra content courses *and* write a 40-page senior thesis. And this last bit is done at the end of two semesters of one-on-one coursework with a faculty adviser.  And I have to admit, this one I asked for -- literally: I asked the student to apply, because he was (a) very talented, and (b) interested in my area of research.

So, here's the bad part: instead of working on my own reading for my own research, I'm adding an extra 100-200 pages (give or take) a week for these two classes. And we haven't even got to the bit where I have to grade stuff. It's a lot of work. In fact, even as I type this, there's a book on my coffee table that I need to finish today.

But -- and here's the cool thing -- the reading is fascinating. In one case, it's in an area very closely related to what I do, and something that I really should know more about, but in fact only have the most basic textbook knowledge. In the other, it has nothing at all to do with my work, but it's stuff that I've always wanted to know more about.

You know how sometimes you develop a seminar syllabus and add in two books you haven't read yet but want to, on the principle that assigning them will force you to read them? Yes, well: multiply that by two entire syllabi, and you've got my situation, for both good and for ill.

In the end, I'm still not sure if this was a good idea. It's a huge challenge, especially with two in a single semester. But dang, I am learning a lot.

Now, If you'll excuse me, I have a book to read.

[1] Lecturer student-loads are eye-poppingly huge, of course.


Anonymous said...

To the extent you took this on by choice, because you like working with the student(s) and/or want to do the reading, I think of this as a hobby. You could be taking up birding, or you could do a bunch of reading that you find fascinating. I'd have done it, too.

But to the extent that it's a student's poor planning that has put him/her in a situation of "needing" a class that isn't offered, I have no sympathy. I also have needs: time is at the top of my list. I refuse to make the student's problem mine.

Janice said...

It`s tough with independent study courses. We`re mandated to do a year-long directed reading with most M.A. students now and that can be a challenge when supervising someone who`s working on the far fringes of your own research area. On the other hand, when you get synergy, the course is good for both student and supervisor!

Just keep in mind what this workload is doing to you so that when similar situations arise in the future, you can make the best call on what you really want to do with your limited time and energy!

Krista said...

I'm new to the blog and just wanted to say how much I enjoy your posts. Thank you for sharing!

Belle said...

Oh does all this sound familiar. That was me last term, and I swear, it was the last time I do that. And my student load isn't 60-120, more like 50-70. I had 6 classes, two of which were tutorials & independent studies. I was staggering, so I surely do have sympathy for you!

undine said...

Ours are also unpaid and unappreciated, except (maybe) by the students. But at least you're getting to read new things that could spark some research and building up karma points--or at least that's how I think of these.