Credit hours: The larger problem at play

Nolan Swenson, Co-Sports Editor

UW Oshkosh administrators plan to increase the contracted credit hours of instructional academic staff (IAS) in the College of Letters and Science (COLS), which many faculty fear will hurt first-year student retention rates.

IAS are contracted to teach by year, or even by semester intervals. They typically teach 12 credit hours and 15 credit hours for those with and without a terminal degree, usually a doctoral degree. However, a new plan may force IAS with a terminal degree to take 15 credit hours, a change that can upend how they organize their life.

The United Faculty and Staff of Oshkosh (UFSO), the school’s unit of the American Federation of Teachers, and the Faculty Senate have already released a joint statement opposing the potential action for its impacts on faculty and students alike.

Regarding the student body, they said that due to IAS’s involvement in Quest courses, courses designed around expanding the worldview of students, the higher teaching load would disproportionately affect IAS professors’ interactions with students.

“Courses specifically aimed at first-year students are disproportionately – indeed overwhelmingly – staffed by IAS,” they said. “We now hear that teaching workloads for terminal-degree-holding IAS may be increased to 30 credits each year. We oppose this plan.”

They said the increased teaching load will hamper first-year student retention rates because of the instructors’ increased workload.

“First-year students are our most precarious students in terms of retention,” they said. “To increase the workloads of instructors with the most direct contact with this population as we move into a pivotal fall 2023 semester is a disaster in the making.”

Co-President of UFSO and member of the Faculty Senate Stewart Cole said that everyone realizes that students require more support from professors than in prior years. 

“One thing the entire university community from administration to teaching staff agrees on,” he said, “is that we are in an era after the pandemic where students need more support, in and outside the classroom.”

Cole said the potential heightened credit load may prevent teachers from forming strong relationships with students.

“One of the things we are trying to address is that a very important component of what keeps students here at UWO is the relationships they forge with professors,” he said. 

“If we’re talking about a need to support students, we really need to invest in the classroom in a way that gives instructors the time and resources to support students.”

Cole said that the potential of an additional class for IAS teachers is a component of a larger problem —the declining funding of public educational institutions.

“The main question is: is it sustainable for anyone to teach five courses a semester in a climate where increased student support is paramount?” he said. “People teach that much only for financial reasons. The university cannot afford to pay everyone as faculty who teach three or four classes per semester. That’s not the administration’s fault, that’s declining per-student funding from the Legislature.”

Cole said with the increase in credits for those who typically work in roles teaching Quest classes, that it could create an environment that does not facilitate learning due to the different burdens of being an IAS professor.

“One of the things that concerned us, ” he said, “is that if we staff our first-year classes with people who feel and in many ways are overworked, underpaid and without the stability of longer contracts; then we risk an environment where students are not being supported to the extent [they] need to be.”

Problems already exist, he said, as classes are too populated for those who instruct them; if that burden is increased, it will be a disservice to both parties.

“The class cap for writing 188 is 25 students,” he said. “The professional organizations involved in first-year writing recommend 20 students. Our cap is too high, and if you have a cap that’s too high and the instructor is teaching five courses, that won’t give them the space and stability they need to be able to provide maximum support for classes in need of that support.”

The Colleges of Business, Nursing and Education are not typically as involved in courses aimed at first-year students, which puts a disproportionate load on the COLS.

An IAS professor in the English department, Kelley Duhatschek, said that the issue has been a long time coming and worries that the changes will affect her and the classes she teaches.

“It’s important to understand this is a systemic issue that is multifaceted and has been building for a long time,” she said. “Just because of the way we do business as a university, it could affect me because some of those classes may be classes I would teach.”

Duhatschek said that she is concerned the changes might affect her financial stability, as she already takes a 5-5 class load.

“IAS are paid per class, not salary. If my colleagues were previously on a 4-4 due to a particular degree, I’m not sure how the university will decide they take a 5-5 load,” she said. “I pretty much always take a 5-5 load, so it would affect my financial stability if I didn’t take a 5-5 if some of my classes go to people who otherwise would have a 4-4. So it could influence me that way, then I would need to leave. I’ve been here for 20 years, I don’t want to leave this job. I’m very committed to the university.”

She said that this measure will be one that affects students and professors, especially those students in first-year programs and upper level classes.

“I feel for my colleagues; they were not able to focus on individuals because we’re teaching so many classes,” she said. “We all love our students, but we want time to spend with them. Individual attention is so important in the first and second year. Some of my colleagues in the 4-4, they teach upper division classes and they need other kinds of instruction.”

Cole said that this possible move comes from a need to increase work output from IAS due to drops in state funding, which will affect personnel who teach the classrooms.

“The problem goes back to systematic disinvestment by the state legislature,” he said. “Money coming from the state legislature per student has gone down. When most of the university’s budget goes to personnel, when you have these cuts, the admin can only take money from those who staff the university.” 

This is not the first of these measures. Faculty members in COLS have also had their workload increased, which takes away from their ability to invest in their students.

“Faculty members in COLS for two years had assignments raised from a 3-3 to a 3-4,” he said. “Whenever the institution is in financial dire straits, the solution is to try to get more from instructors. What we want to focus on is how much people can teach while successfully supporting students,” he said.

Cole said that this joint statement isn’t intended to vilify administration, but rather voice opinions on how improvements will be made in the classroom, namely with allowing professors to invest heavily into their students by having lighter class loads.

“The positive question that the statement asks is how can we invest in the classroom,” he said. “Whether lowering class sizes or lightening teaching assignments, how can we invest in the classroom to ensure we can best support our students? This is not a negative statement, but a positive one.”

Cole said that the development of positive relationships is key, and that should be the main investment.

Cole said the most important thing is the capacity for instructors to have positive relationships with students. “We at UFSO are calling it Relationship-Rich Education. We need to invest in those relationships.”