A SERIES last month in Virginia newspapers was sharply critical of that state's leading universities, and especially of the University of Virginia, where I now teach. The criticism, widely echoed nationally, centers in part on the teaching load of professors. As one who has come late to an academic career, I feel that the attacks and the faculty responses fail to give the whole picture. The issue centers around the number of hours professors spend in the classroom. To the outsider the average load of two courses, five to six hours a week, seems very light. The response from academicians has been to emphasize the importance of time spent on research.
Certainly the arguments are valid that research can contribute to teaching, that writing is important for professional advancement, and that eminent scholars who are deprived of that opportunity will move to other institutions. What surprises me is that more emphasis is not placed on good teaching.
At the University of Virginia I spend five hours weekly in the classroom. But the remaining hours of what would be considered a normal work week outside academia are more than occupied with essential duties directly related to my responsibilities as a teacher and a member of a faculty. These duties include counseling individual students, writing letters of recommendation, advising graduate students on their theses and dissertations, grading papers, guiding students through independent study programs, preparing for classes, and serving on faculty committees.
At least some of those who believe university faculty are overpaid and under-worked base their criticism on the picture of a professor lecturing from a well-used set of notes to a large group of students and aided by teaching assistants who conduct discussion sessions and grade papers.
Undoubtedly that stereotype exists and may be necessary for basic courses in large universities. But lecturing alone, whether by a person or a machine, is not teaching in the best sense of the word.
Teaching should establish a relationship between professors and students through which an exchange of thoughts and information broadens horizons and stimulates intellect. Time and opportunities must be found outside of formal class sessions for such exchanges if full advantage is to be taken of the teacher's knowledge and experience.
In the fields of diplomacy and international relations that I teach, the transmission of facts is not as important as building a talent for communication, both written and oral, and an understanding of power and organization in other societies. In today's dynamic world, the notes, examinations, and exercises of the previous year are quickly out of date.
True teaching requires time-consuming and constant reshaping of the material. In courses where skill in writing is a critical component, as is the case with courses in diplomacy, professors cannot leave the review of papers to subordinates; expert critiques are essential.
Teaching, in its most effective form, cannot be evaluated on the basis of hours in a classroom. I have felt a sense of satisfaction through the selection by the United States Foreign Service of three of my students from last year's seminar (out of less than 200 nationwide). I do not believe they could have prepared themselves as they did solely through lectures, the comments of teaching assistants, or the viewing of videotapes.