Is it worth it?

The last week of a semester is a reflective time. There is a lot to do – and on a tight schedule. But because some of it can be rather unpleasant, the temptation to procrastinate and think about other things is great. And being an ending, it can be a time to think about what went right and wrong over the semester. Probably a few of you are already making new resolutions: “Next semester, I’m going to…”

In the extreme, the end of the semester can be a time consider whether all of our effort is really worth it. Have students really learned? Has our work made a difference? Has anyone noticed?

It does matter. It is worth it. We’ve all seen student work that makes plain the value of the enterprise. We’ve all received just the right compliment, the right citation, the right acknowledgment of our work. (And if you’re in need of a compliment, email your CELT director. He’ll give you one.)

In the big picture, we know it’s worth it. But what about the smaller tasks? What if we added up all the time and money that goes into producing an academic book or article? Or even a syllabus, for that matter? Are these specific documents worth it? In dollar terms?

Maybe not, say some academics.

Mark Bauerlein, writing in the Chronicle, argues that the era of high research productivity in the humanities must now close. He recently completed a study examining the scholarly impact of five years’ worth of publications within several large English departments. What he found was that all of the faculty’s time and the university’s expense amounted to very few citations of that work – and most of those citations were quite perfunctory. This leads Bauerlein to wonder if we haven’t reached a point of greatly diminished marginal return on this investment, such that faculty and universities would be better served by focusing on publication quality over quantity and putting more of faculty resources into teaching.

Bauerlein addresses an issue that is more pressing at big research universities than at small, teaching-intensive colleges. But what about the time we put into preparing course syllabi?

They cost millions, as Mary Bart reports at the Faculty Focus blog. Faculty members put in dozens of hours of work on each syllabus, and faculty time does not come cheap. Those hours add up to big money for a document that, halfway through the semester, will be entirely forgotten by its intended audience. Not unlike the fate of most academic articles.

If these figures are depressing, it may simply be because education is inherently difficult, with “products” that are often intangible or hard to measure. Once someone tries to measure outcomes in monetary terms, we encounter the same shock as a restaurant diner finally confronted with the bill: “That was good, but was it eighty-dollars-good?”

Quantification can be a downer. They don’t call economics “the dismal science” for nothing.

Is the time and money universities spend on research output worth it? Should the value of humanities research be put into monetary terms? What about research in science, engineering, and such fields? How much time do you put into your syllabus? Is that time well spent, or would you and your students be better served investing that time elsewhere?

Photo by stock.xchng user amr_safey / Creative Commons licensed

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3 responses to “Is it worth it?

  1. I am definitely concerned about quantifying work. How many of us have had a student who struggled and perhaps complained in our class only to have that student return months, or even years later, to tell us how beneficial the course was? In terms of documents, I am a big fan of using what you create. I refer to my syllabus throughout the semester for various reasons from pointing out the information on plagiarism to encouraging students to refer to the rubrics I put there. I don’t know how many students actually hear my advice, at least during the first semester that they have me for class, but I like to live with the illusion that this helps! As for research, in the humanities at a small institution like ours, it seems most useful if it is related to teaching either as a way of developing and building our tool kit of professional knowledge that we use to enhance teaching or of creating something we might use more directly with our students.

  2. Funny you should mention it, Anne; I just today got a note of appreciation from an alum who found my class–far from this student’s major and current career–helpful both intellectually and in terms of personal growth. These notes do not appear often, but when they do, there’s no better feeling that it IS all worth it!

  3. Noreen O'Connor

    My students gave “integration” presentations today that demonstrated to me that they HAD indeed learned, read, thought critically, and synthesized (regardless of whether they paid attention to those learning goals I set out in he syllabus). Nice, nice, ending for a class I have enjoyed.