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Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Course Releases vs. Reducing the Teaching Load

As usual, I should begin with an apology for my sporadic (if ever there was a euphemism) blogging here as of late.  Part of it has been guest-stints elsewhere; part of it has been a little bit of writing (why can't book reviews have 24,000 words?!?).  But I hope to resume relatively normal Prawfs status shortly, and am bolstered in my hopes by the fact that I have a course release this fall, meaning that I'm teaching one class, as opposed to our usual two (we're a fairly strict 2+2 school, regardless of credits or enrollments).

This is the first time in my career that I've had a course release. Miami (where I started) had a strict 10-credit-per-year program for juniors, and American had not, until this year, allowed tenure-track juniors to participate in the course release program available to tenured profs, at least in part because entry-level folks get a course release their first two years anyway (which I missed by spending my first two years somewhere else). I'm not trying to generate sympathy; I love teaching, and actually miss having a big class this semester to go along with my seminar--or at least I will until grading time. 

Needless to say, because I have too much time on my hands, this got me thinking about the merits of course-release programs. In one sense, they're awesome. They give their beneficiaries time to write, to blog, and to otherwise catch up on the myriad projects on which they might have hypothetically fallen behind while teaching 14 credits last year. And at American, at least, this has all been with an eye toward slowly moving our faculty toward a three-course teaching load. The strongest counterargument, I have to think, is that they're not great for students--the more of us who have courses "released," the fewer courses we can offer collectively, and so either our offerings become less diverse, or we become more dependent upon visitors or adjuncts.

But it seems to me there's another negative, too, and this one affects the released professors more directly: Yes, course releases give the illusion of a reduced teaching load, but they do it in a way that is both imperfectly transparent (leaving open the possibility that good institutional citizens will be treated better when it comes to releases than bad ones--something that I don't think actually happens that often, but could), and that cures the symptom (occasionally overstaffed faculty) without seriously addressing the disease. If anything, doing course releases on a year-to-year, ad hoc basis may also hide some of the true curricular needs of the faculty, since it's more difficult for associate deans to think long-term about where there might be gaps based upon frictional releases, rather than those that would arise from an across-the-board teaching reduction.

So here's my question: am I just looking a gift horse in the mouth, or is there something to the notion that course releases are a relatively easy way for law schools to avoid harder--and more important--conversations about teaching loads?

Posted by Steve Vladeck on September 1, 2010 at 11:47 AM in Blogging, Life of Law Schools, Steve Vladeck, Teaching Law | Permalink

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Steve,

Perhaps I am just revealing my ignorance by asking, but what is a "course release"? I gather from the context of your post that it means being excused from teaching a course for a semester, but in what circumstances is it permitted? Does a professor simply request the release, or have to promise something in exchange for it? (My own school has a three-course load but nothing resembling a course release program, at least as far as I know, so this is new to me.)

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Sep 1, 2010 12:15:37 PM

Hey Orin -- Apologies for not being more specific. At least at WCL, the program allows professors to apply for a release based upon a combination of (1) curricular availability; (2) a proposal for outside projects to be completed in lieu of the regularly scheduled course; and (3) a report at the end of the semester summarizing the progress on said projects. It's wholly discretionary, but, so far as I understand, something we've done for awhile...

Posted by: Steve Vladeck | Sep 1, 2010 12:17:39 PM

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