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I'm a humanities researcher at an R1 university, just a few years into the tenure track. So far, the job's been pretty dominated by prep for my courses. I've been getting better at it, but there's no way to get around the fact that writing lectures, especially, is really time consuming.

Given this, I'd really like to be as strategic as I can be about what courses I agree to teach going forward. What's a reasonable and realistic cap to aim for, in terms of the number of ready-to-go courses an assistant professor might have under their belt by the time they come up for tenure? I'm thinking mainly about undergraduate lecture courses, as seminars are less up-front work.

This is very general, but if you happen to also have advice on the kinds of courses as well, that would be really helpful! - e.g. the big intro survey, a course on a trendy topic that may or may not be canonical in your discipline long term, a course that extends your research, etc.

[Edits for clarification:

  1. As @Buffy suggested in the comments, I did indeed mean "new course prep" as a distinct course one is more or less designing and teaching for the first time! Especially with lecture courses, once you have your lectures written every subsequent offering of the same course is infinitely easier.
  2. Not worried about tenure at current institution, but do want to leave flexibility to move if other opportunities come by.]
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  • It's not just about the R1/R2 status, my understanding is only the higher tier R1 schools (say, the top 50) will have the lighter teaching load
    – Taw
    Dec 15, 2023 at 20:28
  • You don't say whether you are at risk of not getting tenure because of this. If you are to be judged primarily on research it can be a problem.
    – Buffy
    Dec 15, 2023 at 20:37
  • @Taw, teaching load and prep might not mean the same thing. A course recently taught or one with sections taught simultaneously doesn't need (much) preparation. So, (I hope not at an R1) one might have four courses but only one or two preps.
    – Buffy
    Dec 15, 2023 at 21:21

1 Answer 1

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To avoid some possible confusion, in the following I take "prep" to mean preparation for either a course not previously taught by a person or one that, for whatever reason, requires significant revision from past offerings. This doesn't include teaching essentially the same course again soon after previously teaching it, nor does it include needing to teach more than one or two distinct courses simultaneously, provided that one has the require materials.

My experience is that this is something that can and should be negotiated and the aim should be for not more than one or two per term, with the goal being zero when possible or one. However, things vary for many reasons.

In the first year(s), someone with no teaching experience at all is going to have more preps than usual since they don't have materials for their courses in the bag already. My experience is that TT people in research institutions shouldn't be teaching more than two courses per term, though whether they are small or huge depends on lots of things. (My experience is with STEM, however).

I wonder, however, whether you are in a special situation in which you were hired for a specific field in which the university has a need that only you can fill. And I wonder how much the university, especially the department head really supports you for tenure. It is possible that you are being taken advantage of.

Big classes with the associated TA management are a special problem and I think those should be avoided in the first years and administration should be aware of the impact on a young researcher.

Again, my experience is with systems in which we had annual evaluations and as part of that we presented a plan for the coming year. That would include elements of the big three expectations (Research, Teaching, Service). The department head and dean would sign off on it and we would all work to keep to that plan and explain how we covered it in the following year.

Finally, I was lucky enough to see a system in which everyone in the department went out of its way to pave the road to tenure for new faculty. This included other faculty as well as administration. This is how it really should be when a place respects you and your contributions to the big three. And if (as in an R1) research is paramount in getting tenure then the institution needs to do what it can to make that possible.


As a note, I think that the humanities are being hurt in the current climate in the US due to a reluctance to fund them adequately. While I studied math, it was many courses in the humanities that made me a scholar in the classic sense. My political opinion is that if we don't support them better than at present we are destroying our future as a nation. Well and broadly educated people are one of the most valuable assets of any nation.

Some advice you didn't as for, however, it is possible in some cases to ease the burden of a first time prep to ask a colleague who has taught the course before if they have anything (notes, especially) that they can share with you. That, along with advice on pitfalls can be helpful.

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