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Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

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University focus on collaboration stymied by administrative obstacles

Olivia Anderson | Contributing Photo Editor
Olivia Anderson | Contributing Photo Editor

Faculty say that a series of administrative hurdles is making one of GW’s key strategic goals difficult to accomplish.

An entire pillar of the University’s decade-long strategic plan is dedicated to collaborative and interdisciplinary work, but three years into the plan, faculty say administrators have not provided a concrete strategy for compensation and credit hours when faculty teach courses together.

Without a clear framework for being able to work on these interdisciplinary projects, faculty say they have to take on more courses to meet requirements for their schools and negotiate their pay for the projects on a case-by-case basis. Some faculty said they feel that a goal officials often highlight and encourage faculty to pursue is not institutionally supported.

Lisa Benton-Short, the chair of the geography department, co-teaches an introductory sustainability course with five other professors, a strategy she says is helpful because sustainability overlaps with several other fields. But the University has no set policy on how to “count” these courses toward course load requirements or compensation, she said.

Team-taught courses do not count toward a professor’s total course load requirement, which means professors have to take more courses than they are required to teach each year in order to teach collaborative courses. The extra work takes away from faculty members’ time to conduct outside research or focus on their other courses, she said.

“Right now what GW says is ‘We will compensate you financially to some degree for your team teaching, but it does not get you out of your departmental obligations to teach,’” Benton-Short said.

Without mechanisms to support team-taught courses, the University maintains the misconception that the courses require less effort because faculty are splitting responsibilities, Benton-Short said.

Jennifer Wilson, a reading specialist at Texas A&M University who has experimented with co-teaching methods, said that even though professors could spend less time on collaborative courses, the amount of time spent preparing and planning and adapting to other professors’ teaching styles can take more time outside of the classroom.

“That uses an old definition for collaborative teaching, assuming my hours in front of the class dictates how many hours I’m paid,” Wilson said.

Benton-Short added that she hopes officials will find ways to support these courses because students and faculty benefit from the interactions between the instructors teaching the courses.

“In that process of creativity, you get some really innovative ways of approaching a topic and thinking about how we can communicate it with teaching,” she said.

Chris Bracey, the vice provost for faculty affairs, said in an email that officials hope to see more collaboration across schools. He added that the way collaborative courses are counted toward a faculty member’s course load varies but that the process is normally worked out between the school’s dean and the faculty member.

Deans are also responsible for teaching the students enrolled in their school with the resources they have, and faculty in the school are expected to teach a certain number of credits, Bracey said.

“As a result, there are instances where a faculty member asks their Dean to teach, as part of their regular load, a course outside of their school or when co-teaching asks for credit for more than half a course, and the school turns down the request,” Bracey said. “In these instances faculty have been paid overload compensation for engaging in extra teaching.”

Teaching across schools
Faculty face similar challenges when teaching courses in other departments or schools, they said.

Bill Briscoe, the chair of the physics department, said in an email that there are no procedures set in place for faculty who teach across departments and schools. Those professors often have to negotiate their pay for teaching the course and determine how the course will count toward their required teaching load.

Departments may be unwilling to part with faculty if the collaborative course will not directly benefit the department, which can make it difficult to launch the courses, he added.

“In effect, we lose the services of the instructor for their own courses, and yet, if the course is popular and has a large enrollment in another program, it may generate income for the University,” he said.

Faculty sometimes create “informal agreements” with the chair of the department that houses the course so that they are compensated for the classes. But Briscoe said this can cause problems between the chair and the dean’s office because the course is not always recognized by the department or the school.

Charles Garris, the chair of the Faculty Senate’s executive committee and an aerospace engineering professor, said faculty who want to collaborate are hindered by the University’s new budget model.

The model, which was launched last year, funnels funding into the schools, rather than through the central administration. Schools could be less likely to fund work if it will not be housed in the school itself.

“The incentive to do more collaborative research is killed,” he said. “People are talking about how you facilitate multidisciplinary work. Nobody talks about it, but the administrative structure of the University does not necessarily make it easy.”

Faculty search for solutions
A group of more than 250 faculty members is attempting to address the issues with interdisciplinary teaching and research by highlighting the collaborative work already happening at GW.

Diane Cline, an associate professor of history and classics, started XD@GW, the Cross-Disciplinary Collaboration Initiative, last December to help faculty make connections for collaborative work, develop solutions for problems in collaboration and learn about the projects.

She identified 650 courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels that cover cross-disciplinary content but found that few courses use the multiple-instructor model.

“They’re rare, and they’re gems,” Cline said. “But it is expensive from the administrator’s point of view. Until we crack it, we’re stuck.”

Cline said faculty cutbacks, particularly of adjunct faculty in smaller academic programs, has kept faculty from developing collaborative courses: When more adjunct professors teach core courses, tenured faculty are freed up to try out experimental teaching models.

GW has shifted away from hiring adjunct faculty in recent years, adding more than 170 tenure-track faculty positions since 2008.

“We need every faculty member to pull their weight offering the courses required for the major,” Cline said. “And we don’t have anybody to spare — those people are stuck, there’s no way they’re team-teaching, there’s no way they’re able to try anything innovative in teaching.”

Cline said she was working with Dianne Martin, the former vice provost for faculty affairs, to submit proposals of new projects and solutions to the administration. Since Martin retired in April, Cline has partnered with Geneva Henry, the dean of libraries and academic innovation.

Cline authored a memo outlining ways additional funding could help XD@GW facilitate cross-disciplinary research and courses. With a $200,000 grant or donation, Cline suggested that 10 new cross-disciplinary courses taught by two professors from different departments could be started by “buying out” the professors from their regular courses with 20 extra adjunct positions.

“They get to see if the topic works, they will get the literature review done, try out ideas, see if they can work together, and start to apply for grants or publish together in 15 weeks,” according to the memo.

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