When I entered academe just over a decade ago, almost every law school had a standard teaching load of four courses or 12 credit hours per year. In the past decade, the norm among top law schools has shifted to three courses or 10 credits per year. Although I had noticed that most of my friends were teaching lighter loads, I didn't realize how pervasive the shift was until my Associate Dean asked me to gather information from top law schools as background for a debate about teaching loads here at Wisconsin. The following numbers are based on a FOG (Friends of Gordon) survey and represent the "standard teaching load" at the Top 25 law schools, as currently listed in U.S. News & World Report:
Yale University ... 3 courses
Harvard University ... 3 courses
Stanford University ... 9 or 10 credits
Columbia University ... 10 credits
New York University ... 10 credits
University of Chicago ... 11 credits* (quarter system)
University of Pennsylvania ... 10 credits
University of Michigan-Ann Arbor ... 10 credits
University of Virginia ... 10 credits
Northwestern University ... 3 courses
Cornell University ... 3 courses
Duke University ... 3 courses
University of California-Berkeley ... 10 credits
Georgetown University ... 10 credits
University of California-Los Angeles ... 10 credits
University of Texas-Austin ... 10 credits
Vanderbilt University ... 10 credits
University of Southern California ... 3 courses
University of Minnesota-Twin Cities ... 10 credits
Boston University ... 3 courses
George Washington University ... 3 courses
University of Iowa ... 12 credits
Washington & Lee ... 10 credits
University of Notre Dame ... 3 courses (30 credits over three years)
Washington University in St. Louis ... 3 courses (no fewer than 9 credits)
What follows are some brief observations about the meaning of this information, but I hope others will add insights in the comments.
* Although I graduated from the University of Chicago, I have been unable to get a response about teaching loads there. Perhaps someone with inside information can fill me in, and I will complete the list. [Based on a comment below and a sidebar email, I am recording Chicago as 11 credits. The looks slightly different than the traditional four-class load, but its apples and oranges because Chicago is on a quarter system.]
* Only one school listed among the Top 25 (Iowa) has the traditional teaching load of 12 credits per year.
* The move to lighter teaching loads is less pronounced among the next 25 law schools, but most of those law schools have moved to the new standard. My sense is that reduced teaching loads become increasingly rare as you descend in the rankings.
* Some schools articulate their teaching loads in terms of "courses" while others refer to "credits." This can make a big difference in the actual outcome of the policy. Three courses of 3/2/2 credits is much different than three course of 4/3/3. The first configuration is unusual, and the second is probably the typical arrangement.
* Moving from a traditional teaching load to a lighter teaching load has substantial budgetary implications. The law school needs to offer a certain number of credits, and if full-time faculty teach fewer credits, the law school must hire additional teachers, either adjuncts or full-time faculty. Thus, it is no surprise that resource-rich schools have moved to lighter teaching standards more quickly than other schools. In my opinion, differences in standard teaching load will increase the division between the Haves and Have Nots in legal education. It is still not clear to me whether second- and third-tier schools will feel sufficient competitive pressure to make the move to lighter teaching loads.
* Standard teaching loads mask lots of variation. At Wisconsin the average actual teaching load is less than the standard of 12 credit hours because people are awarded with leaves or teaching reductions. In addition, some people teach large classes, while others teach seminars. Some people teach four different courses, while others teach multiple sections of the same course. Some people receive relief for administrative work or special research projects. In short, the standard teaching load is only a starting point for understanding how much people actually teach. It is worth noting that some schools who have moved to a lighter teaching load have eliminated some of the other means of reducing teachings loads (e.g., sabbaticals or research leaves).
* The shift in teaching loads is being driven by the market for law professors. As outgoing chair of the appointments committee, I can tell you that teaching loads matter to new professors and to lateral candidates, and many people in my survey noted this as the force that prompted a change in policy.
* It might surprise you to learn that any professor would oppose a lighter teaching load, but my discussions with others and my personal experience as a faculty member suggest that when the issue of reducing teaching loads is raised, a division of the faculty is almost inevitable. As you might surmise, the dividing line is not about teaching, but scholarship. The usual rationale for lighter teaching loads is that they allow professors more time for scholarship. Professors who think of themselves as teachers first and scholars later (or never) sometimes suggest that the move to lighter teaching loads is an indication of sloth or an attempt by bad teachers to limit the unpleasantness of the classroom experience in a self-interested way. On the other hand, active scholars feel morally superior because they are doing more work than their colleagues, and they feel inclined to institute a policy of lighter teaching loads for "scholars," but not for "teachers." In practice, most schools do not differentiate among professors when they move to lighter teaching loads. Everyone is subject to the same standard teaching load, at least as a starting point.
* Some schools allow banking of credits, so that teachers can overload in some semesters in exchange for a break in later semesters. The practice is not as common as I would have thought, apparently because schools are worried about having a sufficient number of courses on offer at all times. Ill-timed banking could result in large shifts in courses offered from one semester to the next.
That should be enough to get the discussion started.
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