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Career Advice

Are you ‘overteaching’?

More technology, quizzes, games and discussion boards in a class don’t necessarily lead to better teaching – they can lead to burnout for both professors and students.


Are you exhausted? Burned out? Spending too much time working and feel like your job is taking over your life? Perhaps your problem is a concept I call “overteaching” – where an instructor will devote too much time, energy and emotional labour to teaching and teaching prep. It is increasingly becoming a pandemic of its own for most professors.

Although younger pre-tenure academics suffer most from this problem, overteaching is a syndrome that is increasingly afflicting senior faculty as well. We are devoted to our students and to student success, and those who take teaching seriously want to do it well. However, a habit of busyness has resulted in burnout and a culture in which overwork has become something of a badge of honour.

Under these conditions, professors are doing too much and it’s starting to take its toll. Overteaching is causing fatigue, stress and overwhelm; it’s unsustainable. Some may partially blame institutional factors for this situation, but professors also have to consider our own role in creating and sustaining this culture, and in perpetuating it for the next generation.

So how do we overteach? I propose that the many technologies and methodologies the modern academic now employs aren’t leading to more learning or more student success. Quizzes, exams, reviews, questionnaires, journals, learning portfolios, group activities, online chats, discussion boards, gamification – the list goes on for all the different ways we try our best to assist and engage our students. However, our students are often working over 20 hours a week outside of school, some are adult students with additional responsibilities and most don’t have time for all this work. And we as professors don’t have time to develop and assess it! Modern realities don’t allow us to have a one-page syllabus, but is there a middle ground?

We have to ask ourselves what is it that we get out of teaching that makes overteaching so attractive. I would argue that we do it because it feels good. Research is isolating; for most professors, our research outputs affect very few people and the effects are attenuated and delayed. Research and writing are hard and time-consuming and they can always be put on hold for other tasks. Our email, service commitments and domestic lives provide additional challenges and can make us feel bad about ourselves, which can lead to imposter syndrome in many parts of life.

Think, on the other hand, about teaching. Students give feedback in real time and provide social avenues. We feel they deserve our care (which they do). If we’re good teachers, we get approbation and validation every class meeting. We can’t delay or procrastinate teaching: it happens at a particular day and time. Overall, teaching is humanizing, engaging and (for the most part) fun. Perhaps most importantly, it appeals to our core values and sense of importance; we feel we’re actually changing the world or making people’s lives better.

But at what cost? After three decades in the trenches, several years engaging with the scholarship of teaching and learning, and with six teaching awards to my name, I’d like to posit that there are some teaching fallacies we need to explore if we’re going to course correct.

First and foremost is the belief that more activities mean more learning. I’m not hearing from colleagues that students are showing increased learning outcomes over the years. Another fallacy is that more feedback means more learning. I’m not casting aspersions on people who dedicatedly give feedback to students, but my experience is that students don’t necessarily read or act on this feedback. Lecturing is not yet dead – there’s something very powerful about doing a certain amount of presentation of material to students, although not in the old-style way of sage on the stage. I flip the classroom, which many people do, but let’s not kid ourselves that this is the same amount of work as preparing lectures or discussion-based classes. It’s twice as much work for faculty and for students.

I’m embarking on a nation-wide study of teachers, students and administrators for a book on overteaching which hopes to delve deeply into its causes and symptoms. But I’d also like to provide solutions to this problem that can lead us – and our students – into a place of more balance. Stay tuned.

Elizabeth Wells is a professor of music history and musicology at Mount Allison University as well as author of the book The Organized Academic.

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