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April 7, 2010 [feather]
False advertising

One of the arguments against universities' growing reliance on part-time, non-tenure-track faculty is that it amounts to a form of false advertising: students enroll at Prestigious University X, and expect to receive an education from the world-class faculty employed there. Instead, they get taught by a cadre of grad students and adjunct faculty who work cheap, who are not the reason for the school's top reputation, and who are, arguably, functioning as part of a shell game played with students' tuition dollars. Today, according to the AAUP, 48 percent of faculty are not on the tenure track, and 68 percent of new hires are taking place off the tenure track.

Underwriting this criticism is the assumption that a proper college education can only be reliably and responsibly delivered by the standing faculty--who have the expertise, the experience, and the devotion required to teach memorably, effectively, and well. But often, when you get down to specifics, you see little cracks in that argument. Consider grading: in larger courses, it's common to see a squad of grad students brought in to do the grading and to run discussion sessions. The professor lectures, and presumably manages the squad: but the heavy lifting is not done by the professor. There are courses where that works out pretty well--and there are courses where the sheer size of enrollment requires this sort of arrangement.

But: underlying all this is a pretty pernicious set of assumptions about what parts of teaching are real and essential and what parts are expendable and out-sourceable. And that assumption trickles down through the system in the form of an attitude that grading is grunt work best done, whenever possible, by others--or, failing that, best done at top speed. That's not a problem if we're talking about multiple choice tests. It's a big problem, though, if we're talking about things like research papers, analytical essays, and so on.

Grading papers is difficult, personal, detailed, time-consuming work if you do it right (I've never understood the people who claim to be able to grade 5 or 6 or more in an hour--that's drive-by marking, not actual grading.) Grading the written work of students is a huge, vital part of teaching them--it's part of a dialogue between teacher and student, and really can't be appropriately done by anyone who is not also doing the classroom teaching. It involves everything from line editing for grammar and syntax to guidance on structure and transitions to evaluation of the actual substance and quality of the paper's content. If you are a committed teacher, it's *unimaginable* that you would farm this work out to anyone else--it just can't be separated from the work you are doing in the classroom, and from your responsibilities for each student enrolled in your course. But that's not a universally shared attitude -- and budget constraints, which lead to ever larger courses, are making it hard even for faculty who do care about this side of teaching to do their jobs.

As a result, we are starting to see some remarkable perversions of what is considered to be acceptable pedagogical practice. An example: the new trend toward outsourcing the grading of papers to private companies. The linked article talks about how the University of Houston--which costs out-of-staters about $22,000 a year--is outsourcing the grading of papers in a business law and ethics class to a Virginia company that employs virtual TAs located mainly in India, Singapore, and Malaysia.

I was so saddened to see this. And, to get back to my original point, even if you think such services may do an okay job, there remains the question of what you are paying for when you enroll at school whose idea of educating you is to cut so many corners that most of your teachers aren't actually on the faculty--and even the faculty are farming out your evaluation, either to underprepared local novices or to anonymous others half way around the world. Such patterns turn the university into an educational middleman --one that is posing as a primary knowledge source. The word scam comes to mind.

posted on April 7, 2010 8:08 AM

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I like your phrase about the pernicious assumptions. Another assumption is that somehow "someone else" will correct students' grammar and spelling, because these things take so much time to mark and seem somehow less gratifying than issues of audience and content....

Posted by: Shelley at April 8, 2010 9:40 AM

Thanks, Shelley. And I totally agree about grammar and spelling. So many generations of students have passed through schools where the teachers are too lazy to make them focus on grammar and spelling. And now they are the teachers. More and more, laziness on that front has given way to lack of ability. It's the blind leading the blind out there. And the rationalizations are so classic: "This isn't a writing course, so I don't need to bother" (said by professors across disciplines, and even by English professors teaching literature courses); "They learned all that stuff in high school, so I don't need to bother"; "They are just being sloppy--and could fix things if they felt like it, so I don't need to bother"; "I have too many papers to grade, and correcting grammar and spelling is time-consuming, so I don't need to bother."

I worked out a system over the years. I had students submit their papers to me electronically, in MS Word. I turned on track changes, and I line edited while I graded. Students were to review those edits and make sure they understood them. If they made the same errors in their next paper, it would cost them. I also devoted some class time -- in lit courses -- to group grammar and editing exercises. It helped the students a lot, and they enjoyed it. Figuring out how to turn bad prose into good prose is like solving a puzzle, after all.

Posted by: Erin O'Connor at April 8, 2010 9:50 AM

"The word scam comes to mind."


It's bad enough that, as you say, people are paying astronomical tuition to support prestigious professors the students may never see. Outsourcing grading like that is really over the line. Grades matter a great deal - for getting into graduate programs, for keeping academic scholarships, as well as for feedback to the student who needs to know how well he or she is learning the material. This garbage needs to stop.

So how come tuition goes up and up and up, even as schools are implementing more and more money-saving things like this? Is it that the public colleges are getting less money from the states - is that really all it is? Or is the money getting skimmed off somewhere?

Posted by: Laura(southernxyl) at April 8, 2010 4:51 PM

i don't know about your neck of the woods, but here in CO it really is the state not funding education.

Posted by: jason at April 9, 2010 6:33 AM

I'd think that grading papers would be helpful to an instructor in developing an understanding of what concepts students are picking up on well, what concepts they are having difficulty with, etc.

Possible analogy with outsourcing/offshoring..many companies thought they could offshore manufacturing to (for example) China, while keeping product engineering in the US...some have found, though, that putting great distances between factory and design offices interferes with conversations that previously led to improved design for manufacturability.

Posted by: david foster at April 9, 2010 6:38 AM

Also..PowerLine has a post suggesting some interesting parallels between the ill effects of bureaucracy in the CIA and the ill effects of bureaucracy in universities (especially Duke.) Link at my blog.

Posted by: david foster at April 9, 2010 7:11 AM