25.4.10

THE ABDICATION OF MR. CHIPS. Jonathan B. Imber argues that professors themselves have the responsibility for degrading the academic vocation.
The transformative seeds were already planted in post-war enthusiasms for an academic culture in which gaining grants would eventually be matched by how many "public intellectuals" a school can boast. New opportunities to escape the timeless responsibilities of teaching abound. A controversy has ensued over what is being called the "outsourcing" of grading, taken out of the hands of the instructor (and/or teaching assistants) and given to companies who employ graders in Singapore, India and Malaysia. Along with accounts of the growth of adjunct faculty hired to teach a lot for very little, students and their families, it is argued, are hardly getting their money's worth. Editorialists at the Harvard Crimson complained that outsourcing evaluation "brings up concerns about the quality of contact that students are receiving in large classes." Outsourcing is the wrong description for giving over this particular responsibility of teaching to anyone other than the teacher. After all, teaching assistants have been overseeing grading in large lecture courses in universities for many decades. But this oversight was in principle part of learning to teach by learning to evaluate. Of course, it is easy to view such a principle cynically and to acknowledge that graduate students seeking to unionize have been given over to another kind of class struggle that marks the end of teaching as it once was embraced and practiced.
That's not to say that the faculty-student non-aggression pact isn't part of the problem.
Perhaps where evaluation is outsourced, instructors no longer feel compelled to observe even the pretense that the students they teach are persons of sufficient complexity to deserve being taught with that in mind. I fear a degree of complicity on the part of students and teachers alike where real evaluation is evaded for reasons that do not need to be spelled out too clearly. The willingness to commit $50,000 a year to maintain as much distance from teachers as possible is not entirely the fault of teachers. On the other hand, the willingness to work for an organization that charges $50,000 a year in order to enable faculty to avoid students as much as possible degrades the academic vocation in ways that Nisbet, Rieff, and Bloom already saw on higher ed's horizon.
Why not buy a degree from an online university, Professor Imber seems to be suggesting, if many of the faculty and students at the high-end universities are effectively e-mailing it in anyway?

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