Wednesday, April 07, 2010

The non-grading "teaching professional"

From the Chronicle comes this heartwarming story of a professor with seven (!) teaching assistants who was still just too oppressed to grade anything. Her solution: outsourcing grading, which allows her to continue talking in front of PowerPoint slides with arrows on them:

Lori Whisenant knows that one way to improve the writing skills of undergraduates is to make them write more. But as each student in her course in business law and ethics at the University of Houston began to crank out—often awkwardly—nearly 5,000 words a semester, it became clear to her that what would really help them was consistent, detailed feedback.

Her seven teaching assistants, some of whom did not have much experience, couldn't deliver. Their workload was staggering: About 1,000 juniors and seniors enroll in the course each year. "Our graders were great," she says, "but they were not experts in providing feedback."

That shortcoming led Ms. Whisenant, director of business law and ethics studies at Houston, to a novel solution last fall. She outsourced assignment grading to a company whose employees are mostly in Asia.

Virtual-TA, a service of a company called EduMetry Inc., took over. The goal of the service is to relieve professors and teaching assistants of a traditional and sometimes tiresome task—and even, the company says, to do it better than TA's can. . . .
"People need to get past thinking that grading must be done by the people who are teaching," says Mr. Rajam, who is director of assurance of learning at George Washington University's School of Business. "Sometimes people get so caught up in the mousetrap that they forget about the mouse."
I do appreciate the professor's wish to have her students write more as an aid to learning, and it's true that she couldn't possibly grade all that writing in a large lecture class herself. Still, here are a few questions:

1. If the TA's are not up to the task just yet, how about training them and working with them until they can work with students' writing effectively? If they're teaching assistants, presumably University of Houston has some kind of graduate program in the field in which they're assisting. If they're graduate students, they're supposed to be learning and to be guided by faculty, aren't they? What am I missing here?

2. Doesn't this feed into the worst accusations of critics of academe that TA's are being accepted into programs primarily to teach (cost effectiveness for courses) and not to learn?

3. If additional instructors must be hired to help with the grading, it's good to know that there are absolutely no unemployed or underemployed M.A. and Ph.D. graduates trained in composition theory and experienced in the teaching of writing in Houston who could be hired and that outsourcing is entirely an ethical choice for the "director of business law and ethics studies."

4. I'm going to draw a polite curtain over the mousetrap/mouse analogy (students and their writing are the mouse, a mousetrap kills the mouse--oh, never mind.)

[Update: There are lots more comments on the article now at the original link. They range from "This is cost-effective; what's the problem?"(a few) to "For those prices, you could hire on-campus graders" (#18) to "What is teaching about, if grading isn't part of it?" (quite a few) to "Hire me! I'll grade them for $12 a pop" (a lot) to "You fat, lazy Americans won't take this job anyway, so why are you complaining?" (#43) to "How about we outsource administration?" (#47).]

12 comments:

annieem said...

Great post....I'd love to comment more, but I seem to have lost my 7 TA's somewhere. Perhaps a cat got to them?

profacero said...

Well, when I was a TA for those writing intensive courses, each TA was responsible for 17, not 170 students.

undine said...

annieem, mine are strangely missing, too.

profacero, I don't think the TA's should be responsible for grading the writing of 170 students each, but I don't think that outsourcing the grading to India is a good solution, either. Why couldn't they hire some local (or even regional) writing professionals with that money?

I'm not saying that the tutoring service doesn't do a good job, because I don't know enough about their work to judge. What I am questioning is sending that money overseas when we have perfectly qualified humanities grads who because of the horrible job market have no work. It may be legal, and of course it's profitable; I'm asking whether it's ethical.

Anonymous said...

It may not be ethical. Neither is it particularly patriotic. Sadly it is probably more economical. No doubt India works out a lot cheaper.

Ink said...

Does anyone else think it's kind of funny that the course is on business ethics?

I mean, does it seem ethical to enroll that many students in the same class in the first place?

profacero said...

It's definitely not ethical. The situation is just sort of desperate making. Does the university allow this, did the prof have to get permission or what?

undine said...

Anon, I'm glad you brought up the "economical" versus "patriotic" idea. I almost hate to use the p-word since it's been coopted by various causes with which I have nothing in common, but really, isn't it more patriotic to hire unemployed Americans if we can? We buy local food--indeed, a lot of people have made a fetish of "slow food" lately--so why wouldn't we want to support local workers as well? I don't get it.

undine said...

profacero, I had the impression that the administration was all for it. It's just one more cost-saving measure that they can use on their "Five-year path to glory" before they move on to another institution.

Traineeship said...

I agree. Teaching also means you to grade your students.

profacero said...

Mon Dieu. And/but: my university cut costs this year by replacing grounds workers (who had small salaries, but benefits/retirement like faculty) with inmate labor.

Historiann said...

Late to this conversation--but I just want to ask if anyone else finds it ironic that the course in question is a course in business ethics that's being taught to 1,000 students at a time? Where's the "ethics" in that? After that, it seems to me like outsourcing the grading is small beer.

undine said...

profacero, that's bad. Ours has been outsourced mostly to us (i.e., we have to sweep our own office floors, empty our own wastebaskets) but we do still have custodial people on campus.

Historiann, absolutely! The irony of that is too good to be true, although no one involved in the story seems to see a problem with the "solution" to the grading problem.