Universities (I)

For your enjoyment, a juxtaposition, followed by an offering of sorts. First, the point:

As reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education, some faculty at university business schools in the United States have begun outsourcing their grading work to India, Singapore and Malaysia. Professors, apparently, still hand out the final grades, but based on a scoring made by the assessors on the basis of “the elements in the rubric.” Such outsourcing is not without its upsides:

The company [EduMetry] advertises that its graders hold advanced degrees and can quickly turn around assignments with sophisticated commentary, because they are not juggling their own course work, too.

The company argues that professors freed from grading papers can spend more time teaching and doing research.

Comments, designed to help students understand their strengths and weaknesses, are often much more comprehensive than they would be were course TAs assigned to do the work. And assignments turnaround is only three or four days. Yet the program has its critics: not only do most students have no contact with their graders, but such contact is impossible. Worse, the marking is, by design, uninformed by classroom experience.

Which leads to the counterpoint:

The tutorial is at the core of undergraduate teaching and learning at Oxford. It offers students a unique learning experience in which they meet regularly with their tutor, either on a one-to-one basis or with one or two other students. Undergraduates attend, on average, one hour-long tutorial every week and undertake a considerable number of hours’ preparatory work for each tutorial, including background reading, essay-writing and problem-solving.

The language of ‘tutorial’ misses something, I think, for most North American students. A long book of essays on the Oxford tutorial contains a simple description which throws some light on the peculiar pedagogical object:

[The tutorial] does not replace other methods, such as instruction by lecture or in class. Indeed, it assumes all these, and includes their results in the preparation of a weekly essay, which is presented orally, listened to by the tutor and discussed immediately. The whole process – of reading, discussion, arrangements for the following week – takes up little more than an hour.

Yet there is variation. James, a fellow Scholar who read history at Oxford, once described to me one of his fondest memories of his undergraduate experience: James reads his essay, the tutor frowns, furrows his brow and offers a generous ‘no’, James tries on the argument again, and again the furrow-browed ‘no’, and in its turn the argument again, step-by-step, James explaining how some event should be interpreted or why someone else’s interpretation can’t stand, or what the implications of one interpretation is for another set of facts, and each version satisfying James a bit more than the last, but not satisfying his tutor enough to offer anything other than a litany of rejections, a sphinx generous enough to offer second chances when the riddle the student had set himself remains unanswered.

This whole process continuing not for an hour, but for two, three, three and a half hours, and as the process wears on, the two of them going to lunch as James steps through the same basic outline but each time trying to sharpen the weakest bits or leaving deadwood behind, eventually the tutor offers at the end of a version a single question after lifting his chin in a way that might imply…but ultimately settling his chin down just in time to coincide with the now, let’s say,  12th  ‘no’, delivered with an almost-sheepish smirk, a kind of apologetic grin combined with raised eyebrows.

But at least now there is a question, and maybe James if he is lucky gets one more question before finally one of them having to leave for some other appointment, no ‘yes’ finally being offered, the sphinx standing unscathed as it were, but ultimately the argument being much sharper than it had been, the punchline being that this had in fact been among the best of his essays, with the real measure of its strength being the amount of time he had been offered, not the amount of per se feedback. Tutorials, almost to a one, are unmarked, there thus being no need for a ‘rubric.’

( I was a course tutor for a first-year course at McGill last term. In addition to an hour each week of interactive discussion of the lecture material with two separate groups of 20, I had a weekly office hour where any of those students could drop by. I think, in the end, about 5 of them came to do anything other than pick up an assignment. I didn’t, generally, mark the essays, or the midterms, or the exams of my own students, and even where I did, robust commentary on their work wasn’t part of the job description. I certainly wasn’t required to attend lectures. )

My point isn’t that Oxford gets it right. What exactly is on offer in such an education is a topic for a different post. Here is a third thing to put the juxtaposition in the relevant context: university lectures for many universities are now provided free online. Berkeley, for example, provides not only audio, but full video for about three dozen of its undergraduate courses per term. And of course, one can these days get a whole university degree online, though some might question whether such an experience is truly a ‘university education’ at all.

It would be unfair to entice the reader down such an unsatisfying trail without providing a preliminary hint of where thinking about these developments might lead. So for those who have been waiting, here’s the riddle. Why do we still have universities? It’s not that there aren’t socially useful functions universities might serve. Yet the reasons universities should in fact serve those functions, contra other possible arrangements, are nebulous at best. When I was in Ottawa a couple of weeks ago, and had a chance to meet with Paul Davidson, head of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, I asked him the question. It will have to suffice to say of his answer that it included neither almost-sheepish grins nor apologetically-raised eyebrows. I for one am on the side of the universities – the question is, are the universities themselves?

2 comments to Universities (I)

  • Everett Wilson

    And yet… I wonder if the University (with a capital U) sometimes places itself at a strategic disadvantage sometimes when it self-describes its Dasein (its ‘there-being’) as mainly, on the one hand, an “educational institution” of some kind that provides the public with an essential service — e.g. the training of the citizenry (and its own replacement teaching staff!) — and, on the other hand, a “research institution” of some kind that provides the public also with an essential service: e.g. a supply of socially useful information & knowledge. I see problems with using the terms “education” and “research” to describe the main purpose(s) of the University, not because these categories are inaccurate descriptors of what it does most of the time, but because such language is hardly unique to the University. So, when one measures the University against the expectations contained within the typical categories of “research” and “education,” it’s often relatively easy to find evidence that these two activities are flourishing quite well outside the walls of the traditional Academy–whether it flourishes in the form of mail-order degree programs or in the accomplishments of private R&D firms. Indeed, there are (very) good reasons for us to question not only the motives of these “providers” (as perhaps anathema to education and research), but also the quality of what they are providing. Unfortunately, with so much evidence of “education” and “research” taking place productively (we assume) everywhere outside the Academy, it’s also fairly easy for the naysayers to build arguments that the traditional University no longer “measures up,” is outdated, and therefore needs to “get with the program.” In short, it’s unfortunately easy to make the argument that the University no longer enjoys a monopoly over these two activities; and so, it’s fairly easy for the powers right now to shrug, and say, “why place the University on a special pedestal?”
    So, I wonder if part of the crisis facing the university has something to do instead with an underlying identity crisis–or, perhaps more precisely, an ontological crisis. The answers that many ‘academics’ give to the question, ‘What is a university?,’ are often as elusive and vapid as the responses that even our brightest students give sometimes when asked, ‘What are you doing here?” The University doesn’t know what it ‘is’ anymore, and its diverse membership hasn’t thought long and hard about the Academy’s essential Dasein for awhile — and in such a way that would permit its self-assertion against all of the problems you’ve identified. All of this talk about the centrality of “education” and “research” perhaps only encourages more blind faith on the part of those invested in the University, because these terms provide everything that one needs in everyday discourse to assure almost everyone that, indeed, “Don’t fret. We know what we are supposed to be doing; and, if we’re not there yet, we’re working on it. Every day, we’re getting better and better at teaching and doing research.”

  • Kevin Russell

    There is much to discuss in this subject, as your penned thoughts prove, and as Mr. Wilson’s comments compound on, in its complexity and depth. I cannot however think about this subject without referring to my experience with computers in general, and with ‘design’ and ‘word processing’ software in particular.

    As the computer age dawned and new powers were handed to companies, organizations and schools, it became apparent quickly that people had started using the new abilities to sidestep writers, layout artists, designers and professionals of every description.

    Articles, departmental publications and the like, began to “benefit” from this new-found freedom with the most atrocious and hideous parodies of “layout” and design. “Ads” were brought to agencies, already “laid out” by some young relative of the president, with demands for discounts on art and design billing, as they had paid their nephew once and further payments to others were now unnecessary.

    The connection between the, lessened, but still continuing side-stepping of actual professionals, because of the new powers computing has brought us, is that we have new powers yes, but they don’t replace the already “standing on the shoulders of giants” powers of a University, yes to the power of us all, but to professionals in particular. Universities aren’t replaced by our new greater communication, research and access powers – they are enhanced.

    The “other” tasks of the university, philosophically batted aside here, quite well I might add, of being the “gate-keeper” to access to high, or at least better, paying jobs is sadly similarly assisted by these new powers, and “online universities” are only the most legal, almost acceptable, form of the certificate forging that is so widespread already.

    Certificate forging, which is so very similar to degree granting, is only one of the many natural outcomes of a world wide University system succumbing to commodification, like all systems succumb. Like American healthcare becomes insurance sales and treatment denials, like university health research becomes proprietary pills that cost $20,000.00 a year, like interpersonal relations and the need for intimate human contact become ‘celebrity’ and prostitution.

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