“Will you still need me, will you still feed me…?”

26 02 2012

As a matter of fact, I do take requests. This one‘s for you, Phil:

The Hewlett Foundation is sponsoring a competition: the goal is for somebody on the Kaggle platform to get as close as possible to predicting the already marked grade of 23,000 high school student essays.

Perhaps this should worry me, but taken by itself it doesn’t because this will never work. Grading essays, as anyone who’s ever done it knows, is highly subjective (but by no means arbitrary) work. Give a lot of “A”s in a row, and you’ll be harder on the next batch. Give a lot of “F”s and you’ll look for “A”s. My friend Brett used to say that he knew it was time to stop grading for a while when he started growling at the papers. While some people might call this a bad thing, I’d call it “dealing with human beings.” Strangely enough, most people write for human beings in the real world rather than for algorithms.

I find this much more common story of teaching on autopilot a lot more scary:

I was assigned a textbook course in American history. Composition was not a prerequisite, and the course was steered by two multiple-choice exams provided by the textbook’s publisher. Area Tech had adopted state-approved standards for the subject, and these were guaranteed to be met by the text, which was written by a well-affiliated professor, published by a major New York house, and retailed to my students at 60 federally subsidized dollars each. It contained some decent maps, but it was scattered, bland, and thoroughly tiresome. It was designed so that any literate adult could be slotted in to teach it. By our second class of going over its chapters, the students, a healthy mix of ages, races, and cultural backgrounds, enjoyed it no more than I did.

Plug any literate adult into the role of designated grader and professors with my qualifications become completely unnecessary. How can this situation ever exist (the naive might ask themselves)? Because the powers that be no longer care what the quality of higher education is like for most people anymore. That, of course, is the scariest story of all.

Think I’m exaggerating? You may have seen this one yesterday. Here’s Rick Santorum, on college and college professors:

“There are good, decent men and women who work hard every day and put their skills to the test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor… That’s why he wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image,” Santorum said. “I want to create jobs so people can remake their children into their image, not his.”

An algorithm would be Rick Santorum’s dream college professor, at least at non-Christian schools. No taxpayer dollars for high-priced, elitist labor. No brainwashing. In fact, no thinking whatsoever. No wonder Rick Santorum loves those for-profit colleges.

Where does that leave all of us liberal college professors? Foraging for food when we’re 64. You think the job market is bad now? Wait until we’re all replaced by an adjunct or a machine. I don’t know about you, but I have to scrimp and save as it is already.

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