“Ethel…I think we’re fighting a losing game.”

12 04 2012

In 1910, the famously liberal Boston Lawyer (and future Supreme Court justice) Louis Brandeis lobbied before the Interstate Commerce Commission against a railroad rate hike under a surprising rationale. Brandeis had just discovered Frederick Taylor’s system of scientific management. He was convinced that if American railroads instituted Taylor’s system, they could save a million dollars a day. That would be enough to keep rates low, profits up and railroad workers well-paid.

Like so many well-meaning liberals of that (or any other) age, Brandeis hadn’t thought this idea all the way through to the end. Most companies who instituted the Taylor system in the subsequent decade kept the profits generated by more efficient production entirely to themselves. Worse yet, once they discovered upon instituting Taylor’s piece rate reforms that their workers could work harder, they lowered wages too. This forced workers to to work harder still in order to keep their total paychecks at about the same level. While highly influential, especially in Japan, Taylor’s system proved so unpopular with workers that it created more industrial relations problems than it ever solved.

I thought of Brandeis when I read this piece about automated grading by John A. Casey, Jr.:

Mark Shermis, Dean of the College of Education at the University of Akron, is supervising a contest created by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation that would award $100,000 to the programmer who creates an effective automated grading software.

Shermis argues that if teachers weren’t swamped by so many student papers in need of grading, they would assign more writing and student’s would greatly improve their written communication skills. He sees this new technology as an aide to the overworked writing teacher rather than a potential replacement.

Once you demonstrate that you can handle 50 essays per week with this new automated tool, they’re not going let you start assigning two essays per week. They’re going to double the size of the class to 100. Why? Because they can, that’s why.

Since I’ve got other things to do myself before the end of the afternoon, I think I’ll just quote myself from the last time I brought up automated grading software:

You don’t do this sort of thing because it offers a better critique of written work than a living, breathing person does. You do it because it’s cheaper. Much cheaper. More importantly, the labor cost savings can go to football, climbing walls in the gym or just higher administrative salaries. And Pearson doesn’t make out too badly either.

The goal of automation is not to provide a better education. It’s to save taxpayers and students money.

And if you somehow think that this isn’t headed for higher ed soon, you’re fooling yourself. The Obama Administration’s higher education policy (or as I like to call it when discussing all education matters, Bush III) is to make college as cheap as possible so that more people can attend, regardless of whether there are any jobs waiting for them once they graduate. They’ll never differentiate between an essay graded by a computer program and one graded by a human being in terms of quality because they only care about potential cost savings. Even if this grade-o-matic allows professors to assign more writing, doing so will be impossible in the new age of permanent austerity because that would slow down production.

More importantly, administrators and politicians of all stripes would be delighted to throw any number of professors under the bus if that’s what it takes to keep college costs down. Even adjuncts are more expensive than machines. Who cares if the faculty that remain have to stuff a few chocolates under their hats along the way as long as the production line keeps going?


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