“I can still hear you saying you would never break the chain.”

27 06 2012

I’m sure you’re wondering what it’s like teaching in Korea. It’s great! Thanks for asking.

I’ve structured my first Western Civilization course ever entirely around Milestone Documents. I have a big list of documents over on their course page and we go through each document in class in order. I say a few words at the beginning. I help them with the really tough English words. Then we talk about each document.

Everyone seems to like it because most Korean professors, they tell me, talk at their students rather than with them. Come to think of it, most American professors tend to do the same thing. Here’s a special post at Mother Jones from a professor who knows Kevin Drum:

Ivy League students sometimes complain that most of the discussion-leading and careful paper-grading — they call it “real teaching” and they’re right to do so — is done by grad student teaching assistants, since seminars with professors are scarce. But at the University of California these days — and I’m told it’s been like this at Michigan for decades — graduate and undergraduate funding cuts mean that most upper-level courses have no discussion sections and no teaching assistants. In other words, the real teaching doesn’t take place at all. Papers, if they’re assigned at all — and increasingly they’re not — are graded by “readers” paid so poorly that they can only spend a few minutes on each paper, are not available for writing assistance, and can’t even be required, given their meager pay for long hours, to attend the lectures in the classes they’re grading for. There’s no way readers can grade papers carefully in such circumstances: they put check marks in the margin when something of substance is mentioned, and pass pretty much everyone through. As for professor-led seminars, never that plentiful, they’ve all but vanished: they simply cost too much.

This is not a good thing for anyone involved. When one of my Korean students asked me whether most American professors teach the same way I do, I said I doubt it. However, I also said I couldn’t imagine teaching any other way.

I don’t want to stand in front of 400 people who have to listen to me talk. Likewise I don’t want to be a mere tender of machines. A discussion or even a lecture during which a discussion might still break out guarantees that nothing about my job will ever be boring or routine except paperwork and meetings.

Mark Bauerlein argues that adjuncts put up with poor pay and all the other crap that goes with their status at the bottom of the academic hierarchy because they expect to move up the ladder someday. I don’t presume to be an expert on the adjunct mindset, but I’d guess most people in that position do it more out of love than any dream of future improvement in status.* Real teaching at any level really is interesting and rewarding (at least in the emotional sense). All of us accept varying degrees of crap thrown our direction because we like what we do and want to make a difference in people’s lives. Real teaching creates bonds that can last a lifetime (whether we recognize it or not).

Well, I’ve got news for everybody. Our glorious online future is going to break the chain between us and our students that makes modern academic life bearable for all of us.

So what are we going to do about that?

* Of course, the fact that you love what you do is no excuse for your employer to exploit you, but that’s a subject for a different post.




3 responses

28 06 2012
Britney Titus

Do you think the students play a bigger role in this? Most students think online classes are cake courses. However, I notice that the students who become aware of the true lack of education they are getting from these courses no longer like online classes when it’s all said and done. They even vouch (like myself) to never take another one as long as they live. What I’m asking is, if the students truly become aware of the flaws and resist taking the courses, would it make a difference?

To me, it’s like your “favorite” place: If no one shopped at Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart would cease to exist. Because everyone shops at Wal-Mart, it becomes bigger and bigger and is even able to exploit its employees.

28 06 2012
Jonathan Rees


While students make the system possible, I don’t blame them for accepting what’s available. It’s the people who see that the emperor has no clothes and declare that he looks stylish that deserve the lion’s share of our scorn.

6 07 2012
Here fishy, fishy, fishy. « More or Less Bunk

[…] I had teaching assistants to guide me through what my professors laid out for me. As I mentioned before, teaching assistants are disappearing because of – you guessed it – budgetary concerns. These […]

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