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Passage from India
April 7, 2010 7:24 PM   Subscribe

Lori Whisenant, who teaches business law and ethics at the University of Houston, has outsourced the grading of students' papers to a private company, Virtual-TA, who sends them to be marked in Bangalore, India.
posted by Rumple (66 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
Because, you know, being an overworked, underpaid graduate student is really wonderful, and we need to protect it!
posted by delmoi at 7:26 PM on April 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Oh yes, this is clearly a job that people with a marginal command of the English language will be able to handle.
posted by Mitrovarr at 7:34 PM on April 7, 2010 [3 favorites]


Because, you know, being an overworked, underpaid graduate student is really wonderful, and we need to protect it!

Having the opportunity to be a graduate student in a university isn't available to everyone, ya'know. Now go play with your iPad and like it!
posted by YoBananaBoy at 7:35 PM on April 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


Oh yes, this is clearly a job that people with a marginal command of the English language will be able to handle.

Given that English is the second official language in India (after Hindi), this is an ignorant statement. A journal I recently published a paper in has it's editors in India - my proofs and corrections went through India as the final step before publishing.
posted by Jimbob at 7:42 PM on April 7, 2010 [27 favorites]


Awesome, it's not like grad student funding is in any way tied to being a TA or anything. Business and ethics my ass.
posted by oinopaponton at 7:45 PM on April 7, 2010 [4 favorites]


Also, why not just use mechanical Turk? You could even have multiple rounds and checkers to make sure that grading was done properly. Have a certain % get rechecked based on how new and accurate the grader was.

Oh yes, this is clearly a job that people with a marginal command of the English language will be able to handle.

Right, because people in India don't speak english!

Oh wait.
posted by delmoi at 7:46 PM on April 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yeah, that's why I need editors. And the guys in India did it just fine.
posted by Jimbob at 7:49 PM on April 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Isn't Law one of those few fields that are extremely local? I somehow doubt they have Texas business law specialists in there willing to lend that expertise for less than a TA's pay.
posted by qvantamon at 7:52 PM on April 7, 2010


Now I just need to outsource lunchroom duty and I'll be set! Oh wait, the airfare from India is really expensive......
posted by aetg at 7:56 PM on April 7, 2010


Jimbob: Given that English is the second official language in India (after Hindi), this is an ignorant statement. A journal I recently published a paper in has it's editors in India - my proofs and corrections went through India as the final step before publishing.

I suspect the journal chose those editors because they were good, not because they were cheap. I've never had to deal with anything that was outsourced to India to save money that didn't involve a huge unpleasant language barrier. Plus, I don't know what kind of journal you were dealing with, but English papers aren't scientific literature - I would argue that to a non-native speaker they're actually much harder to read, because you may be called upon to understand slang, colloquial expressions, nonstandard word usage, and other cultural phenomena. Scientific literature uses a lot of jargon that is the same in all languages and is written in a very formal style, so I believe it is actually much easier to someone intimately familiar with the material but not with the language.

Or, the shorter version: If you had called tech support in the last ten years, you would know what I mean.
posted by Mitrovarr at 7:57 PM on April 7, 2010 [20 favorites]


Maybe the students will get smart and outsource too. I bet the $30k + a year they pay for tuition at UH would set them up pretty good at an Indian school.
posted by Zalzidrax at 7:59 PM on April 7, 2010 [13 favorites]


You have some fair points, Mitrovarr. But for me, the offensive part of this story is the outsourcing part, not the India part.
posted by Jimbob at 8:02 PM on April 7, 2010


I think Indian accents are way easier to understand than southern on the tech support line, but the issue with tech support isn't location, it's training and cost. If you don't want to pay for the expertise, you are going to have lousy tech support wherever your call center is located.
posted by BrotherCaine at 8:02 PM on April 7, 2010 [4 favorites]


Isn't Law one of those few fields that are extremely local?

That may be changing. Apart perhaps from in-court appearances (and even then who knows what telepresence technology may bring), a lot of what a lawyer does could theoretically be outsourced. Legal research, client counseling, document drafting, etc do not require in-person client communication and are often done without it. For example, a company I work for in St. Louis has its IP work done by a firm in California. We see an attorney in person about 3 or 4 times a year; everything else is done by phone and email.

In fact, there was at least one company that tried outsourcing patent drafting. The idea was that the grunt work would be done by non-US-attorneys and then it would be looked over by a person registered to practice before the PTO before being submitted. All of the people involved were located in India. I think the particular scheme ran afoul of the rules, however, because the bulk of the work was being done by people who weren't registered to practice before the PTO and their work was only being rubber stamped.

Legal work is actually a good candidate for outsourcing to India in particular because the Indian legal system conducts its business in English. Personally I feel that as long as there are adequate safeguards for client confidentiality and that all of the people involved are admitted to practice in the relevant US jurisdictions that there's no reason not to allow legal work to be outsourced.
posted by jedicus at 8:05 PM on April 7, 2010


What marvelous news. The critical thinking about the students' papers has been sold to the lowest bidder. Only the lectures are left; and if they're anything like undergrad lectures I recall you could outsource -that- too, or simply record them. Leaving the question why this person is retained to do anything at all.
posted by jet_silver at 8:06 PM on April 7, 2010 [7 favorites]


I am sure that I speak for every professor here at Metafilter when I day:

How can I do this?
posted by LarryC at 8:06 PM on April 7, 2010 [14 favorites]


Admittedly there are 5,000,000 words being produced per year and 7 teaching assistants. Though she mentions 'graders' so they are probably additional staff.

In my US college, for homework-heavy classes, TA's don't mark some of the homeworks, but it is farmed out (outsourced) to undergrads. It might be similar here, that some of the more mundane stuff is being outsourced.
posted by a womble is an active kind of sloth at 8:10 PM on April 7, 2010


The visitor comments over at Ace of Spades are instructive.

This is a remarkably polarized country...
posted by darth_tedious at 8:16 PM on April 7, 2010


Zalzidrax: Maybe the students will get smart and outsource too. I bet the $30k + a year they pay for tuition at UH would set them up pretty good at an Indian school.

Hah, why travel? I went to a community college where the tuition was like 1/8th of that. You know who graded my papers there? Generally speaking, the professor.

It doesn't even matter up the road. Everyone will consider you to have graduated from the four-year institution you attend after it.
posted by Mitrovarr at 8:17 PM on April 7, 2010 [3 favorites]


jedicus, I'm not talking about the practice of law, but the subject itself. IP laws are (I think) mostly federal, and mostly based on international law.

Now (I think, I'm not a lawyer) business law is mostly state-based, and the American law system in general is based on vague wording, the bulk of the practical law being based on jurisprudence - As in "Paragraph xyz of the Texas State Code allows food to be sold across the street on a Saturday, but Joe vs. Bob 1986 determines that this right doesn't apply to the selling of live chicken". And then it goes down even further when you get to stuff like "local standards of decency".
posted by qvantamon at 8:21 PM on April 7, 2010


So do you get the same "virtual" graders at an Ivy League school as you do at a large public university?
posted by Songdog at 8:31 PM on April 7, 2010


>> The visitor comments over at Ace of Spades are instructive.

This is a remarkably polarized country...


Obviously, that comment was meant for the "smoking/bombing on board a plane" thread.

As far as the outsourcing of TA work goes, well, I don't think we've really grappled yet with just how much professional work can and will-- barring regulation or taxation-- be outsourced to poorer countries in the coming years.

This is just the beginning; it's going to have a major impact on employment patterns in the U.S.
posted by darth_tedious at 8:35 PM on April 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


I think the University should explore the possibility of outsourcing Lori Whisenant's lecture duties to some less expensive part of the world which could do it by videoconference. Sauce for the goose, after all.
posted by tyllwin at 8:38 PM on April 7, 2010 [6 favorites]


america - love it or outsource it
posted by pyramid termite at 8:48 PM on April 7, 2010 [4 favorites]


Aren't we embarrassed enough with all the grade inflation in this country? India will scoff at what passes for a B-paper. Let's keep this job here, if only to save face.
posted by Lukenlogs at 8:56 PM on April 7, 2010 [12 favorites]


I am sure that I speak for every professor here at Metafilter when I day:

How can I do this?


Not exactly. However, I would love to see the service offered to students (not professors). So basically, I have a paper worth 40% of my students' final grades. They hand in topics and outlines and such ahead of time, but I can't read drafts because I just don't have the time. It would be great if I we could say to students "As part of this course, you may use the services of virtual TAs twice over the course of the semester." or "Each student may use the services of virtual TAs three times. This service is included with the course."

The first option would probably be better because what I'm thinking is that it would be great if I could as the professor do some talking with the virtual TA company about what I"m looking for in the papers etc. and provide the actual assignment so they could provide appropriate feedback. This wouldn't go into their grade, it would just be for their own benefit so they could revise their papers and get better grades when *I* grade their final papers at the end of the term.

I don't think the virtual TAs could deal well with knowing the extent to which the subject matter is handled well, but it would be great for students to have feedback on the writing itself.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 9:14 PM on April 7, 2010 [4 favorites]


Mitrovarr: "Oh yes, this is clearly a job that people with a marginal command of the English language will be able to handle."

I outsource all my Metafilter needs to America. Sometimes I'm disappointed with the quality of the comments, but then I remember that I paid just $5 and I adjust my expectations.
posted by vanar sena at 9:16 PM on April 7, 2010 [26 favorites]


Awesome, if my new university does this it should give me more time to collaborate with researchers from other countries with more money for science.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:17 PM on April 7, 2010 [3 favorites]


This is absolutely disgusting and unethical. That said, it's a symptom of how broken much of higher-ed is.
posted by Saxon Kane at 10:15 PM on April 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


In a previous job I worked with Indian outsourced employees (working for Wipro, both onshore and in India). The only problem I ever had was that they spoke too softly for me to understand some of the time. Their English language skills were excellent.
posted by lhauser at 10:19 PM on April 7, 2010


Saxon Kane: "This is absolutely disgusting and unethical. That said, it's a symptom of how broken much of higher-ed is."

I understand this attitude well, but I often wonder where the ethical line is drawn. If this lecturer could purchase a hypothetical machine that would make this job so easy to do that they could lay off half the markers, would that be unethical? What if the machine was made in, say, Germany?
posted by vanar sena at 10:32 PM on April 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


Wait, wait, wait. Let me get this straight.

... each student ... crank(s) out ... nearly 5,000 words a semester ... Her seven teaching assistants ... couldn't deliver. About 1,000 juniors and seniors enroll in the course each year.

1,000 students * 5,000 words * two semesters per year = 10 million words / eight readers (7 assistants + one professor) = 1.25 million words per person per year.

Average length of a hardback novel = ~100,000 words.

In other words, about a novel a month.

Forget the outsourcing.

The problem is the professor.

First, is she incapable of teaching students to corral their thoughts more concisely? Or is she teaching people to bury each other under avalanches of words? Does it really need to be 5,000 words? How about 2,000? Does your argument get better or worse with length? Is that what business law and ethics is really about -- a race to see who can wear out a keyboard first?

Second, a novel a month doesn't sound terrible. She has seven TAs that can't handle this workload? Either she's bad at picking TAs, incapable of managing them, or (see point A, above) she gleefully buries them in aimless work.

If I had a professor come to me and ask to use Virtual-TA, my first question would be, "What the fuck is going on in that classroom?"
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:46 PM on April 7, 2010 [16 favorites]


Cool Papa Bell you seem to be confusing grading with reading. A novel a month wouldn't be much to read, but it can still be a lot to grade.

First of all, if her students are producing 5000 words per semester that's already not much, especially if this is across multiple assignments. Students in most courses I'm familiar with are generally required to write at least one paper in the format of the discipline -- in other words, their papers look like (not so great, usually) journal articles in the field. My students' papers are all more than 5000 words each because that's how much space it takes to write a paper (abstract, lit review, methods, discussions, references, appendices, etc. etc.) even if you're being concise. Some fields have shorter papers, I know, but mine isn't one of them.

Now to grade a paper you need to not just read it, but comment on it, which includes marginal comments and more thorough comments at the end (I include a page of typed comments). Since every paper is on a different topic and not every topic is exactly in my area of expertise, sometimes I look things up as I read. When I'm done reading I need to figure out where this student is writing-wise and figure out what the next steps need to be for them so I can give them one or two pieces of advice rather than a laundry list of everything they could improve. In addition, sometimes the comments involve teaching material (i.e. if they fundamentally misunderstand some methodological point, I write out an explanation). Sometimes I look things up while writing the comments too, since 'You should read that paper by that guy..." isn't a useful comment and I need the proper citation.

I also need to check a bunch of things -- are there any penalties applied to the grade (lateness, not submitting previous steps, etc.). Have they uploaded the paper for plagiarism checking? Does the plagiarism detection software show anything suspicious? If it doesn't and I"m suspicious anyway, I might do a little searching myself. Is the bibliography formatted consistently and are the sources appropriate?

Of course every issue doesn't come up with every paper, but on average I probably spend 30-45 minutes grading each paper. And of course it's not all spread out evenly (a novel a month style), it all shows up at once and the students want it back in a couple of weeks tops.

And one last thing: This mostly isn't my job. Teaching is 20-40% of my job and grading is only one part of teaching.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 11:11 PM on April 7, 2010 [9 favorites]


When I TAed intro physics for engineers, we used an automated grading system for problem sets.

Students had 10 problems from the textbook set each week. The online grading system would change the numbers in the problem set (so each student had to solve a problem where a ball had to roll x meters, but x was different for everyone), so that students couldn't just copy.
Students then had to enter just numerical answers for each problem (they got three tries, the hope being they would correct stupid errors in that amount of time).

We still graded exams by hand.

This was great for the department's budget because human graders are expensive; before they switched to the online autograder, evidently the workload vs. cost was such that less than 2 minutes of grader time was available for each student's problem set. So really it wasn't much of a change for the students, either; it's not like someone can provide real feedback in 2 minutes on a 10-problem set.

Of course, it shifted the burden to the TAs and the students-- we had to make sure the students got feedback, and the students had to come ask us if they got an answer wrong (they couldn't just read what the grader wrote).

So yeah, I bet if someone could write an autograder for humanities, they'd do it. Departments are desperately strapped for funding (especially where I was a TA.. in the University of California system). It's not an issue of morality, it's just an issue of money.

However, I do think the native subjectivity present in grading an essay means that someone on-site does a better job (because they can get clear instruction on what the rubric is, attend the course themselves, etc).
posted by nat at 11:16 PM on April 7, 2010


Cool Papa Bell you seem to be confusing grading with reading ... Now to grade a paper you need to not just read it, but comment on it

Wow, you must think I'm really, really stupid.

Go back and, ahem, grade my comment. You'll notice I said that either the workload was too big, or the workload was being mismanaged. Probably both. And the rise of services like Virtual-TA likely has more to do with bad, disconnected professorship than anything else.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:19 PM on April 7, 2010


Cool Papa, I'm completely missing your saying the the workload might be too big even on re-reading. Perhaps this is why I take so long to grade! I do not thing your stupid, and I apologize for misunderstanding your comment and for what must consequently seem like a condescending tone.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 11:32 PM on April 7, 2010


Business law and ethics, huh?

The savvy students will know that all they need to do is write papers about how you can get around silly obstacles like those - with the right amount of baksheesh to the right people: politicians, civil servants, police & goondas.

Dekho - full marks, 100% top paper!
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:39 PM on April 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Wow, you must think I'm really, really stupid.

Personally, I think you're making really, really unrealistic assumptions in your comment. I would address them but If only I had a penguin already did a thorough job.

And it's unfair to lay this on the feet of the professor. It's unlikely that she's the one that decided that her two classes should each have 500 students in them.
posted by grouse at 11:40 PM on April 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


Isn't feedback on your work part of the reason to select a good professor? If all of the comments on your papers are coming from TAs then I would think a student would be better off at a smaller college. If all of the feedback is coming from people in another country who they will never meet then I think the students are getting screwed. Why not just watch the video of a lecture on open courseware, or The Teaching Company or Modern Scholar courses? Then with the money you saved go to a smaller school where you can actually interact with your profs.
posted by Tashtego at 11:43 PM on April 7, 2010 [3 favorites]


The fuck? Yet another reason I'm glad I went into the liberal arts rather than business or law. Seriously? Glad my dept doesn't have the money to hire outsourced folks to grade papers. TA's are much cheaper. Thanks low state college tuition waiver and tiny barely not even cost of living stipend!
posted by strixus at 11:58 PM on April 7, 2010


heh @ mitrovarr. What do they say about making assumptions again? Making an ass out of u and me... Chalta hai yaar :-)
posted by infini at 12:14 AM on April 8, 2010


If this lecturer could purchase a hypothetical machine that would make this job so easy to do that they could lay off half the markers, would that be unethical? What if the machine was made in, say, Germany?

vanar sena: I'm not exactly sure that I understand your comment. Education should never, ever be about efficiency. It is not a commodity, it cannot be manufactured, it should not be outsourced. So a machine (or a mechanized process involving humans assembly-line grading papers) is absolutely anathema to the whole process.

There are a number of problems with this scheme, which are symptomatic of the problems with higher education in general:
1) Professor's disconnect from the process of education. It seems like all this professor does is lecture, collect papers, send them out, and record the grades that come back. Education is not content delivery; it is not about just lecturing. If she is not interacting with her students even on the bare level of reading their work, then she is not really present. It's disrespectful to her students.

2) Professor's disconnect from her TAs. Yes, the graduate education system is dysfunctional, and grad students get abused a LOT. But, graduate students need a period of apprenticeship, and while the nature of that apprenticeship is in dire need of reform, her TAs don't seem to be getting any at all. If they are not capable of grading the students' work? TEACH THEM HOW TO DO IT. Fucking work with them; you are their mentor, that is your job. It also robs the undergrads the opportunity to interact with young scholars; yes, there is far too much distance b/w faculty and undergrads, and grad students cannot be expected to fill that space entirely, but the triangular relationship between a seasoned mentor, a developing scholar, and a fresh mind can be very rewarding to all involved. If these TAs aren't getting the mentoring they need and aren't able to then pass that on to the undergrads, then everybody is losing.

3) Further commodifies the classroom. There's the obvious issue of the 500 person classroom, which is just stupid. But, it is an unfortunate reality of the state of higher ed with increasing enrollments, decreasing faculty, and virtually non-existent public support for higher ed. It's already a mass market with the students not given the kind of attention they need. But this move tells them, "Your work is just a product to me, something to get through ASAP with as little pain for me as possible. I will do it as quickly and cheaply as I can." This isn't about the quality of the graders, who I'm sure are competent, but about their distance from the classroom and their investment in grading. Turning grading into an assembly line invites all the worst abuses of capitalism; it's about through-put, not about quality. The company will be most interested in getting and grading as many papers as possible as quickly as possible; the graders will be interested in the same goal. If no one else cares about their work, why should the students? Plus, with the papers being turned into just so much product to go through the factory, what's to prevent plagiarism from getting even more out of hand?

4) The dangerous precedent and the slippery slope. I think the for-profit higher ed industry may not be all bad, but it scares me. Here's my worst-case fear: This is public education becoming a subsidy for private education, and slashing its own wrists in the process. Overworked faculty turn to private industry to help them grade papers. Faculty become more disconnected, graduate students don't get the training they need. Money starts getting shunted away from graduate education to pay for these services. Faculty lines shrink because fewer faculty can "teach" and the money saved can pay for dozens of online graders. The pool of new faculty shrinks even further, feeding into the cycle. And if the grading can be done at a distance, why not all the teaching as well? If the grading is standardized, why not the material being taught? Soon it's just a pre-packaged product being sold to a student-consumer (consumdent? studumer?), who then repeats the information back into a machine and gets a little reward in the form of a diploma. Education as Pavlovian conditioning.

There's probably a lot more to be said, and perhaps my worries are excessive, but this whole scene just makes my soul shudder in fear and disgust.
posted by Saxon Kane at 12:40 AM on April 8, 2010 [20 favorites]


Oh yes, this is clearly a job that people with a marginal command of the English language will be able to handle.

I thought English was an official language of India. Anyway, when they phone me up at dinnertime to sell me insurance I have no problem understanding their English.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:41 AM on April 8, 2010


Cool Papa Bell, your math is wrong.

Your formula was "1000 students * 5,000 words * two semesters per year = 10 million"

But we were told that 1,000 juniors and seniors enroll in the course each year. So you should not multiply 1,000 by two semesters.
posted by parrot_person at 12:41 AM on April 8, 2010


A lot of what a lawyer does could theoretically be outsourced. Legal research, client counseling, document drafting, etc do not require in-person client communication and are often done without it.

I work for a large multinational law firm in the UK: legal research and drafting are both (partially) outsourced to India. (I'm not giving away any secrets, it's well known that my firm does this). Clients are pressing firms to cut costs, outsourcing some of the more mechanical work to lower-cost areas is one way of doing that.
posted by Infinite Jest at 1:58 AM on April 8, 2010


Thanks Saxon Kane, I was surprised and pleased to receive such a considered reply. I largely agree with your point that loss of transfer of experience and knowledge is a real concern with outsourcing in general and in higher ed specifically.

I don't buy the generalization of automation being an anathema, however. As an undergrad code-monkey I spent a summer writing some software that put a labful of grad students out of a menial seasonal job (custom timetables for science students), and I felt bad about it until I realized that the department used the money they saved to upgrade the computers in that same lab, and the increased scope of my slave-wage summer project allowed the dept. to offer the service to the entire university.

I hesitate to equate grading with this kind of work, but surely there is no university that won't benefit from automation or reduction of cost. Most arguments against it remind me of the broken window fallacy. It may be too much to ask each professor or lecturer to fight reduced budgets and staffing at the cost of their own research and peace of mind. From the article it appears that the Indian TAs are doing a satisfactory job at a reduced cost.

I've never been a marker so I don't know how much of it is busy-work vs engaging, edifying effort. It could well be that this frees the local TAs up for more useful work or more face time with the students? I would love to hear from some of the TAs who no longer have to grade those assignments.

Outsourcing in the large is something about which I feel under-informed. It's a truism now that we're all dealing with the symptoms of capital having more mobility than labour. Yes I've benefited from it personally, but heaven knows that the US balance of trade could use some help.
posted by vanar sena at 3:37 AM on April 8, 2010


From the linked article: He says his job is to see that the graders, many of them women with children who are eager to do part-time work, provide results that meet each client's standards and help students improve.

I hope this doesn't mean the children are doing the work!
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 3:56 AM on April 8, 2010


Not right now - they're too busy building the venues for the upcoming Commonwealth Games in Delhi.
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:03 AM on April 8, 2010


UbuRoivas: "Not right now - they're too busy building the venues for the upcoming Commonwealth Games in Delhi."

Actually, we're outsourcing some of that to China and SE Asia. Turns out you can't turn destitute farmers into skilled construction workers overnight.

Man, the whole thing is such a grotesque wank. The people of Vancouver thought they had concerns about their games, but they've got nothing on us Delhiites and our post-colonial celebration. The money's all been spent now, so I don't feel guilty hoping that the whole thing fails horribly. Maybe somebody somewhere will learn the right lesson.
posted by vanar sena at 5:29 AM on April 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


Talking about ethics while disregarding them in working practice is both the reason business studies need ethics courses and the reason these courses turn out not to be effective.
posted by ersatz at 5:44 AM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


I suppose it comes down to whether the influx of competitors & spectators can spend enough to offset the costs.

But if anybody is learning the right lesson, it will be unscrupulous vendors selling samosas to the gullible at $2 apiece. Only four of those sales, and the samosawallah will be ahead of the official rural poverty line for the entire month.
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:51 AM on April 8, 2010


wrong. its now officially $1.25 a day, so he's only covered for the week
posted by infini at 6:12 AM on April 8, 2010


"People need to get past thinking that grading must be done by the people who are teaching."

This is the sentence in the article that really made me think. On the one hand, if you're teaching to a defined set of curricular expectations, than it shouldn't matter who grades student work as this work is being assessed based on how closely it approaches a given (and universal) standard. As long as whoever is doing the marking is familiar with the standard, the feedback to students should be consistent and helpful.

On the other hand, how can you teach if you don't assess? Marking provides immediate and detailed knowledge of how well your students are grasping the material. It tells you where you should go with a concept, and how you should present it to enhance understanding. Even if you are supervising TAs, at least you're still connected with the assessment process and have some notion of how students are experiencing your class.

Maybe I'm too idealistic, but I don't think I can "get past" thinking that grading and teaching can't be disconnected from each other.
posted by Go Banana at 6:20 AM on April 8, 2010 [4 favorites]


but I don't think I can "get past" thinking that grading and teaching can't be disconnected from each other.

agree, that's a virtuous feedback loop where the actual learning/teaching takes place imho
posted by infini at 6:39 AM on April 8, 2010


"Oh yes, this is clearly a job that people with a marginal command of the English language will be able to handle"
"If you had called tech support in the last ten years, you would know what I mean."

Lots of people from Indian around here not so much from Alabama. I much rather get an Indian accent than an Alabama accent when I phone tech support because I've got practice parsing it.
posted by Mitheral at 6:44 AM on April 8, 2010


When I assign papers in my junior/senior level university courses, about 85% are initially unreadable: that is, the grammar and syntax are so error-ridden and the structure so poor that I literally cannot tell what the students are trying to say. I would LOVE to send papers through an outside service for initial grading -- that is, someone who would tell the students where their English usage mistakes are, so that they can fix them and send me a paper I can grade on content. I don't feel like this would be a dereliction of duty on my part: students should have mastered English grammar back in fourth grade or so, and I don't believe it's part of my job to teach them things like subject-verb agreement or punctuation. Outsourcing this superficial level of grading makes perfect sense to me.

If this system were in place I think student papers would probably improve in absolute terms: if kids knew that there'd be a separate, detailed evaluation of their work in terms of spelling, grammar, and basic structure, they might be a little more careful about what they turn in. Some gentle shaming might even motivate them ("yes, I'm sending your papers to India, where they use the English language with more skill than you do.")
posted by philokalia at 7:14 AM on April 8, 2010


In response to the several comments inquiring how legal work could be outsourced internationally, there's an enormous market for outsourced legal research, document review, and similar legal tasks. Here's a good overview of the size, growth and type of work that this segment of the legal profession has developed over the last few years. For the most part (although this is changing, too), outsourced legal work is presently limited to corporate transactional work and big business litigation (principally document review).
posted by webhund at 7:36 AM on April 8, 2010


I don't feel like this would be a dereliction of duty on my part: students should have mastered English grammar back in fourth grade or so, and I don't believe it's part of my job to teach them things like subject-verb agreement or punctuation. Outsourcing this superficial level of grading makes perfect sense to me.

As a TA, I saw some stuff that should have gotten sent back to whatever idiot taught this COLLEGE student 8th grade English...or 5th grade, for that matter. It's amazing to me that some of those kids graduated high school.

On the other hand, my just-moved-here-from-Ethiopia student? Her English was fantastic, and she didn't call the Spartans "complete nutjobs" (true story) in her western civ papers like her American counterparts did.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 8:01 AM on April 8, 2010


We were promised that all grading would be handled by software by now!
posted by jeffburdges at 9:16 AM on April 8, 2010


And jetpacks and flying cars!
posted by grouse at 9:23 AM on April 8, 2010


So why do students who outsource their essays and other written assignments to others get expelled? They are too busy to study and write up all those time-consuming assignments, too!
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 9:54 AM on April 8, 2010


kabloooie!!
posted by infini at 9:54 AM on April 8, 2010


surely there is no university that won't benefit from automation or reduction of cost.

In certain areas, yes, but I don't think this is an area where there should be further automation/disconnect. Regardless, though, a major problem is that when resources are freed up, they are rarely put towards anything that will actually help students or the educational process. In private liberal arts colleges, maybe, and in the Ivy's maybe. But in state schools? They are under increasing pressure to behave like businesses, which means increasing revenue coming in, increasing product (aka students with degrees) going out, and streamlining that process as much as possible. I mean, in theory, the whole idea of distance graders isn't terrible and could be made to work, but my fear is that the ideology that governs the practice and its purpose is totally, horribly wrong: education as a commodity to be sold. That's the most severe problem facing higher ed in the US.

I would LOVE to send papers through an outside service for initial grading -- that is, someone who would tell the students where their English usage mistakes are, so that they can fix them and send me a paper I can grade on content. I don't feel like this would be a dereliction of duty on my part: students should have mastered English grammar back in fourth grade or so, and I don't believe it's part of my job to teach them things like subject-verb agreement or punctuation. Outsourcing this superficial level of grading makes perfect sense to me.

I sympathize with this and really, really understand the sentiment. And really, you're totally right in a lot of ways -- if you are teaching history or poli sci or economics or anything that isn't a language skill, it is not your responsibility to teach grammar.

But, unfortunately, this "solution" is putting a band-aid on cancer. Many students are not being properly prepared for college. Rather than addressing that problem -- by, say, offering tutoring services in the school to help students, requiring certain remedial courses, or, *gasp*, fixing the broken public k-12 education system -- sending the papers to an editorial advice service just says, "well, that's the way it is, let's try to get past it." And I wonder -- do these students actually learn from the comments, or do they just make the changes they are told to make like automatons? I guess the same question could be asked of comments received directly from the professor, but at least the feedback loop is shorter and the prof can assess more accurately if the students are taking the comments to heart.
posted by Saxon Kane at 10:05 AM on April 8, 2010


"When I assign papers in my junior/senior level university courses, about 85% are initially unreadable: that is, the grammar and syntax are so error-ridden and the structure so poor that I literally cannot tell what the students are trying to say."

This is frightening.
posted by Sukiari at 1:32 PM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


UbuRoivas: "But if anybody is learning the right lesson, it will be unscrupulous vendors selling samosas to the gullible at $2 apiece."

If you don't mind, I'm going to take this business idea and run with it. I already lost the chance to supply Shane Warne with plates of beans during the IPL.

what is this "unscrupulous"? never mind, must be some colloquial slang.
posted by vanar sena at 6:20 AM on April 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


So do you get the same "virtual" graders at an Ivy League school as you do at a large public university?
posted by Songdog at 11:31 PM on April 7 [+] [!]


They already have the same quality of graders.

Actually, thinking twice -- grading is probably much better at a large public school where the faculty are serious about teaching quality and give more training and support to their graders/teaching assistants.

/have graded in the Ivy League
posted by jb at 11:17 PM on April 13, 2010


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