Thursday, September 29, 2005

Outsourcing: A Spirited View , a Sunday Meander

Clancy asked us to respond to this article on outsourcing paper-grading, which concerns the pilot project at a Kentucky CC. There, papers written by DL students will be graded by SmartThinking graders rather than the instructor of record.

What do I think about such a service? I've not yet shaped my reaction into something easier on the brain, so stroll with me down this winding path of an answer.

Well, I used to be a paper grader/classroom assistant in the public schools, but I was always assigned to a particular class with whom I worked for the semester, so my comments, though different from the teacher's at times, came from something more than a disembodied voice marking up the page. The students knew me, the teacher knew me and vice-versa. Equally important, I knew how the instructor taught and where she or he was heading with a particular assignment. So, as an in-class composition assistant, I was part of the process, not off in seclusion somewhere, grading all day. (Unfortunately, given curricular changes and whatnot, the CA position has reverted to the seclusion model, from what I hear).

Now that I'm teaching, I can understand the appeal such a service offers. It appeals to my practical spirit, which is always wondering when I'll have time to grade all the many assignments that I create. It appeals to my compassionate spirit, which sees how overwhelming grading can be and wants to balm our fatigue with the finest unguent, in this case, having fewer papers to grade-- especially in a DL situation, where so much more writing seems to take place since there are no face-to-face discussions to rely on.

But darn my pedagogical spirit--it strides womanfully through the unguent- balmed field of papers and to-do lists, and in a sharp, no -nonsense voice much like Caroline Myss's, says "Now,wait a minute. This outsourcing sounds like teachers are being given all of the responsibility and none of the authority. Or very little. "

Well, as long as the teacher of record gets the last say on the grade, then is it really so bad? Are we helping writing teachers or is the next step or two to develop writing courses that are graded by committee? And who exactly, is grading the papers? Just because someone is qualified on paper does not mean that she or he will be any good at it, will the teachers have a choice or will they be assigned a grader? What if you're stuck with someone who creates more problems than solutions during the semester?

What bothers me the most is the idea of the outsider in the class. ( True, grad assistants have graded papers for years, but they are, if not part of the actual class, then part of the college at least!) It just strikes me as ludicrous that one would design and implement a lesson/paper/webproject and then send out for it to be graded. Part of the pleasure of grading is that one can see how the student has made choices and how those choices have worked with the assignment. That's part of the pleasure of teaching. I enjoy the dialogue I have with my students which extends to what I write on their papers and say in emails or in class. Very often, through working on a set of papers, I discover trends that I want to address with the whole class. The work becomes a grind when one has too many papers to grade, but in and of itself, paper grading is not the enemy.

It seems to me that a better idea is to hire more teachers. There, I've said it. Keep the numbers of comp students low. Hire more comp teachers. Give us time to grade student papers in a meaningful way. We don't need the intrusion of another party in the classroom, whether it be paper-graders or Turnitin (don't get me started on that!).

And what about the DL classes, which the original pilot in Kentucky is all about? Unless the community college wants to pay the grader more money to become more of a presence in the classroom, like an assistant, then I think that two problems will occur. One is that having a grader will reinforce the fragmentation of the class--perhaps "depersonalization," is a better word for it. If DL classes have to work harder at developing a community of scholars, then having to send one's papers out to be graded will undercut the effort.

The second problem is that I see a gradual move towards some universal rubric of writing that will be a spectacular flop though it appeals mightily to those who watch the dollar signs. I see the complexity of thought reduced to a national check-off sheet that forces conformity and unoriginal thinking. I see the teacher's role becoming like that of a factory worker, doing a piece and then moving it down the line, with no sense of what it will look like in the end, and no desire to find out, since his or her authority has been removed.

But you know, what I also see is that if we are arguing about paper grading and are defining papers as the linear construct of the twentieth century and not the web-based dynamic creation that the new century brings, then maybe we should be asking "What paper?"


At 2:25 PM, Blogger middlebrow said...

I have a serious problem with outsourcing tools like SmartThinking, and I agree with your criticisms. I worry, as you do, that colleges want to make the teaching of writing more efficient, cost-effective, etc. rather than better. To make it better would involve lowering the student to teacher ratio, hiring more composition instructors, etc. But companies like SmartThinking appeal to the desire to get by on the cheap.

I also don't know how students could get adequate assessment from some disembodied grader who hasn't had any sustained contact with the student, particular class, or college.

An interesting post. I haven't heard of SmartThinking. I'll have to poll my colleagues here at SLCC and see if any of them know abou it.

At 12:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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At 12:53 PM, Blogger sharon said...

SmartThinking, which is a company that has done quite a bit of tutoring work, has missed the point. Reading and responding to student work is not "grading" in the sense that it is not about evaluating a finished product in isolation.

I need to read my own students' work so that I can give them adequate feedback to continue working through the process of writing.

I have a feeling that SmartThinking is all about getting more students into a section of composition (visualize a giant lecture hall) and using less expensive outsourced readers. I think this is all about the money. We know that a better way to improve student writing is to make the sections of composition smaller. The interaction between instructor and student over time is what gives students greater abilities to communicate in a written form.

At 4:24 PM, Anonymous joanna said...

Sharon, I agree that ST is about the money. As is, I believe, Turnit IN. One more example of the businessification of education?

At 7:37 PM, Blogger sharon said...

You are so right! Don't even get me started on turnitin.

This certainly is a battle that never ends. Quality education and the business model just don't match exactly. Certainly, money, especially the public's money, should not be spent frivolously. But come on! Cutting costs at the peril of quality education seems so short sighted.

If these companies were interested in solid pedagogy, I might be more enthused. Without that - I figure they are just out to make a buck.

At 9:32 AM, Blogger Professor V. said...

You all seem to have a negative view of Turnitin...I am curious to hear why? I haven't used it yet- and although, I can see some ways it can be abused, given the amount of plagiarism I have come across- particularily in my DL courses- I think it could be really useful to me to cut down on my grading time.

(Usually I spend 2-3 hours on papers which I suspect of plagiarism because I feel the compulsive need to be sure so I can address it as plagiarism rather than flaws in a paper.)

So, if you have used turnitin and have had a negative experience, can you share please?

At 12:19 PM, Anonymous joanna said...

I'm most concerned with anything like Turn-it in being mandated from above--I think it sends the message to the faculty that we're too stupid to not to recognize our own students' writing when we see it. However, I don't teach DL, so I can't really speak to that. In a face- to -face class, I get to know personalities, styles and study habits well enough to sniff out plagiarism when it happens. But I don't know if that would be the same were I teaching DL.
My real beef is simply having it sent down from on high to the faculty: I think that they should be allowed to choose whether or not to use it.

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