Friday, 18 March 2011

Universities: deprofessionalisation in action

I generally distrust Frank Furedi, sociologist and cult leader, but he's dead right on the replacement of academic judgement with software and non-academic departments (hence the grotesque refusal of extra time to a student who'd just given birth prematurely and damagingly - overturned after intervention from teachers).
I have become conscious of a growing tendency to marginalise the role and devalue the status of academic judgement. Increasingly, the term "academic judgement" is used defensively in response to a complaint about a particular decision. In official documents, the term refers to decisions that cannot and should not be challenged by students.
One example in this place was the smug way in which an educationalist (!) on my PGCE informed me that the software now existed to 'mark' essays without human involvement, and was in use over in the States. Apparently all I had to do was give the computer a list of synonyms and it would compare the essay to my ideal answer. So if it was a medical examination, 'scalpel' would get you full marks, 'knife' some marks and 'spoon' no marks. 

This guy was overjoyed. No more marking!

Er…no. No more education. I don't have an ideal answer in mind ever. I have an ideal way of approaching the question (read a lot, think about it). I deliberately write questions which invite students to propose their own primary texts. I want to be surprised. I don't want to be a slave to a machine which says '77% match' or '42% plagiarised'. Despite the best efforts of the institution, I'm not an administrator. At least, not yet.

Of course all professionals require the freedom to judge. When confronted with complex and indeterminate problems, professionals need to be able to exercise discretion. Many of the problems faced by professionals are context-based and require more than formulaic responses.

Whether they like it or not, academics judge all the time and expect to be judged by others.
It is not for nothing that words such as "review", "moderate", "adjudicate", "assess", "referee" and "evaluate" have become an integral component of higher education discourse. Academics are continually expected to make judgements about the value of scientific findings, research proposals, articles submitted to journals and the performance of students. The language used to describe the material we read and the people we encounter - "scholarly", "original", "sophisticated", "significant" - communicates statements of judgement.
The point of employing people with experience, research and higher qualifications is that we're lateral thinkers who want to spend time with our students. 

Good teachers are not only experts in their subject, they also understand their students and can interpret their responses to classroom experience. Consequently, when they make a judgement call, it is informed by their reading of the circumstances of a specific individual or group of students. This is a response that is guided by disciplinary knowledge and a bit of practical wisdom.
We don't give 'right' answers because we know there aren't any. We give the right questions. Unfortunately, we take up a lot more time, money and space than the marking machine - but we know more. How inconvenient.

Where Furedi goes wrong is to object to the idea that we should be supportive and uncritical of students' work, as though this is widespread. 
New lecturers are informed that "good practice" demands that they be "supportive" and "positive" and guarded in the criticism they make of their students. While university teachers are not expected to hand out smiley stickers, they are encouraged not to be negative and to blunt the force of their criticism.
I mark like this: cheats get pointed and clear comments about what they've done. Poor work by students who try hard get supportive and helpful advice. Poor work by lazy gits is returned with stern but helpful advice, and good work by anyone is praised while ways to improve are always provided. I don't see the point of being dismissively rude - it helps nobody. Even with the cheats I don't just write 'you are a disgusting plagiarist': I explain why plagiarism is self-defeating and disgusting. The PGCE course I took was largely useless, but I've always been supported by my bosses and colleagues when I've taken a view on a students' work. We always swap papers around to check that we're marking fairly and appropriately. I've had my comments and marks adjusted when I've got it wrong, and I've done it to other people - it's a learning experience for us too. 

One student told me recently that my marking was 'one-sided'. I hadn't actually marked that essay - not turning up to anything means he doesn't actually know what we look like, and it turned out that 'one-sided' referred to the marker's assertion that the essay in question was a) nothing to do with the question and b)cut-and-pasted from the internet. The judgemental git. 

So I don't feel that there's too much pressure to soft-soap our 'customers', though it does occur. There is still room for academic judgement, though it's true that institutional pressures are reducing the scope for this. Will it increase? It will if managers lose sight of the fact that we aren't here to produce happy customers, but educated people who've been pushed to their intellectual limits. We shouldn't be obstructive and holier-than-thou in the face of people who've suffered and sacrificed to be here, but we shouldn't be softening our academic standards and losing our academic autonomy to the demands of the market or the convenience of service departments within The Hegemon. 

The values of institutionalised standardisation, calculability and measurable achievement mean there is little call for judgement. When the ways for achieving a learning outcome are carefully prescribed, what is required is after-the-event measurement and box-ticking, and not deliberation and judgement.

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