Degrading The Academic Vocation

By Jonathan B. Imber
It is now nearly forty years since the sociologist Robert A. Nisbet published The Degradation of the Academic Dogma, followed two years later by Philip Rieff’s Fellow Teachers. Then in the late 1980s, Allan Bloom’s best-selling bombshell, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students took pride of place in the sublime critiques of the university. Taken together, these three books stood against a tide that could not be contained, leaving in its wake an even more emboldened organization determined to survive regardless of what it might discard as no longer relevant to its mission.
Nisbet’s principal concern was about the emergence of what Clark Kerr called the “multiversity.” He objected to the separation of research from teaching, and of teaching from research and anticipated that research might become so specialized that its teaching would crowd out the kinds of courses (and research) that could reach (and benefit) a larger number of students. He also recognized that for all the noses turned up at the professional schools (e.g., law and medicine), they succeeded for a time to bring teachers and students closely together: “Rare indeed during the two decades following the war was the law school that took to itself the kind of institute or project, the batteries of technicians and assistants, that one found in rising intensity coming out of allegedly liberal arts departments. To the present moment I dare say one is far more likely to come upon individual teaching (complete with reading of student examinations and frequent hours of consultation) and individual research in, say, the Harvard Law School than in the Harvard departments of sociology, English, and biology – much less physics and chemistry.”
The transformative seeds were already planted in post-war enthusiasms for an academic culture in which gaining grants would eventually be matched by how many “public intellectuals” a school can boast. New opportunities to escape the timeless responsibilities of teaching abound. A controversy has ensued over what is being called the “outsourcing” of grading, taken out of the hands of the instructor (and/or teaching assistants) and given to companies who employ graders in Singapore, India and Malaysia. Along with accounts of the growth of adjunct faculty hired to teach a lot for very little, students and their families, it is argued, are hardly getting their money’s worth. Editorialists at the Harvard Crimson complained that outsourcing evaluation “brings up concerns about the quality of contact that students are receiving in large classes.” Outsourcing is the wrong description for giving over this particular responsibility of teaching to anyone other than the teacher. After all, teaching assistants have been overseeing grading in large lecture courses in universities for many decades. But this oversight was in principle part of learning to teach by learning to evaluate. Of course, it is easy to view such a principle cynically and to acknowledge that graduate students seeking to unionize have been given over to another kind of class struggle that marks the end of teaching as it once was embraced and practiced.

The transmission of knowledge no longer resides exclusively in the presiding presence of the teacher, though the impression a teacher may have on a student and vice versa depends on both imagining the same possibilities about what is at stake in learning even from each other. The personal recommendation still counts for something in competitive circumstances. It is unlikely to be outsourced very soon. Gaining that recommendation depends on a deeper belief that to recommend is to judge more than one aspect of a person. Perhaps where evaluation is outsourced, instructors no longer feel compelled to observe even the pretense that the students they teach are persons of sufficient complexity to deserve being taught with that in mind. I fear a degree of complicity on the part of students and teachers alike where real evaluation is evaded for reasons that do not need to be spelled out too clearly. The willingness to commit $50,000 a year to maintain as much distance from teachers as possible is not entirely the fault of teachers. On the other hand, the willingness to work for an organization that charges $50,000 a year in order to enable faculty to avoid students as much as possible degrades the academic vocation in ways that Nisbet, Rieff, and Bloom already saw on higher ed’s horizon.
Jonathan B. Imber is Jean Glasscock Professor of Sociology at Wellesley College and Editor-in-Chief of Society.


2 thoughts on “Degrading The Academic Vocation

  1. Student evaluations, at least in my experience, are commonly outsourced–to the students themselves. More than a few professors ask students to write a letter of recommendation and they will then sign it.
    More common is,thanks to computers, “writing” letters by cutting and pasting.I’m sympathetic to this approach since many of the recommendation requests come from students who I barely know and who’ve made no effort to distinguish themselves. Many of these “students” should not even be applying to law or graduate school.

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