The End of Unwatched Professors

One of the enduring operative principles of higher education has been reliance upon professors to do their work diligently and conscientiously without the eye of a monitor upon them.  Yes, there are tenure reviews and other periodic reviews of faculty performance, but the day-to-day functioning of faculty members in their teaching and research has largely gone on unscrutinized. People who went into education as a career, who spent six or seven years in graduate school, earned doctorates, and won jobs in a tight employment climate, it was assumed, showed enough dedication to hold themselves to a high professional standard

That expectation may be crumbling.  There have always been questions raised about faculty labor, such as the 1988 book Profscam: Professors and the Demise of Higher Education by Charles Sykes, which recounted how professors are gaming the system to ensure cushy hours and low engagement with undergraduates. But recent events have placed professors under greater suspicion.  For instance, the book Academically Adrift documented the low learning that actually takes place in a typical undergraduate’s experience during four years of college, and homework studies over the years show that average weekly homework hours have gone down while grades have gone up.  The declining workload works for both sides, for less homework for students means less grading by professors. 

It may not be unimaginable that the current situation as UNC-Chapel Hill becomes a common one.  There, as reported by the News & Observer, administrators have begun a system of “surprise inspections” of classes.  The goal, as the first sentence, archly puts it, is “to prove that students and faculty are, indeed, meeting for their scheduled classes.”  The impetus is a scandal in the African and Afro-American Studies department, which granted credit to students for classes that, apparently, involved hardly any instruction, unauthorized changes of grades, and individual studies courses that required hardly any work, practices that dated back to the 1990s.  The accreditor of UNC-Chapel Hill, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), uncovered the practice and warned the university that unless it took steps to address the malfeasance, accreditation could be jeopardized. So, administrators have entered hundreds of classrooms unannounced.  Syllabi for every course have been collected and examined.  Here is one dean describing her own method:

“I tried to do it in a very nondisruptive way,” Eaker-Rich said of her checks. “Our building has windows on the doors, so if the doors were closed, I could just look in and say, ‘OK, there’s Dr. So-and-So, and there are approximately 25 students in there and obviously they’re doing something.’ ” 

It sounds ridiculous, and some professors are annoyed, but no dean or president wants a bogus-course scandal on his or her watch.  Don’t be surprised if other schools develop their own surveillance plans in the coming years.

Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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