Monday, May 30, 2022

A Day in PSA

This sketches an alternative means of providing higher education, offered in the style now common to faculty activism. It paints a “day in the life” of an academic who no longer earns a living under the institutional model of university and college service providers, substantial public funding and union labour representation.


The alarm sounds. She pours a cup of coffee to balance some practice management. Cross-checking bank accounts, she confirms figures for her annual financial report to the Society:

Annual Solo Practice Report – Member 239320

Revenue

Amount

Category

Description

$216,000

Tuition

240 course purchases at $900 per course

$6,500

Sales

Residuals on textbook sales

$5,000

Services

Stipends for guest lectures

$15,000

Grants

1st Disbursement of 2-year $30,000 PSA-NEH

Total

 

$242,500

 

Expense

$36,000

Proxy (TA) Services

20 hours/week for 30 weeks at $60/hour

$24,000

Facilities Rental

Office facilities/services; lecture facilities

$3,500

Supplies & Equipment

Computer; phone, software, etc.

$2,500

Advertising

Independent webpage; PSA webpage

$15,000

Professional

Society membership; evaluation; conferences

$5,500

Insurance

Malpractice; health

$21,000

Retirement

Solo-401K

Total

 

$113,000

 

Income

$129,500

Practice Income

Gross practitioner income after expenses


Professional expenses are adjusted to reflect the February conference she was unable to attend. Though disappointed at not presenting her latest ethics research on professional academics, she lightens with the thought that the practice saved $3,200 in travel expenses.

Accounts done, she logs onto the PSA Service Queries site and finds another thirty-three students have cleared the parameters of her Pre-service Application Criteria, allowing them to contacted her – twenty-four undergraduate and nine graduate. She consults the Application Analytics and finds ten are suitable. Forwarding the list to her Proxy to schedule and conduct Pre-service Interviews, she notes that five of the applicants are promising candidates for her new online summer course.

Management is concluded just in time, as her children stir from their room and into the hallway.

Rising from the chair, she sings to the pajamaed sleepy-heads, “Good morning to you. Good morning to you. You belong in a zoo. You look like two monkeys and act like them too!”

“Ughhh,” they moan. Sensing that they are starting to outgrow her morning ditties only seems to spur her commitment to the practice.

“Can we have cereal?"

The seed of nostalgia germinates, as she jokes, “With baaa-naaa-naaas?!”

“Ha, ha,” is spoken, but not felt, when the two plop onto kitchen chairs.

By eight o’clock they are off to school and her to work. She reminds them it’s a late workday, but tomorrow they all go to the zoo to watch the sleepy-headed animals eat breakfast. The morning is suddenly welcomed as the brothers trot to the bus in spirited negotiation over which animal to visit first.

Arriving on campus, talk of the zoo has primed memories of the 2010 state-wide demonstrations. By the hundreds of thousands, students and faculty walked out of class. Their numbers poured onto the surrounding streets of the campuses, chanting, “United in our fight! Education is our right!”

At that time, she was an adjunct on this very campus. With some eighteen-hundred faculty and forty-thousand students, the college had been the largest in the state. But due to repeated post-recession cuts in public funding, the desperate institution had ruthlessly raised tuition and lowered faculty compensation, which according to the accreditation board was still “insufficient to sustain normal operations.” Similar college and university closures were happening across the country. The system was bankrupt and so she chanted.

It was on these state campuses during the months of protest, that the new model was conceived. No one saw it coming. Like a new art form, it emerged organically.

As the story goes, within the first couple weeks some of the faculty and students reckoned they should continue tutelage in preparation for the customary compromise and return to classes. Many gathered in the tents and lean-tos scattered across the campuses. Some gathered in off-campus cafés and restaurants. While still others made use of underused space that libraries, galleries, museums and event venues offered free of charge. Across the community, these were generally smaller classes, but with committed students and teachers.

It was during these classes that the so-called – Absurdities – started to surface.

Sporadically, students quipped about how they should be paying Professor So-and-So tuition fees and not some lame institution. In solidarity, promises were made to personally compensate the faculty for their services with whatever refund money students received. Of course, no one expected this to happen, since refunds were not likely to come from institutions that can’t afford “normal operations.”

By the sixth week, after several straight days of rain, students and teachers sat in cold, damp, improvised classrooms - dedicated to their education cause. Lore has it that in one such class - she liked to imagine it was a philosophy class - someone blurted in exasperation,

“This is absurd! Sitting here in this swamp! I’m looking right at the warm, dry, empty classroom where I used to take this course! Right over there, Building C, 2nd floor, Room 212. The community welcomes us but the classrooms our tax dollars pay for are off limits! Fuckin’ absurd!!”

Naturally, the particulars varied according to which subject major was telling the story, but all raconteurs got one thing the same – “Fuckin’ absurd!” Though the circumstances were indeed that, the rant wasn’t entirely accurate. Everyone could return to the comfort of the citadels that surrounded their makeshift education encampments, if only they were willing to return to the old ways.

But that wasn’t going to happen. Without the institutions, individuals were organizing themselves to learn in swampy tents. Emerging was the realization that without the teachers and students, the empty citadels were nothing – nothing but idle tools.

Approaching stairs to the building in which she once shared a single office with four adjuncts, the campus is serene in the mid-morning light that baths a parade of ghostly sandwich boards:

“Individuals not institutions!”

“Education is: P2P not P2B!”

“Profs and pupils, no more steeples!”

“The ivory tower has no power!”

It strikes her as odd how she has become self-conscious of slogans that in many ways have defined her world.

Recollection fades when she finds stuck to her office door a note saying that as per her lease agreement the state is issuing Notice of Entry to conduct repairs next week. Seated at her desk, she reconsiders some new teaching material for the afternoon Introduction to Philosophy class and takes a Skype call concerning joint research.

Within the hour, a weekly face-to-face with her Proxy is underway. Discussion ranges across: key concepts that the Tutorial Request Form indicates are a problem for students in the Rationalists course; a review of notable applicants from the Pre-service Interviews conducted the previous week; and concludes with her directions for upcoming interviews and tutorials. Before leaving, the Proxy wonders if she might be available over the next couple weeks to help with some of the interviews and tutorials, as he would like to spend more time preparing for his dissertation defence.

“I appreciate the excellent work you do with me. A Proxy of your calibre is hard to find. I hope the experience has helped prepare you for your own academic practice.”

“It has. And you’ve been a wonderful mentor, which is not always easy to find either,” he says, comfortable with a critical pause. “I’ve been thinking about my exit. There’s someone I’d like to recommend as my replacement. She has an MA in philosophy and is looking to make Proxy her career. I know you typically seek PhD candidates, but she’s a serious philosopher. I’m confident her years of experience in practice management can help you run things smoothly.”

They had come to know each other during the four years of close work together, but it was her divorce just over a year ago that cemented the bond. It was a hard time for her and her boys. A husband and father who had become absent when present, one day was just absent. Suddenly, she was a single mother with a solo academic practice, two painfully confused children and a petition for divorce in abstentia. Thankfully, there was support around her, like the colleagues who stepped in to cover the occasional class, but it was her Proxy who proved the greatest help.

“I’m deeply gratefully for your care, Thomas. I’ll eagerly meet with anyone you recommend. You know my schedule, just set up a coffee for the three of us. But I should tell you, I’ve met someone.”

“Yeah!” Thomas shouts with a child’s impulsiveness.

“Isn’t it,” she says with a trace of inflection. “Online, no less,” triggering a shared chuckle in appreciation of her pathetic social media skills. “I’ve been reluctant to admit it out loud, but the truth is we’re getting serious.” Both understand her caution.

“Details, please,” he probes with the directness of a friend, because he is a friend.

“He’s in Arizona, but willing to move his practice here. I’m hesitant to move the boys on top of everything that’s happened, but realistically I should consider relocation too. We’ve checked the Society Market Monitor and demand is good for our fields both here and in Arizona. He’s an economist.”

Listening carefully, through a tender irrepressible smile, “I’m so happy for you.” They have been through a lot together. Then struggling to return to the original topic, “Umm, right, you two should still meet. Anyway, I’ll set it up. But that’s all peripheral,” he announces with slight emphasis in tribute to one of the many words she has massaged into his vernacular over the years. “Those boys of yours are amazing, Renee. They’ll follow you anywhere. Whatever you decide, I’ve got your back.”

Like the protest chants and classrooms, his sincere smile and direct eyes will never leave her. Their investment is mutual.

With coffee time at hand, she crosses the campus to join some colleagues in their favourite café, one of several owned and operated by the Graduate Philosophy Consortium, a student venture started during the early post-institutional years. Philosophy and caffeine seemed a natural fit. “Philosopheine,” they called it.

In conversation, one of her colleagues raises the issue of a proposed increase in the state’s campus lease rates for office and lecture facilities, while another notes the difficulty in getting repairs done in a timely fashion.

“Tell me about it. I’ve been waiting almost two weeks for a simple bulb change. If I wasn’t so old and decrepit, I’d do it myself.”

Through everyone’s laughter, Renee exclaims, “You’re the Professional Society of Academics state tennis champion!”

“But in the over fifty division!” he playfully replies, launching another round of laughter.

With a gentle nudge, Renee suggests, “Ok, senior citizen, can we return to reality?”

“Whaaz dat youngin?” he snaps with a cupped ear.

Returning to an ongoing discussion about partnership, the International Business colleague adds that a former student of hers is offering some attractive facilities, competitively priced, just two blocks off campus. Uneasily Renee informs the group of her possible move to Arizona and is promptly reassured this will have no affect on forming their partnership.

“Perhaps my favourite Society slogan: ‘It’s people, not places’,” assures the PSA champ. “Academic firms with multiple office locations are beginning to pop up throughout the profession,” to which he puckishly tacks, “Much to the chagrin of RIM.”

The acronym elicits a groan from the table. The day seems set on serving silent reminiscence.

She recalls how after the wholesale replacement of the institutional model administrators, managers and staff of the former universities and colleges founded a coalition with the aim of reviving their careers by reviving the model they once dominated. The coalition called itself, Restore the Institutions Movement. Offering increased membership dues as a carrot, RIM garnered support from labour unions that prior to the conversion had been working hard to expand faculty representation across institutions.

As an adjunct, naturally she was persuaded by the oratory of labour exploitation and emancipation – of them versus us. But it was an easy sell considering an alternative like PSA had not yet been conceived and at least sixty percent of the faculty were working for peanuts under precarious contracts. If it wasn’t for her ex-husband’s corporate job, she and the boys might well have been living on food stamps like too many of her peers.

But once the professional model was ratified and phased in, the RIMs became the unfortunates. As such, no one could blame them for trying to protect their interests. Teachers and students had done the same when they lobbied for conversion to the PSA alternative.

The RIMs were not happy with what was left for them – a selection of mostly non-institutional administrative functions distributed across the profession. Some were carried out on the individual practice level and some on the local and national professional society level. Still, many non-academic personnel were out of work and those that were retained became the employees of the professional society and its academic licentiates. The old institutions were turned inside out, leaving many without.

Unions remained where employees elected for representation, such as Society staff and practice Proxies. But faculty unions were a non-sequitur, since by definition professions are a form of self-representation.

Heading back to the office, she thinks of how administrators were conspicuously absent in the encampments, while union organizers were out in throngs. At first, they were welcomed as comrades in the good fight. But as the Absurdities started to take shape in the classrooms and cafés or among the marching sandwich boards and propane-fueled dinner circles, people began to ask the union reps some tough questions:

“Aren’t unions just another branch of this broken system?”

“How can unions possibly respond to funding vulnerabilities like recessions?”

“Don’t unions just make the system even more expensive to operate?”

“Why do instructors have to be employees of institutions?”

This last one was a pet among the dinner circles, when libations oiled opinions. Some people thought the question made no sense – union reps among them. After all, what else could they be? Some replied, they could move to jobs in other industries. But more and more people tried to take the question seriously from within higher education. With what was happening around them, the employer wasn’t doing much to help and a lot to hinder education, yet education endured. Surely there was something to this. But the disquieting consensus in the circles was that it wasn’t enough – something was missing.

Crossing what became known as, Society Commons, she recognizes some of her students gathered around a device in silent seriousness.

Their peripheral radar is tripped. “Professor Fortin! Have you seen this?!”

On approach she offers as a gentle reminder, “My name is, Renee.”

The snickering undergrads chime in chorus, “Hi, Renee! Nice to meet you!”

She delights in their youth. One moment they’re in communal concentration, the next in communal comedy – enjoying both. Their instruction is mutual: they model the fresh mind and she the philosophical.

“Alright, what are you humans up to? Sadly, I’ve only got a minute.”

As one passes her the tablet, “Some congressman has gained support for a bill to reintroduce colleges and universities in his state! How can he do that?! Institutions were hell!”

Skimming the article with incredulity, in creeps the fragile reality of the professional model, a mere youngster shaking its fist at a monster of mythological origins. PSA was barely a generation old. Victory over the colleges and universities was too quick, too complete. It’s a fad…certain to crumble under thirty generations of institutional ascendancy. “No!” her mind shouts in corrective defiance.

Turning attention back to the students, she says, “Thanks, crew. I’ll look into it. Don’t worry.”

“How can we not?! What about tuition?!”

“I heard there used to be intro classes with a thousand students and you couldn’t choose your professors, who you knew nothing about in the first place!”

In soft contemplation, the oldest of the students draws the attention of all, “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for PSA. …I’d be in some menial job. I couldn’t…my family couldn’t afford college. I’m the first to go…”

Visibly shaken, the classmates close ranks, “Don’t worry, Ziqian. There’s no way international fees are coming back. You’ll get your degree and return home to your proud family. They’ll prosper thanks to you.” Everyone is silenced as PSA’s corrective reach comes into relief.

Momentarily, Renee continues, “Listen, let’s talk about it on Wednesday. In the meantime, this is an opportunity to practice your critical thinking skills. What’s the balance?”

“Perspective and passion!” Their self-fashioned motto is a stronghold.

“One of the best class mottoes I’ve heard in years! We’ll talk in class.”

Continuing across the commons on less assured footing, she remembers how the victory was a narrow one that in the end migrated to the headlines and heads of government. At first, the feds threatened to withhold billions in student aid and research funding if the states refused to pass legislation forming the Society and empowering it to issue degrees.

Degree-granting status was the “something” that had been missing during those intoxicating dinner circles. Certainly, academics were always free to act as edupreneurs, offering their services for a fee – a practice that reaches back to the original notion of the universitas. But as the institutions rose to prominence, what academics were not permitted to do was offer credit that contributed to recognized degrees. Only the colleges and universities were granted this state-sanctioned authority. Without it, a philosopher can legally hang a shingle, but can’t legally underwrite the thing of principal instrumental value in the system. This made it virtually impossible for independent academics to earn a living in competition with universities and colleges, framing the choice between one of vocation and avocation.

The states had called the federal bluff, betting they wouldn’t follow through with their threat and risk looking like the bad guy. In the end, what saved the day was the fact that PSA is fifty percent cheaper than the institutional model. Instead of playing the villain, the feds decided to play the hero and fully fund PSA. With this announcement, the states fell in line. It meant tuition-free education for the whole country. Who could argue with that?

Absurdity had triumphed over stupidity. So, why was this congressman now trying to change course?

During a brief working lunch in her office, she receives an email from a former doctoral student. He and his new wife have opened a joint practice. The letterhead reads: “Philosophy and Physics: Where Common Sense Meets Reality.” She sends a reply congratulating them on the two new partnerships, and herself for introducing them in her Philosophy of Science course. She asks if the practice has any interdisciplinary offerings and tactfully identifies a scarcity of philosophy courses in Information Physics.

This pleasant news loops her thoughts back to the congressman. The professional liberty to set the conditions of your own work, to explore and take risks in your chosen field of study and service, must not be allowed to end. We can’t go back to the old days of institutional importance, department dictatorship and the tyrannical tenured. How could this capable couple build a life together and create this fusion of education and research in a model with scare opportunities for employment, let alone diversity and dissent?

Her reflection in the window gives way to approaching shower clouds. She grabs an umbrella and heads to class. Just outside the lecture facilities she runs into Thomas.

“Have you heard?”

“Congressman Ortez? Yeah, it’s trending like mad,” he says in a calamitous tone.

“I can’t go back to the life of an adjunct, Thomas. None of us can.”

“I hear you. He’s tweeting about how the professions have shown they’re not to be trusted. That they’re just disguised monopolies meant to fatten their members’ bank accounts. Stewardship is lip service, with no sincere mind to integrity. And...”

Integrity! That’s a rich one!” she barks, dusting off her protest litany. “Universities and colleges around the world were full of corruption. International students, what a racket that used to be. Come save our redlining institution and we’ll guarantee you a degree. Essentially selling accreditation through money-making joint foreign programs and branches. Bribes across the board to admit underqualified students. And that’s just to start...” Then with equal self-condemnation, “There were times when I gave grades that I knew I shouldn’t’ve, out of fear students might complain or a high failure rate might be reported to the Dean. Giving them an excuse not to hire me back the next semester.”

“Part of why you all walked out,” he nods in an attempt to mitigate her self-criticism. “Unfortunately, he’s joined with the RIMs and their backing up some very specific charges against the profession.”

“Well, sure, a work in progress. Nothing’s perfect. What specifics?”

Frustrated, he writhes, “Sorry, but I really have to go. Doctor’s appointment.”

“Everything okay?”

“Yeah, yeah. Just a routine insurance physical, but it’s on the other side of the city. Be brave, get on your Twitter, check it out!” he teases skipping backward toward the parking lot.

Entering the classroom, years of teaching experience drop her into autopilot. She can’t help it. There’s too much at stake. But even on automatic she’s a first-rate instructor, especially when buoyed by these prepared and keen students. On the surface, all is well.

As with the other four courses in the term, this one has twenty students and meets once a week for two hours. Since the dissolution of institutional accreditation boards, academics have greater latitude to decide what counts as sufficient education for credit. Professional academics must submit their syllabi to the Society Course Review Committees, but once approved the hours of instruction are theirs to decide. With these smaller class sizes, she finds two hours per week is sufficient to cover the material. Though she prefers the open lecture format, with in-class essays, a midterm, and final exam as the form of evaluation, other options are available. Four students have banded together for the group thesis and presentation option, with another three choosing orals.

By the end of class, the clouds look wrung out. She decides to take a walk and do some philosophy. Unfortunately, the convalescence is soon cut short when the phone alarm reminds her of a prior commitment to Society business.

In the backseat of the taxi, she surveys Ortez’s tweets. It seems some of the PSA licentiates are feeding RIM with Society scandal that, if true, might well spell the end for the adolescent profession.

“Scoundrels!” she thinks, suspecting former tenured faculty. They were a fraction of the faculty at the institutions and most were unwilling to abandon the model. Understandably so, given they had successfully made the uncertain trek to the promised land. Like the administrators, most were not among the protesters. PSA was not a panacea for them, since few of them felt the failings of the institutional model and the new one offered no equivalent to tenure – every day is a test of tenure in the professions.

While plenty of the former tenured now get on just fine and even thrive in the professional model, there are those that continue to struggle. For a while at the beginning quite a few faculty across all ranks wrestled with the alien idea of PSA and its cornerstone of owning and operating a professional private academic practice. This was so, even though plenty had taught all manner of business and professional courses. As an adjunct, she herself had taught industry-specific professional ethics a number of times. But few faculty had ever actually been in private business or practice and all laboured under the ubiquity of the institutional model.

She is coaxed to a widening smile, recalling how across the nation former students of business, law, accounting, advertising, design, human resources, and other fields stepped up to help their professors with the conversion. In cooperation with the Society, they offered training, mentoring, and services in the founding and operating of private practices. Some with a sense of pro bono publico and others as a gesture of personal gratitude, this community outpouring meant that there was plenty of support for the new profession as academics descended from the towers in which, though they provided the specialized education necessary for entry into the professions, they were not themselves licensed professionals – yet another of the Absurdities.

A day of nostalgia and the Ortez charges leave her tangled as the hearing is called to order.

The local chapter of PSA convenes a Grade Appeal Hearing to address the charge that Society Member (Dr. Morse) altered an evaluation scheme without consultation and agreement from the Student Complainant (Ms. Cantor). The Complainant maintains that this had a negative effect on her final grade. Both sides are heard, with judgement and order issued in session. The Member is found guilty and the following order issued: a detailed formal reprimand is attached to the Member’s Public Practice Record for a period of twelve months; the Member is ordered to pay hearing costs; and the Complainant’s final grade is recalculated and resubmitted using the original contract terms.

This was becoming a less common problem, thanks to its relatively easy adjudication and the effective deterrence of the PPR. Before leaving the PSA offices, in conversation with one of the online panel members, the Ortez charges arise.

“Your man is stirring up trouble for us,” Renee quips.

With a dismissive snort, she says, “Ortez, is not my man. I did not vote for him, but plenty of people here did. What is it there, nearly 5:30, right? He will be on CNN at seven your time. He managed to get himself invited on Constructive Corner.”

“That can’t be good. Do you believe him?”

“Let us say, I am not surprised. Even if they began with noble aims, the older professions such as law and medicine eventually drifted or were navigated to distorted self-interest. Some individuals moved well beyond distortive to destructive, leaving professions tainted. So, there is precedent,” she said, as though speaking of a recalcitrant offender. “But more than that, some of my political science colleagues have former grad students in the legislature feeding us information. Ortez has details on who, what, and how.”

“I guess it was naïve of us to think our stock in academic integrity and the demonstrated lack of it in the institutional model could immunize us. And so early into our evolution as a profession…” They both fell silent. Gathering nerve, she asks, “What are the sources saying?”

“It seems dozens, perhaps hundreds, of members are collecting very high fees – three, five, even ten thousand per course – which are correlated with very high grades. Some are apparently ghost writing their students’ theses and dissertations. Others are taking the fees but telling students they do not need to attend class or take the tests and exams, though they pass, again, with top grades.”

The report leaves her numb.

“Renee? Are you still there?”

Stirring, “Yes, yes, sorry.”

“It looked as though your screen froze.”

“No, I’m just…affected, Bisaria. Is there more?”

“I am afraid so.”

Impulsively attempting to balance the scales, Renee finds herself exclaiming, “We’ve adopted codes of ethics and conduct. We’ve severely punished those we find in violation – suspended, even revoked, some licenses to practice. We’ve been public with all the disciplinary measures.” But she can’t ignore the reality of their folly. “The RIMs said this would happen. We were convinced they were just slinging bad apples. We were so charged with righteous indignation and a renewed sense of integrity. We couldn’t accept that professional academics would do such things. How naïve.” In an attempt to lighten her own mood, she adds, “But not you historians I suppose.”

“We do tend to see things with a longer lens. In the 13th century, when salaried lectureships were introduced, bribery and even threat of violence were used to secure well-paid positions for unqualified masters, while students were being pushed out of the candidacy selection process. Avoiding corruption seems impossible.”

The philosopher in her dislikes when this concept is misused. Logical contradictions are impossible, the rest is convention. Relying on the day’s nostalgia, the fading context of the hearing, the immediate context of academic sin, and reference to the former grad students, she begins to chip a possible solution out of this modal stone.

“Bisaria,” she starts with a consciousness both public and private, “we’re not permitted to evaluate our own graduate students. At least not solely.”

“Correct. Initially, the Chancellors set and marked the exams, while the masters prepared their students. Of course, this was also vulnerable to corruption as… Oh, pardon me, I should allow you to finish your thought.”

“Thank you,” she says smiling appreciatively. “Unlike graduate students, we teach and mark our own undergrad students,” she says as the analogy forms. “Like assembly line workers that quality check their own work. When PSA was started, no one thought twice about this longstanding practice. We simply adopted the old evaluation scheme.”

“Correct,” to invite a coda.

She quickly obliges, “What if the graduate evaluation practices were extended to the undergraduate?” Her perspective and passion are synthesizing, as her internal mind map becomes clearer.

“You mean we do not mark our own students? Or at least not exclusively – as is required at the graduate level?”

“Exactly.” Renee waits for the map to upload in her mind.

Bisaria spent the first two-thirds of her thirty-year career in the old model. When the conversion was nearly complete, she left academia. Like many inside and outside of the academe she appreciated the need for corrective measures in higher education, but found it difficult to adjust to the PSA sanative. In the company of others, she initially took a step back. But after a couple of years of missing the collegiality and students, she returned. With her credentials and experience she was immediately admitted and licensed as an Academic Member of PSA. Though her junior in both experience and age, Renee was assigned as one of her practice mentors. It had been several years since they kept regular contact and random panel selection for this hearing had reunited them.

“I think I see it. Impartial, third-party evaluation could eliminate or at least mitigate some of the corruption Ortez and the RIMs are exposing. It might also bolster community confidence in the profession as a whole. And how do we implement it?”

Renee is reassured by her use of the plural pronoun, evidence of commitment to the profession. “Right, what’re the best practices? As we know, a graduate thesis or dissertation is sent to external referees who are ultimately included in the defence. Just last week, I returned such a favour for a colleague and one of his PhD candidates.”

Quid pro quo, as the lawyers say.” The intimation is clarifying.

When too close or too invested, it is sometimes hard to fathom faults, and even harder to admit them. “Of course...” says Renee. “Even the graduate level is open to corruption, though perhaps more subtle. But also with greater risk, considering so much of institutional reputation – or professional – hangs on the integrity of graduate level performance.”

Without seeing each other, they stare at their screens. Soon Bisaria snaps out of it, “Goodness. I apologize, Renee, but I must sign off. I have an appointment. Let us keep the channel open. It is nice to be working with you again.”

Heading back to the office to collect her things, she regrets not learning what else Ortez and the RIMs have discovered. The final taxi of the day takes her home. As the driver provides a tax receipt, he speaks effervescently of his third daughter entering postsecondary education – something that before PSA would never have been achievable on his salary. She is pleasantly surprised when he drives away shouting – Education is our right!

Like puppies, the boys bolt to the sound of front door. It’s approaching seven and she is finally doing the one job that truly matters.

“Mommy!! Mommy!!”

With open arms, “My candies!”

“We’re not candies, we’re people,” corrects one.

“Can we play?” cajoles the other.

“Of course – on both counts,” she says, recognizing that at this stage they will not catch the inclusion, but it’s never too early to start. “First let mommy put her stuff away. I’ll see you in the living room.”

In the few minutes she is absent they are already immersed in make-belief. Locked in a battle between good and evil for the fate of the world, they take no notice of her. She is Mom – neither hero nor villain. It is enough that she is present. Though she would love to join, she feels compelled to catch Ortez on Constructive Corner – the irony of which is not lost on her.

It's a very accommodating interview, allowing the congressman ample latitude to publicly denounce the profession. During a commercial break one of the boys is multitasking, “What’s ‘cloud-sourcing’?”

Taken aback, she realizes the commercial is selling cloud space. “I think you mean ‘crowd-sourcing’. It’s when a lot of people – not candies – work together to finish a job.”

“No, mommy, he said ‘cloud’.

“Right, the people can work together using…the…cloud,” she trails off.

“That’s silly. You can’t work in a cloud,” he says, as the connection is severed by his brother’s latest raid.

The rest of Ortez’s time is largely promotion of himself and his RIM allies. This frees her mind to pull out the map and add another bubble – “crowd-sourcing” – which morphs into – “crowd-evaluation” – which morphs into – “anonymous crowd-evaluation.”

“I’ll be back in a minute, boys,” she says without the slightest acknowledgement.

Logging on to her Society email, she composes:

Dear Bisaria,

I saw the Ortez interview. Though it doesn’t address all of the charges laid against us, what about this?

At all levels – (under)graduate – we could employ anonymous crowd-evaluation. Using current technology, we could require of all members (or their Proxies?) that they commit X number of hours to evaluation of student work, only it’s done with complete anonymity. The evaluators don’t know the instructors or students and vice versa. To balance varying evaluation standards, more than one member (maybe three?) could evaluate the student’s work and then average the marks. The instructors could still employ any sort of evaluation they like with their students, but if it’s to be used in determining final grades, then it must be placed in check by the anonymous measures.

Further, if we include in the PPR an open record of data for each practice, indicating the quality of education provided (e.g., pass/fail ratios, student awards, grad school acceptance rates, etc.), then this would induce academics and students to work together in earnest, since both stand to lose if effective instruction and study are not achieved – the students get fewer credits and the academics get fewer students. It’s mutual investment.

Substandard student performance or no performance couldn’t be covered up with pandering or bribery. The enticement to pay thousands of dollars beyond the federal tuition subsidy would be gone if top grades couldn’t be assured through gaming the system.

I see that the ghost writer and hired gun problems remain, but this might at least help curb corruption. What do you think?

Best Regards,

Renee


Though she is excited by the mitigative potential of this idea, she also feels guilty about not helping to save the world. So, she moves back to the living room.

“Mom! The bridge to Asgard is falling! I need your tela…telacon…”

“Telekinesis?”

“Right! That!”

“Ok. I’m in!”

In due course, the apocalypse is averted and champions on both sides are readied for bed. With the boys tucked in, she lays down. It has been a hectic day. Her head on the pillow, she checks messages before plugging in the phone. Bisaria has replied:

…So, this seems workable, but the details will ultimately tell us.

That said, what struck me after we signed off was that even if we keep the old evaluation scheme – one universities and colleges were content to use for centuries – PSA still offers benefits beyond any that the institutional model could hope to provide. We now have tuition-free education. The international student price gouging is gone. Academics are in control of their work and properly compensated for it. State-sponsored research is up. You know all the benefits. No need to preach to the converted.

I will pass this evaluation idea around my circle. If it gets traction, we should think about presenting it at the next regional Society meeting.

Good night,

Bisaria


Content for the moment, she closes her eyes. She has to get up at the crack of dawn. The animals won’t wait…

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Higher Education Is Not A Game

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