Maybe There is No Fixing the Academic Job Market

21 05 2010

That is the provocative title of a post by Megan McArdle.

Are University Students Getting Lazier or More Productive?

10 05 2010

Students at Michigan State University, 1950s

A study has found that full-time university students devote less time to academic work than they did in 1961.

The Falling Time Cost of College: Evidence from Half a Century of Time Use Data

Philip S. Babcock, Mindy Marks

“Using multiple datasets from different time periods, we document declines in academic time investment by full-time college students in the United States between 1961 and 2003. Full-time students allocated 40 hours per week toward class and studying in 1961, whereas by 2003 they were investing about 27 hours per week. Declines were extremely broad-based, and are not easily accounted for by framing effects, work or major choices, or compositional changes in students or schools. We conclude that there have been substantial changes over time in the quantity or manner of human capital production on college campuses. ”

There are two possible explanations for this phenomenon. One, students are less serious than they once were. Two, they can get the same amount of work done in less time thanks to modern technology. Ever try writing an essay on a typewriter? How about looking up a book in a non-compterized library catalogue? I’m just old enough to have done the card catalogue thing (in Grade 9 in 1990) but I can tell you it’s more work than an online OPAC. Let’s not forget about Jstor either.

Engineering Students at the University of Iowa, Present Day

Library Card Catalogue in Use in a Monastery in California, Present Day

Update (7:42pm, 10 May):

Here is a link to an ungated version of the paper. Let me quote from it:

“It is possible that information technologies have reduced time required for some study tasks. Term papers may have become less time-consuming to write with the advent of word processors, and the search for texts in libraries may have become faster with help from the internet. We doubt that this tells the whole story because the largest portion of the decline took place prior to 1981 (before the obvious technological advances would have been a factor) and because the study time decline is visible across disciplines, despite the fact that some disciplines feature little or no writing of papers or library research (e.g., mathematics). We do not, however, rule out these factors.”

Here is a key sentence:

“While it is not clear why study times have plummeted, we argue that the observed 10 hour-per-week decline could not have occurred without the cooperation of post-secondary institutions.”

One limitation of this paper is that it is largely based on US data. It would be intructive to see whether there has been a decline in work input in university systems where second-marking is the norm (e.g., the UK). Given that the technology available to students in basically the same world wide, this would seem to be a good  way of testing the authors’ suggestion that the decline in study time is  the result of “a non-aggression pact” between “many faculty members and students: Because the former believe that they must spend most of their time doing research and the latter often prefer to pass their time having fun, a mutual non-aggression pact occurs with each side agreeing not to impinge on the other.”

I like the authors’ term non-aggression pact. I know that it is a common one in game theory, but whenever I hear it I think of the 1939 Molotov-Ribentropp Non-Aggression Pact.

Stalin and Ribentropp, 1939

The Prof Who Outsourced Her Marking Work to Bangalore

7 04 2010


Lori Whisenant, who teaches business law and ethics at the University of Houston, has outsourced the grading of her students’ papers to a private company in Bangalore. See here. The students get very detailed comments on their essays from Indian writers with postgraduate training.

I have mixed feelings about this idea. It seems to me that the prof who sets the assignment should be the one to mark the assignment. After all, how else can you judge whether the task was an appropriate one that should be included in the course next year? Moreover, some disciplines are very culturally specific. For instance, I throw Hollywood references into my lectures, not Bollywood references. This means that some student essays might not travel that well. (Think gay and lesbian studies). Culture is a de facto trade barrier, which is one of the reasons I’m not too worried that globalization will erode the value of my skills.

That being said, the general concept of outsourcing writing assistance work to a low-cost English-speaking country has some merit, especially when it comes to pre-submission writing assistance as opposed to grading. I should explain that many universities have a place where students can bring drafts of their papers for editorial help before the due date. In some cases, the advice they get is of dubious quality.

I try to give my students detailed feedback on their written work. That’s an important part of my job. But large class sizes are a fact of life and are bound to remain so unless one of the following unpalatable developments takes place: a huge jump in tuition fees to allow for more faculty hiring and smaller classes; keeping the number of professors the same while reducing the proportion of young people who go to university;  a big infusion of government cash to allow for small class sizes; or the division of the existing wage budget into more but smaller salaries (i.e., a paycut for the existing professors).  Don’t hold your breath for any of the above.

Under the current arrangement, there is only so much individualized writing advice a professor can give each student. Moreover, there is much to be desired about the pre-submission assistance many campus writing assistance centres give to students.  Outsourcing the writing assistance work to India seems like a particularly useful idea for universities where it is hard to find qualified workers for on-campus writing centres. In general, good writers want to live in places where there are more opportunities to exercise their skills. This means that the pool of good writers is limited outside of the big cities, especially at universities that lack PhD programs in the humanities.  Emailing the writing assistance work to Bangalore is a superb idea.

In few years, it might be common to overhear students saying that they are planning to Skype their TA in India.

Alex Usher on University Departments

26 02 2010

I found a great article in Globe Campus on university departments. The author, Alex Usher, quotes a university president who once said “a university is a collection of departments tied together by a common steam plant”.

University Dropout Rate II

3 10 2009

I have posted before about the dropout rate at universities. I am now in the process of preparing a report on the literature on this question.

This has involved looking at the following book:

William G. Bowen, Matthew M. Chingos & Michael S. McPherson, Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities (Princeton University Press, 2009). Cloth | 2009 | $27.95 / £19.95
392 pp.

You can watch an interview with William Bowen here: