A Philosopher's Blog

Sex, Power, Professors & Students

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on June 5, 2015

In February of 2015 Laura Kipnis’ essay “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe” was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Though perhaps potentially controversial in content, the essay was a rational and balanced consideration of the subject of campus codes regarding relationships between students and professors. In response to this essay, Kipnis was subjected to what she rightly calls a Title IX Inquisition.

While I will not be addressing the specifics of Kipnis’ essays, reading them caused me to consider the topic of university regulation of relations between professors and students. While the legal issues are certainly interesting, my main concern as a philosopher lies in the domain of ethics.

I will begin by getting the easy stuff out of the way. Since universities have an obligation to provide a safe environment conducive to learning, universities should have rules that forbid professors from sexually harassing students or pressuring them. Since universities also have an obligation to ensure that grades are assigned based on merit, they should also have rules that forbid exchanging goods or services (in this case, sexual services) in return for better grades. Crimes such as sexual assault and rape should be handled by the police—though universities should certainly have rules governing the employment of professors who are convicted of assaulting or raping anyone. Of course, since the professor would most likely be in prison, this would probably make continued employment rather difficult.

Somewhat less easy is the issue of whether or not universities should forbid consenting relationships between professors and students when the student is enrolled in the professor’s class or otherwise professionally under the professor (such as being an advisee, TA, or RA). There is certainly a legitimate concern about fairness. After all, if a student is sexually involved with a professor, then the student might have an unfair advantage relative to other students. I consider this to be distinct from the exchange of a grade for sexual favors—rather, this is a matter of such things as positive bias in favor of the student that results in special treatment. For example, that a professor might grade her boyfriend’s paper much easier than those of other students.

While sexual relations can lead to bias, these are not the only relations that can have this effect. A professor who is friends with a student or related to a student can be subject to bias in favor of that student (as distinct from pure nepotism in which grades are simply handed out based on the relationship). So, if the principle justifying  forbidding a professor from having a student in his class he has a relation with is based on the potential for bias, then students who are friends, relatives or otherwise comparably connected to the professor would also need to forbidden.

It can be argued that there is a relevant difference between sexual relations and non-sexual relations that would justify forbidding a professor from dating a student in her class, while still allowing her to have a friend or relative as a student. Alternatively, a university could simply place a general ban on professors having students with whom they have a potentially biasing relationship—be it sexual, platonic, or a family relationship. As a general policy, this does have some appeal on the grounds of fairness. It can, however, be countered on the grounds that a professional should be able to control her bias in regards to friends and family. This, of course, opens the door to the claim that a professional should also be able to control his bias in regards to a sexual relationship. However, many people would certainly be skeptical about that—and I recall from my own graduate school days the comments students would make about students who were sexual involved with their professor or TA. Put in polite terms, they expressed their skepticism about the fairness of the grading.

My considered view is a conditional one: if a professor can maintain her objectivity, then the unfairness argument would have no weight. However, there is the legitimate concern that some (or even many) professors could not maintain such objectivity, thus making such a general rule forbidding relationships justifiable. After all, rules limiting behavior are not crafted with the best people in mind, but those that are less than the best.

The fairness argument could not, of course, be used to justify forbidding professors from dating students who are not and will not be in their classes (or otherwise under them in a professional capacity). So, for example, if an engineering professor were to date an English Literature major who will never take any of the classes she teaches, then there would seem to be no basis in regards to fairness for forbidding this relationship. Since harassment and coercive relationships should be forbidden, there would thus seem to be no grounds for forbidding such a consensual relationship between two adults. However, there are those who argue that there are grounds for a general forbiddance.

There are, of course, practical reasons to have a general forbiddance of relationships between students and professors even when there is no coercion, no harassment, and no unfairness and so on. One reason is that relationships generally fail and often fail in dramatic ways—it could be problematic for a university to have such a dramatic failure play out on campus. Another reason is that such relationships can be a legal powder keg in terms of potential lawsuits against a university—as such, university administrators probably feel that their money and brand should be protected by forbidding any such relationships.

From a moral perspective, the concern is whether there are moral grounds for forbidding such relationships (other than, of course, a utilitarian argument about the potential for brand damage).

One stock argument is that there is always a power disparity between professors and students and this entails that all relationships are potentially coercive. Even if most professors would not consciously coerce a student, rules (as noted above) are not made for the best people. As such, the blanket ban on relationships is necessary to prevent any possibility of coercive relationships between students and professors.

It might be objected that a rule against coercive relationships would suffice and that if the professor has no professional relationship with the student, then they should be treated as adults. After all, the professor would seem to have no power at all over the student and coercion via professional position would not be a possibility. So, they should be free to have a relationship despite the worries of the “nanny” university.

It could be countered that a professor always has power over a student in virtue of being a professor—even when the professor has no professional relationship to the student. While a professor might have some “power” in regards to being older (usually), having some status, having more income (usually), and so on, these do not seem to be distinct from the “power” anyone could have over anyone else. That is, there seems to be nothing specific to being a professor that would give the professor power over the student that would make the relationship automatically coercive. As such, there would seem to be no grounds for forbidding the relationship.

It could be objected that students are vulnerable to the power of professors and lack the autonomy needed to resist this power. As such, the university must act in a paternalistic way and forbid all relationships—so as to protect the guileless, naïve and completely powerless students from the cunning, powerful predatory professors. This would be analogous to the laws that protect minors from adults—the minors cannot give informed consent. If college students are similarly vulnerable to professors, then the same sort of rule applies. Of course, if students are so vulnerable, then there should certainly be a reconsideration of the age of consent—increasing it to 23 might suffice. Then again, many students take six years to graduate, so perhaps it should be 24. There are also graduate students, so perhaps it should be extended to 30. Or even more—after all, a student could go to school at almost any age.

Unless it is assumed that students are powerless victims and professors are powerful predators, then a blanket ban on relationships seems morally unwarranted—at least on the grounds of forbidding relationships because of an assumption of coercion. However, there are other moral grounds for such rules—for example, a case can be made that dating students would be a violation of professionalism (on par with dating co-workers or clients). While the effect would be the same, the justification does seem to matter.

 

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A Philosopher’s Blog: 2012-2013

Posted in Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on October 8, 2014

A-Philosopher's-Blog-2012-2013-CoverMy latest book, A Philosopher’s Blog 2012-2013, will be free on Amazon from October 8, 2014 to October 12 2014.

Description: “This book contains select essays from the 2012-2013 postings of A Philosopher’s Blog. The topics covered range from economic justice to defending the humanities, plus some side trips into pain pills and the will.”

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Automatic Grading

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Technology, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on April 26, 2013

When I learned that EdX had developed software that would instantly grade written work, my first reaction was one of skepticism. After all, while

The Turing Test (Doctor Who)

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

spell-checkers work well and grammar checkers work sort of well, it seems unlikely that software could properly evaluate written work. My second reaction was that of hope-after all, I grind through hundreds of papers each year and automating that task would make my job much easier. This lead to my third reaction, namely worry regarding the implications of such software.

While my knowledge of programming is mostly obsolete, I do know enough about artificial intelligence to know that the current technology is most likely not up to the task of properly grading written work such as essays. After all, while checking such things as spelling and grammar can be automated relatively easily, properly assessing a written work would seem to require robust language comprehension-something that existing artificial intelligence can not do. Interestingly, in a letter about animals, Descartes argues that purely mechanical systems cannot engage in true language. While he was writing about animals, his view also applied to automatons and would now apply to computers. While Descartes might be proven wrong someday, I would suspect that day has yet to arrive.

Of course, it would be foolish of me to take my view to be certain. After all, I am not an expert on artificial intelligence and perhaps EdX has made an exceptional break through in the field. Naturally, the rational approach is to consider what the experts have to say about the matter and to consider the available evidence.

One expert who has been critical of such software is Les Perelman. In a detailed paper, he does a careful analysis of the effectiveness of the grading software. While the paper is somewhat technical, it does make a compelling case against the claim that such grading software is effective. In any case, readers can review the paper and assess his reasoning and evidence. Perelman is also well known for crafting nonsense that receives high marks from grading software. That this occurs is hardly surprising. After all, the grading software is obviously not actually capable of comprehending the essay-it is merely running it through a series of programmed evaluations and someone who knows how specific software works can create nonsense essays that a human reader would recognize as nonsense yet pass the programmed evaluations with flying colors. This sort of thing could be seen as a variation on the Turing test: being able to properly grade a written essay and distinguish it from cleverly crafted nonsense would be a passing mark for the software/hardware.

In regards to the matter of hope, the idea of automatic essay grading is appealing. Like many professors at teaching schools, I grade hundreds of essays each year. Unlike many professors, I get the graded work back to the students within a few days.  In most cases, I am sad to say, students merely look at the grade and ignore the feedback and comments. As such, an automatic grader would reduce my workload dramatically, allowing me more time to handle my usual 6-9 committees, being the unit facilitator and so on.

Also, I believe the software might encourage students to write more drafts. My students have to wait about 15-30 minutes for me to review a draft during my office hours or as long as a day if they drop the paper off at the end of the day. But, if a student could get instant feedback, they would have more time to revise the paper and hence might be more likely to do so. Or perhaps not.

As might be imagined, not all professors have my rapid turnaround time on drafts and papers (my students alway seem shocked when they get their work back so quickly). In such cases, automatic grading would be even more useful-rather than waiting days, weeks or even months a student could get instant feedback. There is also the fact that some professors do not provide any feedback beyond a grade on the work. If the software provide more than that, it could be rather useful to the students. There is also the practical point that even not-so-great software could still be better than the evaluation provided by some professors.

Of course, the usefulness of the software is contingent on how well it actually works. If it can be gamed by nonsense or does not actually assess the essays properly, then it would be little more than a gimmick. That said, even if it was limited in functionality, it could still prove useful. For example, I already use Blackboard’s Safeassign to check papers for plagiarism. While it does yield false positives and can miss some cases of plagiarism, it is still a useful tool. As such, the grading software might also serve as a useful tool for drafts and for a preliminary evaluation. However, I am still skeptical about the ability of software to assess written work properly.

My final response was concern about the implications of the software. While it might be suspected that I would be worried that such software could put me out of a job, that is not my main worry. While I would obviously not want to be unemployed because I was replaced by some code, I am well aware of the nature of technological advance and that automation can make certain jobs obsolete. If a program could do my job as well as me, it would be unreasonable of me to insist that I be kept on the payroll just because firing me would be bad for me personally. After all, the university is not there to give me a job.

My main concern is not that I would be replaced by an automatic equivalent or better (that is being replaced because the task no longer requires a human), my main concern is that I would be replaced by something inferior for the main purpose of saving money. In more general terms, my worry is not that progress will make the professorship obsolete, but that the grading software will be used to cut costs by providing students with something inferior (most likely without informing students of this fact).

It might be countered that such grading software could be combined with the massive online courses and thus produce fully automated education factories that could provide education to people who could otherwise not afford it. To use an analogy, the old model for universities would be a fine (or less fine) restaurant with chefs and the new model would be the fast food joint with food technicians.

I will admit that this does have considerable appeal. After all, bringing education to people at a low cost would have numerous advantages, such as allowing people who could otherwise not afford education to be able to acquire it.

Of course, there is still the obvious concern that the software would be used to sell an inferior product at the price of the premium product and also the concern that education could become a degree mill in which students just click their way to a diploma.

Having been in higher education for quite some time I can attest to the desire to make education more like a business. Being able to automate education like a factory would certainly be appealing to some (such as certain politicians and the folks who would sell or license the software and hardware). As might be expected, while I do believe that certain things can be automated (like grading T/F tests), education does not seem well suited to the factory model.

Another obvious concern is that automated education might not democratize education by allowing everyone low-cost access to higher education. It might very well create an even more extreme inequality than exists today. That is, the premier institutions would have human professors providing high quality education while the other schools, such as state schools, would have automated classes providing education to the masses.  While this sounds like a science-fiction scenario, it is actually well within the realm of possibility. I can attest, from my own experience, the push to standardize and automate education and the education factory is not many steps away from the model being strongly pushed today. This is not to say that the education factory will arrive soon or even at all. But it is likely enough that it is worth being concerned about.

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