23 June 2009

Unions Have No Place in the Classrooms of the Nation!

CUPE, the union I love to hate, whose collective stupidity knows no bounds, has done it again. The National Post reports on a successful grievance launched by CUPE at University of Toronto against
psychology professor Steve Joordens [who] was using specially designed software to have students grade and comment on one another's written work. Professor Steve Joordens said he wanted to have his 1,500-student, first-year psychology class write and think critically, but there was no money to hire teaching assistants required to do the extra marking. Before he introduced his peer-marking system, all class assignments were written on multiple choice sheets and marked by a machine.

"What you can't do with a multiple-choice exam is really push students to think critically and to answer open-ended questions," Prof. Joordens said in a telephone interview from his Scarborough home. "You also can't assess their ability to actually communicate clearly."
CUPE's argument is that the students were doing unpaid marking, and that violates the collective agreement for Teaching Assistants. "In the words of spokesman Mikael Swayze, "If students are doing marking, then they're in our bargaining unit and must be paid." " As today's National Post editorial points out,
in the case of Professor Steve Joordens' psych class, the alternative to having written assignments peer-marked was not to have written assignments marked by unionized TAs, but to have no written assignments at all. He will now have to return to the same traditional practice followed in most introductory psych classes: basing grades entirely on machine-readable multiple-choice exams. ... The very possibility of bringing about change to the factory-like environment of undergraduate survey courses was a major breakthrough for Joordens, who developed PeerScholar with his grad student Dwayne Pare. Peer grading may sound like a loopy idea, but early research by Joordens and Pare showed that for a simple assignment involving a written reaction to a set text, peer grading is statistically indistinguishable from "expert" grading by trained graduate students -- if you have enough peers. ... The Ontario Superior Court's support for CUPE's grievance means that the Joordens/Pare research will be very difficult to reproduce scientifically, under real-world conditions, inside Ontario. It also means that PeerScholar, as a made-in-Ontario software application, will be hard to sell to colleges and universities where teaching assistants are unionized. And the potential for PeerScholar to improve the quality of large first-year survey classes may never be realized. How often does a labour union, with one single action, harm science, education and business all at once? What an astonishing hat trick of ignorance and greed.
The union, which frames everything as a class issue of labour vs. management, sees only exploited workers among the students. The polarization of its particular lenses prevents hard-core unionists from seeing the world any other way: it's us - beleaguered workers - against them - fat-cat capitalists. And "us" is always entitled to our entitlements, be it the exclusive "right" to usurp professors' prerogative to introduce an additional pedagogical exercise in critical judgement and content review, or the "right" to bank sick days as some sort of end-of-career bonus for showing up to work that is bedevilling the city right now. (Oh yeah, that's CUPE, too.)

I typically use some component of peer-marking in my courses. It has pedagogical purpose to enable students to think critically about the issue of evaluation and rubrics, and therefore to think critically about their own submissions. It prepares those who would pursue a future academic career for the pervasive practice of peer review. And, it helps to create organization-ba within the class culture. The union's interest is not pedagogy. Nor is their interest coincident with that of all students (it took years before non-TA grad students were able to arrange a dental plan because CUPE members kept blocking referenda that would have enabled it). CUPE cares for CUPE. Won't somebody please think of the students!

That would be the professors, now, wouldn't it? Hey CUPE: Stay the hell out of our classrooms!

Update (24 Jun 2009): Professor Anne Urbancic writes to tell me that this happened to a group at Victoria University at University of Toronto. Students put in place a peer mentoring program and CUPE went after VIC for the same reasons. It seems that if you organize study groups among students, you may well find yourselves targetted by a union that increasingly seems to be anti-education. Then again, why would a union want to encourage clear, rational thinking, logic, and benefit for all of society?

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