Dankprofessor’s Weblog

A weblog examining sexual politics in higher education and beyond.

Love, sex and external examination

Keith Reader in his commentary on external examiners in the UK elucidates on his position that external examiners may be the way to go to avoid potential conflict of interest situations when a student to be graded is in a sexual relationship with the professor.  Alan Clements in his article, “Strengths and Weaknesses of the External Examiner Mechanism” describes the process as operating in the following manner:

An external examiner is appointed to monitor a course. External examiners are normally senior academics who are paid a modest honorarium for their work during their fixed term appointment (usually 4 years). External examiners must be disinterested with no links with the university they are examining and with no conflicts of interest (e.g., a relative studying at the university they are examining). A typical university may employ 300 external examiners to cover all its courses.

The external examiner takes part in the development of a course as an advisor and is consulted whenever rules are changed. The external examiner’s principal role is in quality control and the monitoring of the exam procedure. A professor in the USA may create an exam paper on Monday, give it to the students on Tuesday, and grade it on  Wednesday. In an English university, a teacher sets an exam with a marking scheme that provides sample answers together and an indication of how the marks are to be allocated. This exam is handed in to the secretary responsible for exams. The exam office sends the exam and its marking scheme to another member of the faculty for checking. This teacher returns the exam with corrections and suggestions and the person who set the exam creates a new version.

Having been checked internally, the exam paper is now sent to the external examiner who looks at the paper from the point of view of accuracy, conformity to the curriculum and quality. The external examiner would, for example, consider whether the assessment examines all parts of the unit and whether it is capable of discriminating between poor, good and very good students. The external examiner the returns the exam paper with comments and suggestions. These are passed to the unit leader who is expected to make the appropriate changes.

Clearly, such a long and involved process of setting an exam means that it is difficult to fine-tune an exam to a class because the exam is set months before it is taken. Equally, it is impossible to set several exams per unit because of the lead time and the bureaucratic overhead.

The role of the external examiner does not end with the checking of exams. After the students have taken the exam, the external examiner visits the university and attends the unit and progress boards. The external examiner has the right to comment on any aspect of the department’s work and assessment procedures. The external examiner scrutinizes work that has been graded (on a sampling basis) and may even interview students and staff. The external examiner signs final pass lists to validate them.

After the exam boards have met, the external examiner returns to his or her own university and writes a report. This report is sent to the other university’s registry as well as to the head of department. The department is expected to implement any suggestions made by the external examiner and to report back to them. Ignoring an external examiner’s comments is not an option.

Assuming that this system as it operates in the UK is successful in terms of abolishing potential conflict of interest impacting on course grading by insuring uniformity/standardization of course content and course grading, such would obviate any need to give special attention to student professor sexual relationships.  Certainly the UK external examiner process would veto the call for banning student professor sexual relationships since conflict of interest is not a problem.  However, as outlined by Reader, such is not the case since he indicates that the renouncing of these relationships is part of this UK process.  But why?  Why should they be renounced?  Of course, such renouncing has occurred and will occur in the context of moral and sexual outrage or offense.

What disturbs the dankprofessor and I expect would disturb most American academics is that the UK process standardizes courses and exams and grading to such a degree that the professor almost becomes an irrelevancy.  Ones course is no longer ones course but rather the university system’s course; the professor simply becomes a cog in the educational mechanism.  For the dankprofessor, such represents dehumanization to the nth degree.  And, of course, such can also be viewed as a steppingstone to the impersonal world of online education.  This becomes an education with no teacher passion, no love of knowledge leading to the knowledge of love.  How sad, how utterly pathetic that in order to eliminate the personal in education we might end up creating a Brave New World of Education.

But if this is to occur in America, it will not come about tomorrow.  Students enrolled in one section of a course are unlikely to find that they are experiencing the same course that students are experiencing in another section.  There will continue to be good courses and bad courses; good graders and bad graders.  And there will continue to be classes in which what happens in class is important to the learning process.  There will continue to be courses in which it would be impossible for an external grader to engage in fair grading unless the grader attended all sessions of the class.  And there will continue to be courses in which students are graded on what happens in class-class participation, class presentation as well as being graded on term papers and special projects.  Will the external examiner read all the 50 or so term papers to insure that there is fairness in grading?  And, of course, in the UK, the US and Canada or any other country, the usage of external graders would be highly problematic in disciplines such as art and theatre arts and dance.

An expansion of  the educational bureaucracy in order to eradicate student faculty romance should be considered to be out of order.  The only persons who would end up profiting from such a process would be the bureaucrats and their allied entrepreneurs.  In our age of moral entrepreneurship, it may be a pipedream to call for a laissez faire policy in higher education re matters of the heart.  But such will continue to be the calling of the dankprofessor.

May 31, 2009 - Posted by | consensual relationships, ethics, grading, higher education, love, sex, sexual politics, student professor dating, United Kingdom

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