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Taylorized Academic Labor

            By now the process of casualization of the professoriate is well-known.  Larger and larger proportions of courses are being taught by adjuncts rather than full-time faculty.  At the City University of New York, for example, despite recent hiring efforts, the number of full-time faculty has fallen from about 11,300 to about 6,300 since the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, the balance being made up by adjuncts, a fourth of them graduate students.  Faced with these changes in the job market, we are accustomed to consoling ourselves with the thought that we are professionals.  No matter how poor the pay or the job conditions, we will always have skills that set us apart from our most exploited brethren.  But will we?  Or are historians really practitioners of a form of highly skilled labor, one that so far has evaded the replacement by the closely regimented wage labor that has befallen so many other forms of work?

            For a week in the summers of 2004 to 2006, I worked as a reader for the Advanced Placement World History exam in Lincoln, Nebraska.  World History is among the newest of the AP exams, which began in 1956 with 1,229 students.  According to the College Board, by last year, that number had grown to nearly 1.5 million students, taking more than 2.5 million exams.  These courses, as is well known, do in fact substitute for traditional college courses at a growing number of schools.  According to the AP Program, 90 percent of all American schools accept AP courses for credit or placement.  In 2006 there were 437 World History readers, who read 84,000 exams of three essays each in 7 days.  The standard fee for a reader was $1,450.

            This high level of efficiency was accomplished through a thorough Taylorization of the grading process.  As the labor historian David Montgomery has explained, in the original form of Taylorism, a manager would observe a skilled laborer, say a bricklayer, and divide his motions into separate movements of the arms, back and legs.  These movements were then reconfigured in the most efficient way and taught to workers who were closely supervised so that they would no longer work in their own way and at their own pace.  At the AP reading, several days in advance, a subgroup of readers called “table leaders” were flown to Lincoln to read sample exams.  Based on the scores they gave to a sampling of essays, a standard rubric was developed.  When the rest of the readers arrived, we were divided into three groups, one for each question, and trained by the table leaders for the first day on how to score each exam according to the rubric.

            The method of grading is what was called “core scoring,” which gives the students points for the “assets” included in the essay, but does not subtract points for incorrect information.  The question I was reading in 2006, for example, asked students to compare the goals and outcomes of the Mexican, Russian, and Chinese revolutions.  Like the specific “therbligs” that made up reconfigured bricklaying, the traditional holistic grading process was divided into specific assets.  The students received one point for a thesis, one to two points for addressing all parts of the question (one point for two countries, one goal/outcome, one similarity/difference; two points for all six), one to two points for evidence (one point for three pieces of evidence on two countries, two points for five pieces on two countries), one point for a direct comparison, and one point for an analysis of the direct comparison.  Students could then receive one to two points for the “expanded core,” which was a more holistic judgment by the reader based on extra evidence, comparisons, context, or chronology.  However, no matter how good an essay was, unless it received all the points in the core, it could receive no further points in the expanded core.  This meant some essays that were quite good would receive lower scores than some short, weak ones.  All this was laid out in a score sheet with appropriate check boxes.  Our exams were “backread” by the table leaders for at least one day and then sampled thereafter to ensure that we were “on standard,” or following the rubric.

            Like Frank and Lillian Gilbreth (subjects of Cheaper by the Dozen), after whom “therbligs” were named, the advance readers reconfigured the assets to produce the optimal scoring method.  Standards were adjusted based on the difficulty of the question.  For example, in 2004, my first year reading the exam, the thesis for the comparative question could be split into two sentences separated by erroneous information, and could be located anywhere in the essay.  At my last reading, because the students did a better job answering the question, the thesis could not be split, could not contain any errors, and had to be at the beginning or the end of the essay.  Each question was subject to different standards, as were assets within the rubric for the same question.  Evidence sentences, for example, as opposed to the thesis statement, could contain a false phrase, so long as the rest of the sentence was accurate.

            The head readers contended the purpose of core scoring was consistency, so that all essays, no matter when or by whom they are read, are subject to the same standard.  But another purpose was clearly efficiency.  A professor sitting at the table behind me was grading hundreds of essays each day.  I managed about 500 over the course of the week, which I was told was about average.  Core scoring also produces a reliance on textbooks for questions that one might think were open to interpretation.  For instance, we would score a direct comparison that said the Mexican revolution was trying to accomplish democracy, while the Russian Revolution was trying to accomplish communism.  One might also think that the Russian Revolution had something to do with democracy, but a student would have had to demonstrate a firm grasp of the material to make a valid comparison on such a basis.

            Scoring was carried out in a large barn called the Exposition Hall, which was divided into “yurts,” curtained partitions of two groups of four pushed together tables, each with four pairs of experienced and new readers (“acorns”).  Each table was supervised by a table leader, and each bank of tables was assigned to a question by a “question leader.”  The question leaders were supervised by the “chief reader,” who had responsibility for completing the reading.  We began at 8 in the morning and finished at 4:30, with an hour and 15 minutes for lunch and two mandatory 15-minute breaks.  We never scored for more than two hours and 15 minutes at a stretch.  Meals and housing were provided at a Nebraska University dormitory.  At each break we were escorted to an adjoining shed with various snacks and beverages.  Tongue-in-cheek, each session ended with a factory steam whistle.

            To prevent the readers from feeling alienated, the chief reader made motivational announcements over a PA system at the beginning of each morning and afternoon, and the AP Program arranged activities each night, including a welcome party, a “Professional Night” for people to make contacts, and an “Open Forum” in which readers could ask questions of the test development committee.  Many of the high school teachers came to the reading because it gave them an advantage teaching their own AP students, but at least one tenure-track professor told me he was there for the money, as was I—a graduate student at the time.

            There seems to be an assumption that there is something specific to intellectual work that prevents it from becoming proletarianized to the same degree as skilled physical labor such as making shoes or furniture.  But commodification of labor, as Eugene Genovese has told us, is not an all or none, overnight phenomenon.  It is an ongoing process that, I would add, requires constant innovation to extend it to new areas of economic life.  With the exponential growth of standardized testing, and the continuing erosion of the tenured professoriate, I see little reason to think that the kind of labor I was performing at the AP reading does not represent a growing and relatively more important part of the academic labor market.