08/06/2012 09:35 am ET Updated Oct 06, 2012

The Economy, Outsourcing Jobs and Higher Education

The economy is a hot political issue as the 2012 presidential election approaches. Outsourcing jobs to foreign countries is a legitimate bone of contention that needs to be addressed not only by our presidential candidates and both houses of congress, but also by other sectors of our society.

The Chronicle of Higher Education and The New York Times have reported that some public and private colleges and universities are outsourcing the evaluation of written assignments to a company in Virginia that primarily employs people in India, Singapore and Malaysia. It's entirely a "virtual" program. The most surprising thing about this practice is that it is happening on college campuses -- some high-profile institutions -- where one would expect the core principles of English composition to be held in the highest esteem. Instead, the evaluation of written assignments is being relegated to people in Asia.

Based on the website of the company providing the outsourcing and direct quotes from educators, there are two reasons for this program's popularity: (1) many faculty members believe grading papers is a menial task that takes too much time they could be spending in more productive ways and (2) many college instructors and their TAs are not well-grounded enough in grammar to do the job. Both are shocking indictments.

Colleges and universities using this outsourcing program give it high marks. They point out that offshore workers merely evaluate the papers and professors decide on the grades. They describe the foreign evaluators as "professionals" who are well trained in English composition and provide "expert advice" to professors.

Here's the rub! We rely on our universities to be on the cutting edge of academic excellence, which includes helping students hone their written and verbal communication skills. Yet, our educational institutions are outsourcing to people in foreign countries something as fundamental to education as grading term papers and final exams. In a country so concerned about continuing to be an international leader and about unemployment, under employment, and quality education, it just doesn't make sense for our educational institutions to outsource this work.

Outsourcing is not new for our country. For many years we have been outsourcing more and more jobs in our manufacturing and service industries. Now we are outsourcing high-level responsibilities in education, front-and-center corporations, and major financial institutions. In my opinion, we cannot expect our country to continue being a world leader if we keep outsourcing to offshore locations work we could and should be handling ourselves.

As a grammarian I constantly use updated technology. I am not opposed to the technology that makes it possible for people from Asia to grade papers from the U.S. I firmly believe that we, as a country, should do everything it takes to be at the forefront of the high-tech sector. But, at the same time, we need to be in the forefront of solid practices in English composition. After all, grammar is the very foundation of communication with one another and the rest of the world.

It is shamefully unacceptable that we cannot find enough people on our college campuses who are both willing and adequately prepared to grade term papers and final exams. Academia needs to make sure that we have an ample supply of grammarians now and in future generations. And educators on all levels need to be certain that we do not emphasize the use of technology at the expense of learning the basics of good grammar.

Today's world is too complex for any country to think it can isolate itself and rely only on the resources of its own people. Yet, countries should make every effort to train and use their own supplies of human resources before turning to other countries for workers. And America needs to guard against the dangerous trend of outsourcing jobs to offshore locations that we could and, certainly in the case of grading papers and tests, should be handling ourselves.

This article is being written from the perspective of education -- from my personal experience as a classroom instructor and college administrator. Grading papers and tests properly -- taking the time to write helpful and critical comments in the margins and at the tops and bottoms of the pages before returning them -- is very time consuming. But experience has taught me there are few things a classroom teacher does that are more important.

Whether or not faculty members want to hear this is up for grabs, but students have told me time and again that they frequently learn more from the written feedback they receive on papers and tests than they do from classroom lectures and discussions. There is no question in my mind that instructors should grade their own papers and tests and that such important tasks definitely should not be outsourced to foreign countries. In very large survey classes, it may be acceptable for professors to delegate grading papers and exams to their TAs as long as those TAs are advanced graduate students majoring in the subjects they are grading papers for and are being supervised carefully by the faculty members they are working for. Grading the term papers and final exams of our college and university students definitely should be kept on their respective campuses.

Yes -- the economy is of major concern to most people, and outsourcing jobs to foreign countries is a practice we, as a county, can and should put a stop to. And, by the way, if you plan to visit a college or university to decide if it is the right place for you or one of your children to attend, be sure to ask who grades the written assignments.