Bot for teacher

by Ben Wright

A promising, intelligent, and bright-eyed graduating class enters the workforce only to find a dearth of jobs, little appreciation, and non-livable wages. Sound familiar? I’ve had that stark reality dumped on my head twice—once when I graduated with a BFA, and more recently with my MFA.

cellular-1352613_640Thankfully, upon graduation this time around, I have been and remain employed, but many of my fellow graduating poets have found themselves dumped into the wild world of adjunct teaching in the City University of New York (CUNY) system.

An adjunct professor leads a hard, thankless, and penniless life. New adjuncts find themselves teaching classes no one else wants to teach to students whose primary and secondary education too often has failed them, and their adjunct professor is left holding the bag.

Adjuncts comprise about 70% of all teaching staff in higher education, and make about $2,700 per course. Don’t even think of comparing that figure to what college presidents (or, even better, football coaches) make.

I’m getting off track. Suffice it to say that the way The System chews up and spits out adjuncts is deplorable.

Meanwhile, another trend may be on a collision course with my adjunct friends—artificial intelligence that not only learns, but teaches.

I’m not another Chicken Little humanities major wailing about the end of an era (at least this time). A professor at Georgia Tech has been using IBM Watson technology to act as a TA on class message boards. Eventually, the AI responded accurately to 97% of student questions—nor could students tell that their TA was a computer program.

And the American Federation of Teachers has used Watson to build a program called Teacher Advisor, which answers questions from educators and helps come up with bespoke lesson plans. For now, it’s limited to third-grade math, but expansion plans are in place.

Teaching about AI and third-grade math can be automated. So what? It’s not like a computer can write—or teach how to write—a feminist reading of Paradise Lost. That’s true, and until we can figure out how to program creativity, empathy, or abstract thought, our eyes may fall to tenured professors (or a very lucky, but still broke, adjunct) to suss out Milton’s many facets.

But more basic concepts, like third-grade math, Common Core standards, or even common questions asked by students, can be given over to computers. And my recent-graduate adjunct professors find themselves relegated to basic language and composition courses, where student success is measured by checklists of concepts for which students must show proficiency. For courses like these, it’s easy to see a college administrator doing some mental math.

On one hand, they may soon have access to a professor who never sleeps, answers questions immediately, grades fairly, and checks all the right boxes. And you don’t have to waste valuable classroom space! On the other hand, you’ve got a group of increasingly disaffected adjuncts with decidedly human needs: a living wage, teaching materials, office hours. And in many places you have to deal with a union! You can see where this is going.

The question we have to ask ourselves is, “is it worth it?” I, of course, have an answer, but I’m biased. I know the effect that a caring, encouraging, human teacher can have on a struggling student or even one who doesn’t “get it.” Education shouldn’t be about checking the boxes, it should be about opening doors, re-learning how to look at the world with curiosity, and appreciating its beauty.

And, for now at least, I don’t believe a computer has the capability to extract a wider lesson on looking at the world differently from a lesson on how to write a five-paragraph essay. But those may be old-fashioned ideas. Even Whitman got tired of teaching. 

For now, the best I can do is empathize with my fellow graduates, buy them a beer every once in a while, and join them in solidarity as their livelihoods are gradually quashed. And I ask you to consider this possibility: what if your favorite teacher had been replaced by an AI with 97% accuracy? How might that have changed your trajectory in life?

Ben Wright supports global research studies for the Thought Leadership group. He has developed and supported projects on subjects including cloud computing, workforce development, risk management, and the future of money.