The graders are in Bangalore

To improve undergrads’ writing skills, University of Houston Professor Lori Whisenant assigns lots of writing in her business law and ethics class, which enrolls 1,000 students a year. But she doesn’t have time to read all those papers. Her seven teaching assistants lack the experience and time to provide detailed feedback. So she outsources assignment grading to Virtual-TA, which relies on readers based mostly in Asia, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education.

“Asia” must mean India, where educated people speak English — though not American English. You’d think there’d be a pool of unemployed English majors available for online work for low pay in the U.S. There are plenty of unemployed PhDs in the humanities, a Chronicle column notes.

Via Mark Perry’s Carpe Diem.

In response to comments: A newspaper friend who edits calendar write-ups outsourced to India finds it necessary to change Anglo-Indian expressions and diction to American English.

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  1. > where educated people speak English — though not American English.

    Aside from the accent, what is the difference between the English spoken in Asia and the English spoken in the United States?

    From my interactions with both, the major difference seems to be only that Asians spell correctly and use correct grammar.

    Illiteracy aside, there isn’t some magic ‘American English’ that is not spoken anywhere else. The worldwide diffusion of American culture has ensured that.

    And, since these graders are marking papers, not conducting interviews, it doesn’t matter one whit how accented their voices are.

    As to the suggestion that unemployed PhDs ought to be doing work at Indian wage-labour rates – it might be useful to do some research on how much these markers are being paid. Because I don’t think a $5-a-day is really going to work out for Americans of any stripe.

  2. Not to mention, how many of them would you bet *cannot* give substantive feedback? I know that, out of a graduating MA class, about 2/3 were GTAs, but less than a quarter of those could write well, or give good feedback on their students’ papers.

  3. I see some inconsistency in educators wanting students to connect to peers worldwide but disparaging the skills of those international peers.

    In a global economy, American students must be able to communicate in writing using standard edited English. International students are far better trained at SEE than Americans.

    Steve’s point about pay is well taken. I saw an add at Mechanical Turk listed in the “high paying jobs” category last week. The job was to write ten 100-word pieces, search engine optimized, in 2 hours. The pay was $1.70 for the set of 10. How many American PhDs would work for that wage?

  4. Greifer says:

    –You’d think there’d be a pool of unemployed English majors available for online work for low pay in the U.S. There are plenty of unemployed PhDs in the humanities, a Chronicle column notes.

    I wouldn’t think they knew enough grammar or rhetoric to grade well, though.

  5. Aside from the accent, what is the difference between the English spoken in Asia and the English spoken in the United States?

    If you’re talking about Indian English, a fair amount is different. Native Indian languages (mainly Hindi and Tamil) strongly influence English usage by Indians. For example, in my experience working with Indians, the phrase “this morning” is rarely used. Instead, “today morning” is used. Likewise, “take rest” is used in place of “get rest”.

    Also, very often Indians will use regular suffixes on irregular words. I’ve been asked if I’ve made the “updation” to the document.

    This is not to say that I think this is a bad idea. Academic papers should not be written in such a way that they are incomprehensible to speakers of different varieties of English, so the American vs. Indian English thing should be a feature.

  6. Do they use British spellings? What about British terminology? soccer side/team, jumper/pullover, waistcoat/vest, lorry/truck etc.

  7. Cynical says:

    My experience with items written by persons of Indian birth is that they can be very difficult to understand because of their relatively limited English vocabulary and consequent odd usage (in their terminology they often pick an English word which might be related but isn’t close enough for easy grasp). If the English in the papers is equally obscure to the graders, the results might be hilarious but not very useful.

  8. Even if they all speak and write English, so what? They’re not subject matter experts. Speaking of ethics, if my prof. did this, I’d feel ripped off. How are random hirelings supposed to evaluate the content of the papers?

  9. Roger Sweeny says:

    Ah, but they are not random,/i> hirelings. The question is whether they are good hirelings. Some of the commenters seem to think that they are better than many in-house hirelings would be.

  10. old rpm daddy says:

    Without having actually researched, I might suggest the markers are from the Philippines. As in India, the educated part of the populace is proficient in English, though the Filipino form of English is probably closer to the American version than the British. Not exactly the same as the American version, though.

  11. You’d think there’d be a pool of unemployed English majors available for online work for low pay in the U.S. Not low enough pay. I don’t believe unemployed (unemployable?) English majors in the US are real go getters.

    I think Quincy and Cynical are living in the past. Most Indians in the US workforce speak very standard English and if they are limited they won’t be in the workforce for long.

  12. I know of medical offices whose dictations are done in India. Dictation is either by phone or on computer and is returned by email or fax (including cc to other offices), whichever is requested. The financial aspect works and the time difference mean that dictations are returned the next day. The office is satisfied with the results, although there are some errors. Corrections can be done online.

  13. Bandit –

    You’re (technically) correct, my examples are from the past. They are things I’ve heard *working with Indians* for the last four years. I heard “today morning”, well, “today morning”.

    I’m not saying that any of it is unintelligible or bad, just different. In fact, quite a few of the Indians I work with are better spoken than the their American English-speaking counterparts. That does not change the fact that Indian English has idiosyncrasies that are different from American English.

  14. SuperSub says:

    The question is… are the possible errors introduced by foreign graders more significant than the errors introduced or allowed by overworked TAs?

  15. Linda: What’s SEE? I just tried Googling for Standard Edited English, but didn’t find anything – other than (US) University assignment notes that said they had to use it to get a grade whatever.

    Momof4: … We have “football teams” here in the UK, not Soccer sides or teams!

    As an academic, I’m amazed that she’s allowed to get someone overseas to do the marking! (Who pays??) – however, as far as the use of UK vs. US English goes, as we have a lot of international students, I don’t really mind what individuals use, as long as they’re consistent – so, if they want to refer to the “colour of the neighbours’ car” or the “color of the neighbors’ automobile” I’m happy. Just not if they have the ‘the colour of the neighbors’ car”!

  16. I dare say a part of this problem is having a class with an enrollment of 1000 per year, and (apparently) one prof teaching it.

    I wonder how much a student would actually learn about writing in that class. I am a biologist, but for my classes I do require a fair amount of writing (research papers) and I would never think of “farming” out the grading to other people – I know what I expect, and I like being able to see how our majors write (and if they improve). Of course, my classes have a yearly enrollment of about 60, as opposed to the 1000 described here.

    I would think it would be difficult to grade a “subjective” assignment (as opposed to something like a multiple-choice exam) if you hadn’t actually made the assignment and taught the class yourself. Maybe you could grade for grammar, but there are also subtler points of argumentation and organization that I think would be hard to grade.

    That said? The Indian-Americans (or immigrants from India) that I have known have spoken English that is more “correct” (in the sense of grammatical usage and syntax) than what I often do, and I am a “native” speaker of American English.


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