Unofficially auditing university classes?
August 8, 2007 9:03 PM   Subscribe

Is it weird to ask a university professor if you can audit his/her class without officially enrolling in the university as an auditor ... and, as part of the arrangement, asking the professor if you can submit papers and have them graded and evaluated?

Asking for a friend:

"I think I mentioned to you that I was going to look into taking a [graduate liberal arts] class at [Prestigious State University] this fall. [Prestigious State] has a program where people who aren't full-time students can enroll in a class, with the instructor's permission, and you even get credit and a real-life grade for it (whether the [graduate liberal arts] department would later count that credit towards a degree is an open question, I think, but that's not the main point here). I've looked into this, and the snag is that if I do this right now I'd have to pay tuition for the class at the out of state rate, which is very expensive for one class. I don't qualify for in-state tuition until I've lived in this state at least 12 months. So, I wondered what you thought about the following: I've considered e-mailing the professor in the class I'm interested in taking and asking if he would allow me to "audit" the class, i.e., take it for no credit, and without being assigned a grade, and essentially no record that I had ever officially taken the class. Of course there's no way to know how a given professor would react to this, but I wonder if you know anyone who's ever done this, or if you think this idea sounds completely crazy or a professor might take offense at it? The problem with it is that I sort of am asking the professor to work "for free", because I would want to do the assignments and have the prof evaluate them, even if I don't get an official grade. On the other hand, the presence or absence of my tuition being paid into the system is not going to make a difference in the professor's pay rate. But it still seems a little like asking for charity when the prof will probably wonder why I don't just wait twelve months. (I'm not sure it would be appropriate to tell the prof I want to get into grad school one of these days and I'm not getting any younger, damn it). So, what do you think about this idea?"
posted by jayder to Education (43 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Uh, am I the only person who's seeing my question in tiny text?
posted by jayder at 9:04 PM on August 8, 2007

You probably won't "offend" the professor, but they're not going to do extra work for a non-student. Most likely, your email will simply go unanswered.
posted by mr_roboto at 9:09 PM on August 8, 2007

Professor would probably be annoyed slightly. It may not change their pay directly, but they're usually concerned with keeping their class numbers up. If they have so many students that they don't worry about class numbers, then they're already swamped with work. In fact in some schools "audit" means that your papers don't get graded (you're just allowed to sit quietly in a corner), because adding an extra set of papers is just that much more work.

I guess I'm just not seeing what would be in it for the teacher....
posted by anaelith at 9:12 PM on August 8, 2007

There's no reason for the professor to let you do that. Grading papers and providing feedback takes work, and it's not clear why the prof would do that for your friend.

If your friend wasn't looking to get their work graded, then it's a better but still negative proposition. From the professor's perspective, having someone in the room who has nothing at stake can be risky (money or grade).

Now, the bit about wanting to go to grad school there is (despite your friend's hesitation) perhaps the only viable angle. I'd suggest emailing the prof and say "I'm so-and-so, I've done X, Y, and Z, and I'm thinking about going to grad school. I really respect your work and your class looks fascinating. Could I sit in for a few sessions to see what a grad class in this field looks like?" The prof will understand the subtext that maybe your friend wants to work with them. Professors want good grad students, and so then there's something in it for them to let your friend audit. If your friend can get into a few sessions and the prof warms up to them, your friend might be able to convince the professor to let them stay for the rest of the semester. That said, I still think asking for graded papers is too much to ask for. The professor might offer it, but I wouldn't ask.
posted by heresiarch at 9:12 PM on August 8, 2007

I am a professor. I allow some people to audit my classes, but they are most often students who are interested in the material but who can't take the class for some reason, such as it would result in too heavy a load. In those cases I absolutely refuse to do any grading for them.

Here is why: I can deliver lectures to as many people as the room can fit at once, but grading takes up my personal time. Having someone who is there because they are interested is fine, since they often participate and ask good questions, but grading sucks enough that I won't do it for an auditing student. Also, I am slightly paranoid that an student will claim they did the work so they deserve a grade, and I want to avoid any hassles like that, so I don't let them take any exams either.

Your friend can send an email and ask. It won't hurt. It won't be any weirder than the other stuff they get asked to do. But I would not expect anyone to do grading for free.
posted by procrastination at 9:13 PM on August 8, 2007

Remember, too, that the professor might not even see the paper. A teaching assistant will most likely grade it.
posted by Zosia Blue at 9:13 PM on August 8, 2007

It's very standard practice to sit in on lectures. I wouldn't count on being able to participate in lectures, and forget about submitting papers or getting grades. What the hell is the point of having a paper graded anyway if you're not doing it for credit? Grades are pretty meaningless.
posted by Deathalicious at 9:14 PM on August 8, 2007

No one wants extra work. Don't ask him/her (or more likely a grad student) to grade.
posted by k8t at 9:19 PM on August 8, 2007

I am a professor, and I've happily agreed to arrangements something like this in the past. But what's hidden in the "something like" is that your friend should not, in my opinion, ask that your papers be graded. First of all, this is likely to be extra work, not for the prof, but for a graduate teaching assistant who is paid pretty poorly for all the official work they have to do; it would be bad behavior to put yet more on the TA's back.

What your friend should do is ask simply for permission to sit in on the lectures unofficially. This permission will probably be granted. Then, your friend should show, by their participation in class and questions after class, that they would be a star in the course were they officially taking it. At that point your friend is in a reasonable position to ask for a recommendation, which should certainly be a priority if they've been out of school for a while.

I think heresiarch's way of phrasing the request to sit in is excellent, by the way.
posted by escabeche at 9:19 PM on August 8, 2007

jayder said: Uh, am I the only person who's seeing my question in tiny text?

Mine showed up that way earlier this evening (but I think it's only showing that way to the original poster, don't know why though). Yours shows up as normal-sized text to everyone else.
posted by amyms at 9:21 PM on August 8, 2007

Hmm, depending on the program, there may or may not be too many people in the actual course. Seminars in my graduate department range from 6-20 students generally. Often there are professors or other university students who sit in and everyone has the opportunity to participate. I think that there are probably professors that I know who would be willing to evaluate and comment on papers received from people who weren't enrolled in the course if they knew of the students interest in the matter and possible pursuit of the subject. I don't know if they would be as willing if the attendant was not enrolled in the university at all. Also, if the course your friend is interested in is a graduate course, it seems more likely to me that the papers, or any other course work, would be evaluated by the professor and not a TA.

As a graduate student, I have had the opportunity to sit in on courses and have submitted work that has been evaluated by the instructor. In that case, the chair of my department talked to the professor beforehand.
posted by inconsequentialist at 9:29 PM on August 8, 2007

In my experience this is not uncommon in grad classes. However, usually the auditor has some prior relationship with the professor, and I think most professors would want to be sure that the auditor (a) is not crazy, and (b) won't mess up the class dynamic for the people actually taking the class. This could probably be addressed by meeting with the professor, and some professors probably don't care at all. I think anyone I know would not be offended about being asked about just auditing. However,

The problem with it is that I sort of am asking the professor to work "for free", because I would want to do the assignments and have the prof evaluate them, even if I don't get an official grade.

I think without a prior relationship with the professor it is extremely unlikely that they would be interested in evaluating the assignments, and it would be slightly rude to even assume this is an option. If the professor offers on their own, then ok, but that probably won't happen.
posted by advil at 9:39 PM on August 8, 2007

By the way, I don't recommend trying to go over the professor's head at all -- the professor may not care about official auditing policies, but it is more likely that the chair would (and even more likely, the more administrative the person is). I know of at least one case where people were prevented entirely from auditing a class, where the professor didn't initially care, all because someone had to go asking the chair of that department.
posted by advil at 9:43 PM on August 8, 2007

Have him check his school's in-state tuition policy. Most people assume that you have to be a resident for a year before in-state tuition kicks in. This is true, but some schools have a form for students to fill in, declaring in-state residency for tuition purposes. I believe some sort of proof is required: a bank account in the state, or something.

Or accidentally slip and put a typo in the "beginning date of residency" section of the college application, conveniently advancing the date of residency. Few schools who scrutinize that detail, and no cross-referencing of dates happens between college and DMV. The only number that they seem to really care for is Social Security, and drivers license number.
posted by Xere at 9:53 PM on August 8, 2007

As a professor I've taught undergraduate lectures on both the introductory and advanced levels, undergraduate seminars, and graduate seminars, so I can see this from a few perspectives. (And I've had students ask me similar questions. Here's what I think:

The fact is, students sit in on lectures all the time. I have no problem if a student wants to sit in on lecture regularly without being enrolled in the class, provided he or she does nothing to disrupt the class.

Under no circumstances, though, would I grade *any* work that a non-enrolled student attending my lectures submitted, nor would I ask any graduate teaching assistant to do so. (At my university, in fact, I couldn't ask them to do so; the TAs are unionized and this would be a violation of their contract.) Just meeting the needs of those students enrolled in the class takes up enough time without having to take on extra work.

(And, in response to the point about the presence or absence of a student's tuition making a difference in the professor's pay: that's not really true. I don't get paid each year based on the number of students in my classes, but departments do get money from the university based on the total number of students enrolled in their classes. Moreover, the university allocates the teaching assistantships that allow our graduate students to study *and* eat and pay rent based on enrollment. So it does matter that the students we're working to educate pay into the system.)

Smaller courses (which at my school are run seminar style) are a different story. Grading is frequently based (at least in part) on class participation. So a student auditing a seminar has already inserted him/herself into the grading process. Moreover, group dynamics are everything in seminar classes, and one person can throw off the whole class. There are very few instances in which I would allow a non-enrolled student to audit one of my seminars, for these reasons.

Like I said, I've gotten emails with requests like this before. They don't offend me; I always just give a perfunctory response (yes you can attend lecture, no I won't grade assignments, and come see me if you want to sit in on a seminar although the answer is almost certainly no) and get on to the emails about more pressing matters.
posted by historybuff at 10:22 PM on August 8, 2007

Depends on why prestigious school is considered "presdigious."

Depends on the professor; old tenured fixture, or new guy who's gagging for tenure (or even just a tenure-track job).

It doesn't hurt to contact the professor.

It certainly doesn't hurt to know what the class will be about; if the personages/topics covered are made available before hand, knowing at least wikipedia-level knowledge is a good thing.

(Carefully) Express (at least) comptence in the subject - prove that you aren't a total noob.

If the professor has written papers/opinions or has a web page (or hell, a personal webpage or something on myspace/facebook/whatever) - check them out.

Make it known early *why* you'ew interested in the class.

Repeat blurbs that the professor has made on the record (choose the ones mostly commonly used) but in your own language - and when they correct you, agree with them.

ymmv, but I've gotten in on a similar situation
posted by porpoise at 10:24 PM on August 8, 2007

Auditing includes attending lectures or sitting in the corner at seminars. It does not include doing the assignments and having them graded.
posted by oaf at 10:34 PM on August 8, 2007

Whether what Xere suggests about making a "mistake" on the residency date would work depends highly on the state. For example, here in CA, the UCs take the residency requirement for in-state tuition very very seriously, and I think the consequences of getting caught lying about it are serious indeed, so you might want to ask around before embarking down that path.

My boyfriend, anecdotally, who really did have the residency requirements satisfied still got denied for two years, and says that if one were to get caught lying he believes that their residency for the purpose of in-state tuition is permanently revoked and they're required to pay back the difference. This may or may not be true for whatever state you're in, but be careful.
posted by wuzandfuzz at 11:11 PM on August 8, 2007

I can't speak for the professors but if I were a student in one of your friend's classes, I'd think of him as a freeloader, whether he receives an official grade or not.
posted by Zé Pequeno at 2:03 AM on August 9, 2007

Is it weird to ask an auto mechanic if you can park your car at his/her garage without paying him/her to service the car... and, as part of the arrangement, asking the mechanic if you can get your oil changed and wheels balanced for free while you're at it?
posted by Pollomacho at 5:42 AM on August 9, 2007

Another prof here agreeing with the others. Sitting in is fine, grading is not. I'm never offended at those types of questions, though. It's not reasonable for me to expect anyone asking to really know what that sort of arrangement would entail, so no offense is warranted. Your friend will most likely get the same answer we've given, though, so to avoid the slight risk of offending the rare prof who might be offended and who is having a bad day I'd remove the request for grading altogether.
posted by monkeymadness at 6:00 AM on August 9, 2007

I think a professor may only consider it if he/she knew the student and thought they were exceptional. Read that as "rarely". In most other cases the prof would either be offended or have a hearty laugh as they deleted your friend's email.
posted by JJ86 at 6:19 AM on August 9, 2007

Is it weird to ask an auto mechanic if you can park your car at his/her garage without paying him/her to service the car...

Pollomacho, we have multiple auto mechanics right here in the thread saying, "No. That's not weird at all."
posted by mediareport at 6:30 AM on August 9, 2007

The fees for auditing a course also include administrative costs. For example: if the course readings, homework, or discussion boards are hosted online, IT staff might also be less-than-willing to add you as a "student" when they know you're not paying. In some cases, it's not even possible. Even if the professor is cool with it, they could be making it a hassle for other folks down the line. Why does your friend think the rules don't apply to him/her?
posted by Gable Oak at 6:40 AM on August 9, 2007

My point is that the poster's friend is asking someone (who is underpaid as it is) to do what they do for money without paying them to do what they do for money. While it may be fine to ask a shoe store if you could try on some shoes, it gets a little different when you ask the shop keeper if you can take the shoes home, for free.

Additionally, the professor may have placed limits on the number of people that could take the course based on the work load the professor can handle or the ability to moderate meaningful dialogue in class.
posted by Pollomacho at 6:49 AM on August 9, 2007

Yes to sitting in, no to grading.

My experience is that auditors almost invariably stop attending about half or two-thirds of the way through the semester -- I think I have only once seen an auditor complete the entire term in a class. So in a small seminar, where every person's participation really matters, and one person not doing the reading is really noticeable, admitting an auditor can be a problem, knowing that partway through the course they will almost certainly stop participating. I have seen plenty of auditing requests refused on that basis, and have known several professors who have a "no auditors" policy in their seminars because of it.

I and everyone I know would refuse the grading -- feedback on your work is something you are paying for with your tuition -- except in really exceptional circumstances. (I saw one case where a foreign student got caught in a visa nightmare, and a bunch of professors allowed the student to take classes as an "auditor," including grading the assignments etc, while the visa problems were resolved; one way or another they later gave the student retroactive credit for those classes.) However, I might well be willing to look at a paper you wrote as part of your process of moving towards applying to graduate school -- but I would be doing so to give you comments on it, not to give you a letter grade.
posted by Forktine at 6:58 AM on August 9, 2007

I was a professor long ago in a former life, and I basically agree with the profs here, only a little more colorfully:

1) I would have been thrilled to have someone sit in on my courses who actually cared and would pay attention. Half the paying students openly slept at their desks; only one or two out of the entire Ling 101 class actually learned anything. An eager face and the occasional intelligent question would have perked up the class considerably.

2) If anyone asked me to not only let them sit in but also grade their work, I would have grabbed a two-by-four and beaten them to a pulp. I didn't even like grading the work of the official students. It boggles my mind that anyone could consider this a sensible request. Don't even hint at it. Grading/evaluation is work.
posted by languagehat at 7:15 AM on August 9, 2007

"On the other hand, the presence or absence of my tuition being paid into the system is not going to make a difference in the professor's pay rate."

It is going to make a difference in his/her workload. Grading papers and assignments takes a non-trivial amount of time. I teach. I wouldn't have any problem with an extra student or two auditing, officially or otherwise. But there's no way I'd read or grade papers for students who aren't officially enrolled.

Asking to sit in is fine. Asking for anything more than that is asking too much.
posted by wheat at 7:17 AM on August 9, 2007

As many have said these papers would probably be graded by grad student TA's: a bunch of people who are delicately trying to balance learning, writing, teaching and eating and having to grade papers by someone who is under-the-radar isn't fair. TA's are assigned due to enrollment and this person might make the difference between the class needing 3 or 4 TA's (or whatever the figure is), therfore there might be one poor-bastard grad student who has no TA-ing that semester due to someone doing this. This is in addition to asking someone who is poor to work for free. Your friend is interested in grad school. I suggest that he/she talks to some grad students to get the low-down on how all this works...
posted by ob at 8:02 AM on August 9, 2007

If you're interested in feedback, you might DO the assignments and then, after they've been returned, see if you can schedule a 15-20 minute meeting with the professor to discuss your non-graded assignment.

During that time you'd give a very short summary of your paper (or whatever) and ask the prof if you were on the right track.

Maybe our resident profs could weigh in on that option? I get the impression that my old profs would've had no problem with this, but I also never audited a class, so I imagine it will be different.
posted by toomuchpete at 8:44 AM on August 9, 2007

It seems like an incredibly selfish request to me. Why should your friend receive for free what everyone else is paying to learn? (Some working two jobs or accumulating large debts to do so, no doubt) Prestigious State has more reasonable rates for in-state students precisely because they or their parents are paying taxes to subsidize the university. IMHO the way in which the particular professor would respond has little to nothing to do with whether or not your friend should do this. He should not. It is one thing for an odd student to sit in on a couple of lectures and another thing entirely to steal an entire class from a university. If you're not willing to pay, find an open source course or podcast where you can legitimately participate for free.
posted by B-squared at 9:41 AM on August 9, 2007

Response by poster: I'm the guy who posted the original question for my friend.

He thanks you for your great answers, but wanted me to add this information --- the class is a small, advanced undergrad seminar that may have some grad students in it. It has a limit of fifteen students and currently eight students registered. I don't know if that would change any of your answers.

Also --- I wanted to add this --- he would be certain to make a good contribution to the class. He graduated in this subject with honors as an undergrad at a good school, and won a big-name fellowship to study abroad after college, but he initially decided against pursuing graduate studies in this liberal arts field. Now, he's contemplating doing grad studies in the field but was rejected in his first application to this particular school. The graduate studies director told him, after he was rejected the first time, that he ought to consider taking a class in the department.
posted by jayder at 10:32 AM on August 9, 2007

As a one-time TA at your basic name-brand prestigious university, I base the following suggestions on the best-case scenario.

Your friend should go ahead and ask to for this under-the table audit, explaining that he wants the experience, has a strong background, is very motivated. From your friend's email, it sounds as if he's well aware that she's asking for a favor, so it's unlikely that he'd come across as wanting something for nothing. The thing about grading/no grading shouldn't be part of the request. If the answer is yes or "let's try it and see how it goes," he should sit in, do all the reading, and participate as any student would in class. He should also write the papers, because (theoretically) students benefit from doing so; papers aren't just a way for graders to rank students. Once the first paper is written and ready to be submitted, Friendy will have a pretty good idea of how to proceed: ask if the prof would mind listening to his ideas, looking at the paper, whatever. If the answer is no, that won't be the end of the world. The answer probably won't be no, though.

Good professors love having interested students who contribute meaningfully; your friend's presence could actually be an asset. The professor might invite your friend to submit his written work with the rest of the class. If he's unwilling to take the class if his work won't be graded, that's a problem. But otherwise, everybody wins. I don't think it's necessary to say anything about wanting to go to grad school; the prof is either going to ask, or will assume that he wants to.
posted by wryly at 12:45 PM on August 9, 2007

Response by poster: I am a little surprised at the vehemence of some of the answers here, suggesting that the request to have papers graded would be selfish or insulting. I think the appropriateness of this request really depends on the nature and size of the class, as well as the personality of the professor. When I was in grad school, it was often the case that there would be auditors (usually officially enrolled elsewhere in the university) in the seminar, and I think I recall two professors inviting auditors to write papers. In the best seminars, the professors seemed to regard the seminar as a collegial community of scholars --- people of high ability who were genuinely interested in the subject matter. Because the professors regarded the seminar discussions as an extension of their research, I wouldn't expect it to be regarded as an affront or an imposition to ask the professor to read and grade a paper you wrote even if you weren't enrolled --- I would almost expect it to please the professor that you were that interested enough in the material to make a written contribution even though you won't get a formal credit for your work. I have difficulty imagining, among the handful of world-class scholars under whom I have studied, those professors refusing to read a paper contributed by an auditor; my sense is that such professors, with the value that they placed upon the university as a place of real intellectual inquiry and not just credential-building, would probably regard it as crass and undignified to deny such a request on the basis that the auditor was not officially enrolled. I am almost certain that the supervisor of my thesis would have read the papers of an auditor; but maybe that's because he was a scholar known for his genial tolerance, who would have thought it petty to quibble over distinctions concerning enrollment. The class my friend is thinking about auditing sounds more like a graduate seminar than an undergraduate lecture class, so I hope that more relaxed standards for auditor participation might apply.
posted by jayder at 3:41 PM on August 9, 2007

I think your friend is asking for something a bit more unusual -- not just to audit the class, but to do so surreptitiously, without arranging for any official university enrollment status. (Generally, even if there is no charge, one has to "enroll" as an auditor, but each school is different.) For me to go along with that, I would need a really convincing back-story -- something better than "I don't want to pay the tuition that all the other students are paying." As has been said before, this is where there starts to be a big difference between sitting unobtrusively in the corner of the lecture hall and taking on a full participating role in a small seminar. What you will really want to avoid is some weird double-bind, where you are taking the class to improve your chances of getting into that program, but because you did so completely under the table, your performance in that class can't be used to help your chances of admission.

And as a side issue, is your friend sure that this is the right class for them to be taking? When looking to take a class to demonstrate seriousness in and preparation for a grad program, the common advice is to take a graduate-level class, not an advanced undergrad class. Is this the class the director of grad studies suggested they take? Or did they just pick it out of a catalog?
posted by Forktine at 4:07 PM on August 9, 2007

Jayder, it doesn't sound like you're particularly interested in others' opinions, you already have a well-crafted answer to your own question. And, for future reference, it's uncouth to suggest that the professors who responded here are poor scholars, poor teachers or both simply because they disagree with you.
posted by B-squared at 4:36 PM on August 9, 2007

Response by poster: B-squared, you're taking this question way too personally. Yes, I contributed my own answer, but my friend asked me to post this question so he could hear others' responses. So whether I am interested in others' opinions is kind of beside the point; this is a question posted for a friend who wanted to hear from other MeFites. The bitter language you're using in your comments ("incredibly selfish," "steal an entire class," "uncouth," etc.) suggests you've got some personal issues that cast doubt on whether your comments are really reflective of academic norms, rather than a personal vendetta or grudge.

And as to the bit about me suggesting that people are poor scholars, that's not what I meant. But I've noticed that many comments, like yours, imply a consumer mentality concerning higher education --- as if my friend is seeking to pilfer or scam a "product" from the university --- and I was suggesting that some professors might have another attitude, and value the contributions of an interested and capable auditor, regardless of whether the auditor paid or enrolled. I've seen that attitude in action, so I know it exists.
posted by jayder at 5:50 PM on August 9, 2007

I have difficulty imagining, among the handful of world-class scholars under whom I have studied, those professors refusing to read a paper contributed by an auditor; my sense is that such professors, with the value that they placed upon the university as a place of real intellectual inquiry and not just credential-building, would probably regard it as crass and undignified to deny such a request on the basis that the auditor was not officially enrolled.

This comment is uncouth.

A person can find intellectual enrichment in a number of ways, it just seems to me that this particular method isn't justified given the circumstances and isn't fair to others. If the class is too expensive, apply for financial aid or wait until residency kicks in.
posted by B-squared at 6:36 PM on August 9, 2007

I'd like to respond to your two most recent posts because, despite your response to B-squared, it's sorta hard *not* to take your longer response personally. You imply, in both posts I think, that those professors who would deny such a request think solely in terms of consumerism, not intellectual inquiry. But you're missing out on something very, very important here.

First, since this is a graduate seminar--I realize that at the department in which you did your graduate work a number of professors regarded graduate seminars as an extension of their research. That does happen. In my experience, though--and this includes taking graduate seminars in two different disciplines at two universities, and teaching graduate students at a third--and in the experience of my friends at other schools, this isn't the norm. Much of our graduate teaching consists of teaching basic "readings" seminars designed to give students the background knowledge they need in our field and to prepare them for their comprehensive exams (which is supposed to test their general knowledge in a handful of fields).

When I teach these seminars my overriding concern is in making sure the students know my field well--this material itself (guess which field I'm in!), the relevant scholarly literature, and the methodological issues involved. I am also concerned with sharpening their analytical skills, as expressed in both class discussions and in their written work. That's my job in a graduate seminar. I see those seminars as places of intellectual inquiry but also as serving a crucial professionalization function.

I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt and believe that you're not suggesting that someone concerned with "credential building" (an amazingly loaded term) isn't also committed to being a world-class scholar or with intellectual inquiry. And if you think that the idea that your friend is trying to get a bit of a free ride implies a consumerist approach, well, then you're dead wrong (at least for me). Let me give you the facts of my field and my department. We admit about 8-10 people a year in my subject area. The job market, despite some recent gains, is still very tight. We can guarantee funding for 5 years, and even that guaranteed package is only around $15K. We have to work very hard to prepare the students for the job market, so that both their knowledge of the field and their dissertation research is top notch. Moreover, we have to work hard to place them, not only by helping them improve their work, but also by writing rec letters, making calls on their behalf, etc.

Even so, not all of these students will find jobs after they get their Ph.D.s; many of them may never finished, in some cases for financial reasons. (It can be hard to finish once your funding runs out and you're having to scramble to teach a class here and there to pay the rent.) So those students that we don't place have made a commitment to embarking on a career as an intellectual, then spent anywhere from 6-9 years trying to make it, and all the while made very little money (or going into debt)--and they now have to find another line of work. Right now I have 12 students that I'm working with in my own field (ranging from first years to about to file for their PhD) and serve on comps committees for a handful of others. I want all of these students to be employed, to make a decent wage, to have health insurance, etc. This is where my graduate teaching/advising energy goes. My workload may be heavier than others in this regard, but all professors in every PhD granting department has to deal with this kind of thing.

(I'm not even getting into the balance we all strike regarding how much time we spend on graduate teaching, how much we spend on undergrad teaching, how much we spend on university committee work, and how much we spend on our own research and writing, which we need to get tenure, pay raises, etc.)

To refer to this professionalization process as "credential building," and to suggest that it is antithetical to intellectual inquiry seems myopic. We're teaching students to be scholars, preparing them to be intellectuals, but also trying to get them jobs. Any professor who advises graduate students and doesn't keep that in mind is, frankly, irresponsible. And that's why I'm jealous of my time with the students and the time I spend commenting on their work. I'm responsible for these students and *not* for the intellectual development of someone who wants to sit in on my seminar. It's not a matter of being "consumerist" (which means what, exactly? that we worry about how we're remunerated for the services we provide? that in an age of budget crunches we try to make sure that we keep the funding up for our department?) to understand that scholarship is a profession.

So--where's the part where I'm being crass and undignified? Is it the part where I'm worry about my graduate students has real people who need to be able to support their families and not merely as some kind of intellectual wanderer? Or does this make me a petty person because I'm "quibbling] over distinctions concerning enrollment"?
posted by historybuff at 5:00 PM on August 10, 2007 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: historybuff --

By consumerist, I meant the view that higher education as a provision of a product to a class of consumers, students, rather than a forum for intellectual exchange in which the benefits don't just flow from professors to students.

And as to your taking my comment personally, your offense at my comment is precisely parallel to this situation: Say a questioner comes along and says, "I'm really poor and hungry. I was wondering, is it weird or taboo for me to go to a grocery store and ask them if I might have a loaf of bread for free?" Many people chime in, "God damn, how selfish of you," "go pick up some aluminum cans and then you can buy your own loaf of bread ... loser," "I own a convenience store and I never give free things away -- you don't understand how hard it is to make a living in that business," "your question is deeply offensive," etc. Then I answer, "I know a couple of grocery store owners, and I perceived that they actually viewed it as part of their social responsibility as business owners, to help the poor; they thought it was petty and crass to stint on helping people who genuinely need it." And then YOU come along and take offense at my perception of someone else's (my grocery store owner friends') principles. The fact that someone else might have principles that are not the same as yours, is not an occasion for offense.

And for the record, I'm not just making this stuff up. One of my professors, a quite well-known scholar, occasionally mentioned his students' seminar comments in footnotes of books that he wrote. He welcomed auditor participation.
posted by jayder at 9:48 AM on August 11, 2007

One of my professors, a quite well-known scholar, occasionally mentioned his students' seminar comments in footnotes of books that he wrote.

This doesn't demonstrate how great a person he is, it shows that he has at least the minimum standard of academic citation ethics. You are obliged to cite the source for ideas that aren't yours, regardless of the prestige of the source.
posted by advil at 2:46 PM on August 11, 2007

Response by poster: Yes, of course it's not about what a great person a professor is, but I am arguing that some professors may not be so fixated on the formalities because the professors themselves benefit from the seminars -- and would therefore welcome unofficial attendees if they are capable of making a valuable contribution.

But I guess the lesson here is that one must be very wary of even proposing such an arrangement, lest one get one's head bitten off by the faculty member.
posted by jayder at 4:46 PM on August 11, 2007

What you're missing here, Jayder, is that college instructors--from graduate teaching assistants to full professors--work within very tight resource limits. And one of the most limited of those resources is time. I don't know a single instructor, at any level, who would not enjoy having as many intellectually curious students as will fit in a class. But teaching all comers is a logistical impossibility. There are only so many hours in the day. The paying students--whose fees support the university and its educational mission--have to come first.

If you would like college education to reflect the vision of Athens that you allude to in your post--instructors with time to spare, wandering the gardens engaged in enlightened conversation--then you'll have to create a modern academic culture where instructors have that sort of time on their hands.

So the answer to your question, which seems fairly consistent here, is that most instructors would have no problem with the student sitting in, but most would not think it appropriate to ask that assignments, even if they are done, be graded or commented on. You may not like that answer. You can surely find professors who would do it, because they are either dedicated to teaching, or gluttons for punishment, or simply take pleasure in circumventing institutional rules. But, and here's the rub, it is crass for you to suggest that any instructor is less a teacher, or less a scholar, for refusing to grade work from a free-ride auditor.
posted by wheat at 12:28 PM on August 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

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