Thursday, December 8, 2011

Gogol in Nigeria: Dead Students

One of my favorite Great Works of literature I stumbled on in my own reading was Gogol's Dead Souls. It tells the story of a fellow in Russia who wants to prove that he has a large farm.

The way to prove you have a large farm is to show that you have a lot of people living and working on it. The way you prove that is that the census man comes along and counts the people working on your farm.

But of course, time passes between census visits. On a very large farm, any number of people will pass on or leave the farm before the census man comes again. The protagonist therefore goes to a number of owners of very large farms -- each satirically representing a different element of Russian society -- and asks to buy their "dead souls" from them. No bodies need be moved, no lives disrupted. He merely wants to buy the right to claim them as workers on his farm.

It's a very entertaining, slightly macabre work and a real pity Gogol died before finishing it.


So here I am proctoring a final for one of my classes. There are about 30 students registered for the course. They are all real people. I've seen all of them in class at least once. For some reason, however, there are 5 students who I've seen ONLY once. They have turned in no homework. They didn't attend class. I've seen no emails from them. They've never come to office hours. There have been no attempts to drop the course. They aren't sitting here right now to take the final.

I have some dead souls.

Part of me contemplates the economics of dead souls. These students are paying tuition. I think - but don't know for certain - that their tuition is a little higher for having registered for this course. Those 5 students produce no variable costs and we can spread the fixed costs of my instruction (like my salary) over more students. It is therefore cheaper for the other 25 students to take this course than if those 5 students didn't exist. Not only that, but because they ask nothing from my time, the other students get more of my time and instruction quality increases marginally.

Part of me contemplates the market for dead souls. Surely there are wonderful, interesting classes at AUN that couldn't be taught because not enough students signed up. Isn't it a pity we don't have a market so that some literature teacher can buy my dead souls and keep a class of 3 students open who really want to learn about Gogol!

When I've talked to other faculty about this, they contemplate what I'll term the political economy of dead souls. That is, how to game the system. Since a course will be shut down if there aren't enough students, it is rumored that some professors who no longer work here would flunk students during the year so that they would sign up for that professor's summer class. He then gives everyone an easy A and gets paid extra to do less work. "I see dead people. Walking around like regular students ... They don't know they're dead."

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