From Kafka to Computers, a Graphic History of Automation in Education


Copyright Reprinted with permission.

As the debate about the role of technology in education builds, two California community-college professors have published their own commentary on the automation of teaching—in the form of an illustrated comic.

Adam Bessie and Arthur King, who teach English and studio and computer arts, respectively, at Diablo Valley College, have weighed in with a piece of graphic journalism titled “Automated Teaching Machine: A Graphic Introduction to the End of Human Teachers.”

The comic was published by the left-leaning news site Truthout and has been circulating among faculty members on California community-college e-mail lists. It was inspired by the introduction of an automated reading machine to score English-placement assessments at Diablo Valley College, Mr. Bessie said in an e-mail. Previously, English-department faculty members had created and reviewed the assessments manually, a collective exercise that gave them the opportunity to discuss standards, he said.

“We were told that the robo-reader could do the same job as us for cheaper, which seemed an absurd notion,” Mr. Bessie said. “I had, before this, never heard of a robo-reader and thought that I had the one job that couldn’t be automated: that written human communication was one area that technology could augment, but not replace.”

The comic traces efforts to mechanize education from the 20th century through the present-day use of computer-based instruction and automated grading; along the way, Franz Kafka and B.F. Skinner make appearances. Unlike most comics, this one concludes with a “List of Works Cited, Consulted, and Recommended.”

It is a commentary on the “systematic removal of the student-mentor relationship, and it’s that one-on-one relationship that really helps to best guide each student through the learning process,” Mr. King said in a phone interview. “The mechanization of the learning process removes those subtleties that an instructor can pick up on on a student-by-student basis.”

The comic’s authors have received a steady stream of feedback, some from readers who are “incredulous” about the changes in education, Mr. Bessie said.

“I’m excited and honored by all the discussion it has created,” he said. “Many are as shocked and surprised as I was that this is happening.”

This is not the first time Mr. Bessie has turned his pen on the state of the American education system. Last year he worked with the noted graphic journalist Dan Archer to create a three-part comic series titled “The Disaster Capitalism Curriculum: The High Price of Education Reform.” It skewers, among other things, standardized testing, No Child Left Behind, and market-driven education policies.

Still, he is more optimistic than his graphic work might suggest, Mr. Bessie said.

“I firmly believe that if the public knows about the direction that education is taking, and can have a frank and insightful conversation, that we can empower ourselves to restore the human and democratic potential of our public educational institutions,” he said. “If I didn’t think there was a change, I wouldn’t be teaching—nor writing about it.”

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