Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Academic Capitalism Meets Volunteer Work: Why I Hate the Co-Curricular Record

A few years ago, I read Denise Clark Pope's book Doing School, an ethnography of high-achieving high school students in Silicon Valley. One of the more memorable anecdotes concerned one of the high-achieving students, Eve Lin, who was very careful to conceal the fact that she had been volunteering at a hospital from her friends. It was not out of modesty that she did this--her primary concern was that her friends would start to volunteer at the hospital as well, thereby robbing her of any edge that she would have in the college application resumé arms race. After all, if everyone's got "hospital volunteer" on their resumé, the exchange value of this designation would go down significantly.

Although I found Eve's story pretty interesting, I figured that it was at the safely at the margins of student life. One expects to hear about these sorts of things happening in places like Silicon Valley and New York City. However, I was recently surprised to hear that the same sort of thing, which we might call "resumé building charity capitalism," (if I'm in a good mood) is now being given substantial institutional support at several Canadian universities. At Dalhousie University, for example, the student services office now offers a document called the "Co-Curricular Record," which is basically an official transcript of your volunteer service. If you've done hospital volunteering, student services now wants you to "get accredited" so that this activity will appear on an official "co-curricular" transcript issued by the university.

Just check out this handy little video that Dalhousie University (a much longer version of the video can be found here) made in order to justify the existence of this ridiculous document:

Med school wants to know whether people have done volunteer work, and this must surely mean that there is a pressing need for accreditation of this type of work. Otherwise, how shall we separate the real hospital volunteers from the fake ones? In addition, if we don't monitor and accredit all of this goodness and selflessness, how can it possibly be turned into academic capital? I mean, don't the students who pile up the most volunteer hours in the most places deserve to be rewarded in terms of some serious exchange value? That's surely what the spirit of volunteerism is all about. I mean, folks like Jesus and the disciples may not have been very strong in terms of their academic transcripts, but imagine their outstanding performance on their co-curricular records! We'd definitely give them lots of points for an outstanding effort as President and Executive Officers of the Loaves and Fishes Club, but we might have to avoid certifying their leadership roles in the Anti-Usury League. Employers might not like all that moneylenders-out-of-the-temple stuff, after all.

All joking aside, their are two main reasons that I dislike the idea of the co-curricular record.

First, it further credentializes an activity that should remain mostly uncredentialed. Perhaps I am terribly naive in my hope that people should volunteer out of a desire to make a difference and not merely because they want to harvest gains from the approbation they receive, but there it is. And even if people do claim credit, they should not be so concerned about getting this credit that they demand that the entire sphere of student volunteerism be credentialized. I certainly don't care if there are a few fake hospital volunteers floating around out there, and neither should anyone else who sees the intrinsic value in the volunteer work they perform. And in any event, the fake hospital volunteer is, at least, an honest fake, unlike the person who volunteers simply for the credit that it brings them.

The second problem with the co-curricular record is that it will create more administrative bureaucracy in the university. Someone in the student services office will now have to administer these documents, which will not be easy due to the large number of students and volunteer organizations that will have to be dealt with. "They just can't keep up with the paperwork over there!" we will hear. "New Plans to Expand Co-Curricular Record Office," will read the headline in the university bulletin. Perhaps, in the not-too-distant future at some North American university, a Co-Curricular Records Office will be created, along with a position of Assistant Vice Dean for Co-Curricular Affairs. This, surely, is just what the university needs to help out with its core missions conducting research and teaching students. Why hire a new tenure-track professor when you could hire half of an Assistant Vice Dean for Co-Curricular Affairs for the same price?

But perhaps it is useless to rail about these things. I probably couldn't have even put this blog post on my co-curricular record, so I'd better get back to working on something that's got better exchange value than this.

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