Online education and the degradation of academic work.

4 10 2011

I’ve been re-reading Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century again for the first time in many years. I didn’t do it justice the last time I mentioned it. The guy wasn’t just aping E.P. Thompson, he was describing why hating your job in an industrial economy is practically inevitable. I’m actually amazed how much of this book I internalized all those years ago.

Yet I’m most grateful that I’ve re-read Braverman because it re-introduced me to Charles Babbage. Having read The Age of Wonder, I knew Babbage as the English guy who created the “difference engine,” the first proto-computer. However, little did I realize that I had first encountered Babbage in Braverman’s work. This is from On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures and I think it says it all:

“[T]he master manufacturer, by dividing the work to be executed into different processes, each requiring different degrees of skill or of force, can purchase exactly the precise quantity of both which is necessary for each process.”

College professors are like craft workers who see the market for their labor shrink with technological change. We teach. We do research. We assist in governing the university (which means we sit in meetings). Our salaries reflect all these duties. It should come as no surprise to anyone in academia that university administrations have been dividing this work and selling extra classes out to adjuncts for thirty years now.

Online education is adjunctification on steroids. Its advent has nothing to do with the quality of higher education at physical campuses. It’s about buying the milk instead of the whole cow. Breaking down the functions of professors and reverse-auctioning them off to the lowest bidder saves universities a lot of money. Here’s Bill Keller of the New York Times, discussing precisely this phenomenon in a column devoted entirely to this general subject:

There would be huge audiences and paychecks for superstar teachers, but dimmer prospects for those who are less charismatic.

But how are we supposed to distinguish ourselves teaching online? Charisma is a multi-dimensional trait that does not translate easily from one end of a computer screen. In fact, no aspect of education atomizes well. The effect of doing it anyways on teachers should be obvious by now, so here’s an English professor at Huffington Post discussing its effects upon students:

Although I could agree that the judicious use of technology can prove useful in teaching, the bizarre notion that a machine, no matter how cleverly developed, can substitute for a live teacher is in keeping with the bizarre notion that standardized tests can of themselves accurately measure educational progress. It has always been the teacher whose intangible gifts inspire students who might not enter a classroom with a positive attitude toward learning but leave it with a hunger for knowledge, not another machine. The human element is becoming less and less visible in this age of robotized answering machines, internet dependency, and data-driven decisions on socially beneficial programs without raising students to believe that there is no passion, no complex thought, no intellectual and, yes, emotional connection between what a child learns and how he or she learns it.

The whole, in other words, is greater than the sum of its parts.

The “experts” don’t care. There is no room for sentimentality in MBA thinking. In fact, they salivate at the prospect of the de-skilling of the professoriate. Keller’s future resembles what his colleague Tom Friedman (in the same newspaper on the same day) sees as the future of the entire economy: a nation of freelancers. Bye bye tenure. Bye bye job security of any kind. That’s how academic work becomes degraded, and I don’t think you have to be a socialist to suggest that this isn’t really good for anyone involved.

Yet there’s still time to change our inevitable future. According to Braverman:

“The destruction of craftmanship during the period of the rise of scientific management did not go unnoticed by workers. Indeed, as a rule workers are far more conscious of such a loss while it is being effected than after after it has taken place and the new conditions of production have become generalized.” [p. 94]

Are you happy with your “conditions of production?” If not, you better speak up now then before online education becomes the new normal since they won’t get any better when you’re competing against your cheap and de-skilled colleagues.

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4 responses

5 10 2011
Blinded by science. « More or Less Bunk

[...] let’s go to Braverman again. This thought is in Labor and Monopoly Capital, but it’s also put very succinctly in a really [...]

15 06 2012
Workers’ control in academia. « More or Less Bunk

[...] written about Harry Braverman in this space before. The title of this post is a variation of a book title by the late David Montgomery. However, my [...]

17 12 2012
For faculty, educational entrepreneurship is a devil’s bargain. « More or Less Bunk

[...] written about Braverman before here and here, but I picked the book up again last week and reread an extended excerpt he has from the efficiency [...]

22 08 2013
On the phenomenon of bullshit (academic) jobs. | More or Less Bunk

[…] of Bullshit Jobs” by now, what are you waiting for? As a sometime labor historian and Harry Braverman devotee you can understand why I think it is so important, but really you should read it just as a way to […]

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