The 4-hour workweek (Higher education edition).

3 01 2012

For my first post of the new year, I’m going to try to cover all of my favorite subjects at one time.

Last Friday, I went to the Barnes and Noble in Colorado Springs with my family. Even before the Borders there closed, it was the biggest book store within fifty miles of us by far. Now I noticed they’ve put a toy store right in the middle of the place. Not coincidentally, they were pushing their Nook e-reader awfully hard. After all, why should I care how many physical books I can browse through if I have most every book Barnes and Noble sells at my fingertips without leaving my home? The Nook frees up space at Barnes and Nobles everywhere to serve other, more profitable functions. Best of all, it works without the need of living, breathing workers. All Barnes and Noble has to do is set up the infrastructure (which is presumably in place now), and then watch the cash roll in – both from e-books and the expensive Lego toys that so distracted my son’s attention that he didn’t pick up a single book the entire time we were in there.

Once I made this toys/e-book connection, I couldn’t help but think of Timothy Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Workweek. I’ve mentioned Ferriss a few times before on this blog. His basic plan for anyone who wants to join the new rich is to start a web site that sells something people want, outsource the maintenance, then just answer your e-mail for four hours each week while you watch the money roll in too. If you read those old posts I just linked to, you’ll see that I used to find Ferriss funny. OK, I still find Ferriss funny, but I’m beginning to fear that this exact same mentality is beginning to creep into higher education and that’s not funny at all because a college education is a lot more expensive than one dumb book.

Where’s my proof? See Audrey Watters on the first robot graders. Or there’s this little nugget from EDUCAUSE:

[T]he issue of a federal definition of the credit hour as included in the regulations remains unresolved. Many in higher education view the definition as vague and unworkable, especially for online courses and programs. It is also considered to be a significant encroachment on the ability of institutions and academic programs to appropriately define the credit hour in relation to the demands of a given program.

When is an hour not an hour? When neither administrators nor students care how much anyone actually learns. Since it’s all about the paper, classes are something preventing you from learning how to do the tango in Argentina rather than a means to earning the money that will help you make that possible. I think this is the inevitable consequence of encouraging students to take classes at home in their pajamas. Teachers teach from anywhere, students learn from anywhere and college administrators work for only four hours per week since the university supposedly runs itself.

Now I’ve been on this techno-skeptic kick long enough to know that there are lots of dedicated teachers out there who believe that various technological doodads can make the learning experience better rather than worse. I, believe it or not, happen to be one of them. So is Cathy Davidson, who writes all the correct things in this follow up to that New York Times story on K12 Inc. that I covered a few weeks ago.

I really do agree with everything she writes there, just like I agree with just about everything that’s ever appeared over at Kate’s place. My problem with Davidson here is with her unspoken assumptions. As I read between the lines, she seems to assume that the people who run education at both the secondary and collegiate levels share our priorities and will respond to reasoned arguments about what constitutes a good education. Call me a pessimist, but I don’t think most administrators share our priorities, nor will they care about whether we think technology will adversely affect the quality of our pedagogy if it is employed in the wrong ways.

I happen to like all the administrators that I work under at the moment, but as a class I think the vast majority of them have forgotten that learning is, to quote Davidson, “personal, intimate [and] specific,” rather than a product that can be mass-produced. I bet most of them envy the for-profit college sector (despite its obvious failings) rather than decry it. Indeed, if university administrators really cared about learning one of them would have tried to fix the adjunct problem in higher education a long, long time ago.

There! I think that’s all my favorite blogging topics in one post. Maybe I should just close up this blog now and try again in 2013. Wait! I’ve got a better idea! I’ll follow Ferriss’ advice and hire Your Man in India to write this blog and teach my classes for me. If only I believed I could ever learn how to tango.

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3 responses

3 01 2012
Hoppingmadjunct

“…if university administrators really cared about learning one of them would have tried to fix the adjunct problem in higher education a long, long time ago.” Not only that. My school’s Dept. of Continuing Ed is recruiting faculty for a new distance learning program that, as it turns out, serves members of the military training near here and their families. An experienced adjunct, I put my name in before knowing who or what would be involved. But in a phone call just this afternoon, the Director of the DCE informed me that it would mean two Saturdays a week for a two-hour class plus transportation time to and from the base, plus the time needed to reconfigure my course for this hybrid format, combining face time w/online work. At my $2,500/course salary still, despite 25+ years in the classroom and 9 at this school, it wouldn’t be worth it to me. So she’ll use the only other adjunct who responded, who she said has never taught before. Before hanging up, by way of encouraging me to keep the program in mind, she mentioned the number of military personnel and family members — some 1300 in all, if I heard right — who’ve signed up already; you could hear the excitement in her voice. I don’t know how the program’s being funded, and it certainly sounds like a worthy project. But at the amounts allocated for actual teaching, it’s selling these poor service families yet another bill of goods. At least when they signed up for the military in the first place, they knew what the risks and dangers were.

28 02 2012
Has technology turned faculty into prisoners? « More or Less Bunk

[...] if you let it control you rather than you control it. Perhaps the only sensible suggestion that Tim Ferriss has ever made is to not check your e-mail first thing when you get up in the morning. I [...]

13 05 2013
A theory of the (academic) leisure class. | More or Less Bunk

[…] I realize that my theory bears a startling resemblance to the philosophy of Tim Ferriss, I’m not saying that most superprofessors crave the four-hour work week. It’s more like […]

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