Audrey Watters is my new hero. Considering the general subject of this blog of late, she should probably be my old hero. Nonetheless, considering her position as an ed tech journalist it took some guts to come out and write this about the controversy over those Mystery Science Theatre 3000-style Khan Academy parodies circulating out there on the Internet:
[T]his isn’t just a matter of highlighting pedagogical problems in the Khan Academy videos or with their usage in the classroom. This is about power: “arrogance” connotes superiority and power; “disparagement” seeks to displace or depreciate power. Who has the authority to speak about or dismiss pedagogy? Who gets to speak about math and science? These aren’t simply matters of education or expertise but rather of political power as it’s wielded within our current education reform narrative. And that is a narrative that’s painted Khan as a revolutionary hero, while painting teachers as reactionary villains.
[Emphasis in original]
What do most of the edtech startups of the world, the people who fund them and the university administrations that contract their services want to do with that power? Push teachers of all kinds off the shop floor so that they have to accept any terms of employment that they are offered if they want to teach again in the new tech-centered world of education that they are all trying to create. It reminds me of what happened to iron workers in America during the 1870s when the Bessemer steel process finally took off.
But college professors, you say, aren’t exactly blue collar. They don’t have to accept the same crap that “ordinary” workers do, as described brilliantly (with tons of links in the original post at Crooked Timber) by Chris Bertram, Corey Robin and Alex Gourevitch:
On pain of being fired, workers in most parts of the United States can be commanded to pee or forbidden to pee. They can be watched on camera by their boss while they pee. They can be forbidden to wear what they want, say what they want (and at what decibel), and associate with whom they want. They can be punished for doing or not doing any of these things—punished legally or illegally (as many as 1 in 17 workers who try to join a union is illegally fired or suspended). But what’s remarkable is just how many of these punishments are legal, and even when they’re illegal, how toothless the law can be. Outside the usual protections (against race and gender discrimination, for example), employees can be fired for good reasons, bad reasons, or no reason at all. They can be fired for donating a kidney to their boss (fired by the same boss, that is), refusing to have their person and effects searched, calling the boss a “cheapskate” in a personal letter, and more. They have few rights on the job—certainly none of the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Amendment liberties that constitute the bare minimum of a free society; thus, no free speech or assembly, no due process, no right to a fair hearing before a panel of their peers—and what rights they do have employers will fight tooth and nail to make sure aren’t made known to them or will simply require them to waive as a condition of employment. Outside the prison or the military—which actually provide, at least on paper, some guarantee of due process—it’s difficult to conceive of a less free institution for adults than the average workplace.
Do you really think higher education is any different? Do I have to remind you that three quarters of college professors in the United States are part-time or under limited term contracts? For them, often in need of reappointment semester after semester, the situation might actually be worse in some ways. Adjuncts have little choice but to endure a constant assault on their rights and prerogatives if they want to keep their job, just like other working class people do. The restructuring of power relationships in employment and in the classroom brought on by online education is just one aspect of this ongoing struggle.
What separates tenured and tenure-track professors from other working people is, of course, tenure itself. Even though anyone with tenure will be the first one to tell you that the idea that they can’t be fired is a joke, tenure is a lot more job protection than most workers get. That’s precisely why tenure has been under attack for years.
But the war on professors has a lot more fronts than just the battle over tenure. Like the math teachers who are told to show Khan Academy videos rather than actually teach math themselves, the very existence of teachers of any kind is being called into question by people who claim to serve the cause of education. As my intended audience for this blog is other college professors, I tend to stress the importance of self preservation in light of these kinds of attacks. However, teachers, students and the public at large that depends on both those groups should be concerned about the ways in which the very definition of learning itself is being changed.
If I watch videos about engineering, am I qualified to build a bridge in your town? If I watch videos about brain surgery am I qualified to probe around inside your skull? If I watch the History Channel a lot, does that make me an historian?
Like so many other occupations, college professors at all ranks are being de-professionalized because the forces of austerity have targeted labor costs of all kinds, whether the workers drawing the salary they want to cut provide essential value or not. Call me old-fashioned, but I think that learning from a real live teacher is worth the expense (and I’d say that even if I weren’t a teacher myself). If our now constant struggle against those forces of austerity doesn’t make people like me working class, then I don’t know what would.
There’s a class war going on out there, my dear colleagues, and you’re all in the thick of it. Whether academics are willing to recognize that fact, however, is another matter entirely. For the sake of education everywhere, I sincerely hope they are.