“Yoshimi, they don’t believe me. But you won’t let those robots defeat me.”

23 08 2012

I’ve become so jaded that another article about the widespread abuse of adjuncts barely interests me anymore. Luckily, there is still a part of this much-Tweeted Aljazeera piece that I do think is worth every professor’s attention:

In most professions, salaries below the poverty line would be cause for alarm. In academia, they are treated as a source of gratitude. Volunteerism is par for the course – literally. Teaching is touted as a “calling”, with compensation an afterthought. One American research university offers its PhD students a salary of $1000 per semester for the “opportunity” to design and teach a course for undergraduates, who are each paying about $50,000 in tuition. The university calls this position “Senior Teaching Assistant” because paying an instructor so far below minimum wage is probably illegal.

[Emphasis added]

You would hope that the incentive to mechanize would be minimal in an environment where people are willing to work for almost nothing, but almost nothing is still more than free. So while the “Mechanical MOOCs” which Audrey Watters describes here have many admirable properties, they still have the potential to put even the most vulnerable people in academia out of their already low-paying jobs.

Of course, no worker is immune to technological unemployment these days. This NYT article from the weekend should be particularly chilling to anyone who works with their hands:

A new wave of robots, far more adept than those now commonly used by automakers and other heavy manufacturers, are replacing workers around the world in both manufacturing and distribution. Factories like the one here in the Netherlands are a striking counterpoint to those used by Apple and other consumer electronics giants, which employ hundreds of thousands of low-skilled workers.

“With these machines, we can make any consumer device in the world,” said Binne Visser, an electrical engineer who manages the Philips assembly line in Drachten.

The economic advantages of robots should be obvious. They don’t get tired. They won’t demand higher pay. In many cases, they also do better work than most humans do. The only way to compete with them is to accept wages so low that there is no economic incentive to mechanize.

Can academia go the same way? You know I think it can, but it’s not going to be a complete bloodbath. Despite Melonie Fullick’s concerns, I still (unsurprisingly) agree with this guy:

My theory of education is simple: You have to be there. I’ve been privileged to know both great teachers and outstanding students. Neither could have revealed themselves as such except in person, nor could they have partaken fully of what the other had to offer. The electricity that crackles through a successful classroom can’t be transmitted electronically.

Yet, as I’ve explained elsewhere, I remain afraid that the bad can drive out the good in many instances, particularly when the good is extremely expensive. But I’ve started wondering what life is going to be like on the borderline. Suppose you teach at a public, regional comprehensive university with a huge online arm? You know, like me. You can probably survive the onslaught of machines of all kinds because self-cannibalization makes no sense, but will a variety of educational delivery methods change your job anyway?

I think it will. Since education isn’t a widget, it’s impossible to make faculty “produce” more during their existing working hours. However, they can try to make us work longer. E-mail alone has already done so much to keep faculty on call like doctors. I think the expectations that online courses set are inevitably going to bleed into the face-to-face ones as time passes. Perhaps more importantly, I suspect the inherent limitations of MOOC grading will make teaching writing harder because students will be less prepared. Perhaps writing will become harder to assign at all in face-to-face classes because writing averse students will all move online.

You can’t freeze your classroom in amber when you have to compete with MOOCs to get butts in your seats. When the world changes, you will be expected to change too. You say you have tenure? Well, that’s when they’ll pull out the notion of teaching as a “calling” on you, the same argument they make with the adjuncts. Or maybe they’ll use that Fordist argument about efficiency in order to keep tuition prices down. If you have any liberal guilt left in you by then, you’ll probably fold like a Cub Scout’s pup tent.

So how do you withstand the coming onslaught with your sanity intact? Yoshimi might be able to defeat the Pink Robots in hand-to-hand combat, but you can’t. I would instead try to fight the battle on different ground.

If faculty want to fritter and waste some of their hours in an offhand way, they deserve that right to do so before 8AM and after 5PM between August and May (night and summer classes excepted). After all, they’re not paying you by the piece. They’re paying you because you’re a highly skilled professional. If they were really paying professors for their output, you would have been replaced by a Pink Robot computer program already.

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One response

24 08 2012
Contingent Cassandra

During the regular semester, I set the same email limits with my online students that I set with my face-to-face (or hybrid) ones: I strive for no more than a 24-hour turnaround during the week, and no more than 48 hours over the weekend. Sometimes (usually) I’m much quicker, but they shouldn’t count/plan on it. My students seem to accept this, but they’re mostly enrolled in face to face classes. Students at an online institution — especially one with large, standardized courses with a TA of some sort on call 24 hours a day — probably wouldn’t. There is definitely a tradeoff: the handcrafted/individualized class can’t offer 24-hour-a-day service the way the mass-produced one does.

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