Bill Bowen’s blind spot.

27 11 2012

Last week, Jeremy linked to two lectures that former Princeton President Bill Bowen gave at Stanford last month. I know Bill Bowen because he was a close friend of my late father. The last time I saw him (which had to have been the 90s because my mother was still alive) he told me about this database that he was funding (since was still at the Mellon Foundation). That turned out to be JSTOR.

Sadly, if you’re an academic of my general age group you probably know Bowen because of a rather unfortunate report he co-wrote in 1989. I’ll let Marc Bousquet take up that story from page 15 of the greatest book about higher ed ever written:

“Like many scholars of my cohort, I entered graduate school in 1991 informed by a common sense about academic work that was significantly influenced by the 1989 Bowen report, which projected what it emphasized would be “a substantial excess demand for faculty in the arts and sciences” by the mid 1990s, with the consequence that early in the millenium we could expect “roughly four candidates for every five positions.”

Of course, things did not work out that way. As Bousquet explains it, that’s because Bowen defined adjuncts out of the picture entirely. Bowen couldn’t see that the cost-cutting priorities of administrators everywhere would render his market-based analysis moot. While I can forgive an economist and a former university president for failing to recognize that current administrators are willing to stamp on the basic interests of their employees, I would still remember that track record when considering the labor-related implications of Bowen’s work.

Well, as you might imagine, those Standford lectures were about online learning and (to a lesser extent) MOOCs. I’ll quote the .pdf version of the talks because it took less time for me to get through them (well, the second one about online ed at least):

It would be easy—but incorrect—to infer from this line of argument that the development of online courses has to be a responsibility of each individual campus. Reliance on purely “homegrown” approaches would be foolishly inefficient and simply will not work in most settings. It will not take advantage of the economies of scale offered by sophisticated software that incorporates features of well-developed platforms, including effective peer-to-peer interactions. Furthermore, many institutions simply do not have the money or the in-house talent to start from scratch to create sophisticated online learning systems that can be disseminated widely. Nor would it make sense to re-invent “wheels” that can be readily shared.

In other words, not only is Bowen willing to sacrifice the jobs of faculty members whose students might migrate into massive online courses in the name of lowering college costs, he’s willing to sacrifice the jobs of designers who would make those massive online courses possible. I don’t think Bowen consciously wants to put a target on all of our collective backs. However, mass academic unemployment is simply the inevitable consequence of administrative policies that support cutting costs (especially labor costs) at all costs. What was true for contingent academic labor in the 90s is, thanks to MOOCs, potentially true for academic labor of all kinds today.

In a Guardian higher ed chat last Friday, Tony Bates pretty much boiled down the elephant in the room into a few terrific sentences:

The main reason government and business is interested in MOOCs is their potential for removing many of the costs associated with higher education, namely the cost of teachers. Indeed, in the USA is there is concerted attack on the whole concept of education funded through the state. Those pushing MOOCs though appear to think that all that matters in education is delivery of content.

Bill Bowen has done a lot of good in the world of higher ed. Read the text of the second lecture and you’ll see that he hasn’t bought into MOOC-mania entirely. However, anyone who wants to solve whatever problems higher ed has needs to confront Bates’ reality check directly. Otherwise, they’re part of the problem, not part of the solution.

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3 responses

27 11 2012
Contingent Cassandra

I, too, am ambivalent about Bowen. I’m another member of the Ph.D. cohort funded in part by fellowships based on the predictions of the Bowen report (which must have been floating around in some form a few years before 1989, since I started grad school in ’87). It was, in many ways, a good program; based on the very small sample I know (my own grad school classmates, including those in other disciplines, and a few at other schools), I’d say the Mellon foundation (or whoever did the selection for them) did a good job of picking people who were genuinely dedicated to both teaching and scholarship, and interested in contributing to and eventually shaping the future of higher education. In the first months of grad school, I managed to become friends with a number of other Mellon fellows before learning they were Mellon fellows, simply because they were kindred spirits (the one person who sought me out on the basis of being a fellow fellow, on the other hand, I didn’t much like). However, as I’ve watched members of my circle land in contingent jobs, or drift away from academia altogether (albeit to do other interesting and useful things), I’ve wondered about what the selectors misjudged, not only about the future shape of the academy, but also about who would be most likely to succeed (or at least end up with a both a reasonably secure, satisfactory job and in a position to exert some influence on the future shape of things) in that future.

I also heard Bowen speak on _The Shape of the River_ several years ago, and thought that sounded like good and important work (and I didn’t know about his role in funding JSTOR, but yes, that’s a huge contribution to the scholarly enterprise).

I haven’t read the Stanford lectures yet (though I will), but it seems to me that in the passage above Bowen is confusing development of a workable course platform, which probably will happen in a number of places, but eventually settle down to a limited number of possibilities (much in the way computer software and/or operating systems have), and development and running of a course, which is, of course, the labor-intensive part — and the part where skilled laborers dedicated to a particular institution and its students (or at least a particular set of students with some similarities in current educational status and needs) make a real difference.

By the way, on that subject, Noliwe Rooks had some useful things to say on yesterday’s “to the Point” discussion of MOOCs (yes, yet another one; I wouldn’t have listened if I hadn’t been in the car, but I’m glad I did): http://www.kcrw.com/news/programs/tp/tp121126college_reinvented_i . Basically, her point was that the students most likely to benefit from technologically-delivered and/or enhanced education are those who are already doing well, and are ready for greater enrichment (she didn’t put it this way, but I’d say those who have already learned how to learn). Students who are still struggling to get their academic feet under them benefit more from hands-on, bricks-and-mortar-based approaches. One of the other guests then, of course, brought up the idea of showing MOOC content to community college students in a flipped-classroom format, with class time taken up by teacher-student interaction. But at that point, the MOOC isn’t the class, it’s a multimedia textbook (which would be just fine, but not labor/cost-saving). And undoubtedly the most effective MOOC-based class of that sort would be one in which the actual teachers selected among, rearranged, repurposed, etc., MOOC content, and added some of their own exercises, adapted to their particular student population. In short, you need actual teachers, which is what Bates is getting at.

20 05 2013
Harvard hates you (and Coursera isn’t all that fond of you either). | More or Less Bunk

[…] I mentioned before, I know Bill Bowen (even though I haven’t seen him in many years). While he is a very nice […]

10 03 2014
“You deserve a break today.” | More or Less Bunk

[…] My first-year graduate school cohort at Wisconsin had ninety people in it. [Thanks again for that, Bill Bowen.] Yet the flip side of that situation was in some ways more telling: You couldn’t find a […]

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