“The manager’s brain under the workman’s cap.”

10 01 2013

I realize that I’m not supposed to admit it, but my favorite author – fiction or non-fiction – is Tom Wolfe.  Yes, his writing has far too many exclamation points and the white suit is a ridiculous affectation, but Wolfe has always been focused like a laser on the absurdity of America’s class divide.  So imagine my joy when I saw that he’s written the cover story in the first all-online edition of Newsweek and, as Nick Carr explains, a major sub-theme in the piece is technological obsolescence:

In 1942, Joseph Schumpeter wrote that stocks and bonds are “evaporated property.” Everybody thought of that as such a witty aphorism, but Schumpeter meant it as a lament. “Substituting a mere parcel of shares for the walls and the machines in a factory,” he said, “takes the life out of the idea of property.” The new owners, i.e., the stockholders, lose the entrepreneur’s, the founder’s, will “to fight, economically, physically, politically, for, ‘his’ factory and his control over it and to die if necessary on its steps.” Instead, at the first whiff of a problem the shareholders bail out and sell their share of the ownership to whoever will buy it on the stock market… and couldn’t care less who it is.

Now I haven’t read Schumpeter since grad school, but this sounds right to me. Schumpeter was also the guy who popularized the term “creative destruction,” but I don’t remember him having the same joy over that process that I sense when I read anything by or about Clayton Christensen. Sometimes, evaporation or destructive is simply destruction.

This is certainly true when you apply the same principles that ruined the American manufacturing sector to higher education. As the Worst Professor Ever once explained it:

I know it seems cool to ”disrupt” education if you’ve never had to stand up there and teach. But if you have, I think you can appreciate the irony of computer use being “disruptive” not in the newfangled positive sense of the word but in the old-fashioned sense, as in, not enabling good teaching to happen at all.

Bob Samuels, who just spent the day at a conference on the future of online education in California – ground zero for the creative destruction of a once-great higher educational system – describes the exact mechanism by which most of us proffies could eventually be displaced from our jobs regardless of the performance of the technology which replaces us:

For me the major underlying theme was that outside parties want to help make higher ed more efficient and cost-effective by taking apart these institutions. In what they call “debundling,” many of the providers discussed how one person would design a course, another person would present the course, another person would market the course, and none of these people would be involved in research, community service, or shared governance.

There’s a famous (at least to people like me) Big Bill Haywood quote in the late David Montgomery’s The Fall of the House of Labor about the manager’s brain being under the workman’s cap. In order to rectify that situation, management searched “for ways in which to cut the taproot of nineteenth century workers’ power by dispossessing the craftsmen of their accumulated skill and knowledge (p. 46).” I think that debundling is the way that university administrators have found to do the same thing to us.

The question remains then whether dispossessing the vast majority of the professoriate of their accumulated knowledge is a side effect of the disruption of higher education or a deliberate strategy. As you might imagine, I vote deliberate strategy. Here’s why: 1) MOOC providers of all stripes are already famous for having no business plan. Only the labor cost cuts of teaching tens of thousands at a time are immediately tangible. 2) The privatization of online higher education of all kinds due to lack of capital makes it possible for those entities that take over this function to collect their revenue whether they can actually teach anyone well or not. Living, breathing professors who are willing to explain exactly why the emperor has no clothes are perhaps the only obstacle left between them and a steady stream black ink.

It’s disruption purely for the sake of financial gain. Any effect that disruption has on the quality of higher education – good or bad – is simply an afterthought. At the first whiff of a problem, the VCs will go find another industry to sack and all of us – faculty and administrators alike – will be left holding the bag. Do you think I’m being overly alarmist? I don’t. Comparing what’s been happening in the world of finance for the last thirty years to what’s happening in higher education now should be a no-brainer because the exact same entities are involved. Like Vanessa says, when Goldman Sachs is organizing higher ed conferences, it’s time for proffies everywhere to hold onto their brains for dear life.

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8 responses

10 01 2013
VanessaVaile

debundling, Taylorization

10 01 2013
VanessaVaile

Afterthoughts: There has been less ripple from the Palo Alto Conference than might have been expected. A few connectivist mooc-ers (also prolific bloggers) were invited, mentioned attending beforehand (referring to it as a summit), but nothing after. There was something unnerving about (Stanford) Venture Lab’s DNLE (Designng New Learning Environments) mooc, far more than the usual xmodel. I still can’t quite put my finger on what but it may have the hordes of real and borderline educators as glassy eyed wannabe venture capitalist bait competing for recognition by the Stanford brand name.

12 01 2013
Mazel

I’m maybe a little less inclined to see intentionality everywhere. Yes, some of the players understand exactly what they’re doing when it comes to disempowering faculty, and see that disempowerment as a feature rather than a bug. Others are genuinely idealistic (and yet others simply clueless about consequences). But it doesn’t matter a whole lot, because of the economic bias built into the system. Under the current neoliberal regime there’s a built-in ratchet effect which ensures that, out of the tremendous variety of techno-pedagogical experiments currently underway, the only ones that will get any real traction are the ones that serve the bottom line–not the ones that allow us to teach better, only the ones that allow us to teach more cheaply.

Of course, no one will want to admit that the quality of education is declining, and I suspect that the main way this decline will be masked is by means of the reductive rhetoric of “learning outcomes” and the like. Once you reduce the fullness of the college experience to a discrete set of bullet points that can be “objectively measured” by the Academic Profile or some other bubble test or simplistic rubric, then it becomes easy to say that MOOCs or online programs or whatever are “just as good as” F2F. The reduction of “education” to “the measured attainment of SLOs” has the effect of erasing any consciousness of such holistic notions as the university as a community of people who are not just “mastering SLOs” but interacting in ways that engage the full spectrum of human emotions–developing friendships, falling in and out of love, partying together, working on the school paper together, whatever–and that contribute to the building of a better world–all of which are necessary to education in the fullest sense of the term (rather than the viciously cramped sense of the neoliberal/DIY crowd).

12 01 2013
Mazel

I guess I should add that this isn’t just about the future. It’s not just about MOOCs. The growth of pseudo-courses and pseudo-universities has already hurt enrollment-driven universities like mine significantly. Every student and FTE we lose to the pseudo-academy makes us that much more financially desperate, that much more willing to look at the ever-increasing number of inferior-but-cheaper, community-eroding alternatives. At my own humble institution, no one has gotten a raise in years and years, but we’re constantly being invited to supplement our stagnant base salaries by teaching online courses. One result is that the de facto courseload for our faculty has crept up from 4/4 to about 5/5. (As so often happens, technology increases rather than decreases workloads.) Among other things, this means less faculty time and energy to contribute to the enrichment of “student life,” which thus winds up more and more left in the hands of student-life staff who, lacking tenure, are more interested in organizing the Tunnel of Oppression than a protest against the racial segregation of the local charter schools or the fascist politics of an influential donor or anything else that might actually matter. (Of course, this sort of thing doesn’t happen at wealthy institutions, which will continue to offer real education to the children of the eliite long after the poor kids are all consigned to Virtual U.)

12 01 2013
Barbara Sullivan

Yes to what others have said above; we need to remind people that education is about more than information transmission and storage. Teachers are the people who most often change lives, and they do it in ways that no MOOC will ever be able to deliver, let alone assess. I just wrote a long post about it called “What is higher education?” if anyone is interested.

14 01 2013
So I signed up for another MOOC… « More or Less Bunk

[...] high school teachers or even worse. Despite Zelikow’s excellent intentions, this is how the debundling of the history professoriate [...]

30 05 2013
MOOC my day | MOOC Madness

[…] “The manager’s brain under the workman’s cap.” I realize that I’m not supposed to admit it, but my favorite author – fiction or non-fiction – is Tom Wolfe. Yes, his writing has far too… Share […]

20 06 2013
Emergency 24 Hour Plumbing in Oconomowoc

I create a comment each time I like a post on a site or if I have something to contribute to the discussion.
Usually it’s a result of the sincerness displayed in the post I looked at. And on this post The managers brain under the workmans cap. | More or Less Bunk. I was actually excited enough to create a thought :-P I actually do have a couple of questions for you if it’s allright.
Is it simply me or does it give the impression like a few of the responses look like they are left by brain dead people? :-P And, if you are posting at other sites, I would
like to follow you. Could you list every one
of your shared sites like your linkedin profile, Facebook page or twitter feed?

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