Beating up on Clay Shirky is something of a sport amongst the people I follow on Twitter, and that sport was particularly popular last week when this article came out. The line that got the most derision had nothing to do with MP3s or Napster or even MOOCs. Instead it was this:
“But when someone threatens to lower the price [of education] then we start behaving like Teamsters in tweed.”
Now that sentence is freighted with an enormous number of assumptions (all of which are insulting to Teamsters), but Shirky’s real purpose here is to shame his fellow faculty members. He seems to think that the proper response to MOOC-ification is for all of us to sit back and let “progress” run its course. That’s easy for an Internet expert with a job at NYU to imply, but what’s a community college professor who’s about to become a glorified teaching assistant supposed to do when MOOCs threaten his or her ability to pay their bills?
I say they should behave more like Teamsters.
Perhaps Shirky picked the phrase “Teamsters in tweed” for alliterative purposes, but I think he deliberately wanted to invoke the violent reputation of that union as a means of creating enough guilt to stop faculty everywhere from sticking up for themselves. Or maybe he’s arguing that resistance is simply futile. Even if it is, that resistance is absolutely crucial if displaced faculty ever want to get anything in exchange for their displacement. The only intelligent thing to do when someone wants to make your job obsolete is to organize.
Does this kind of talk make me sound like a Teamster? Good. If there’s anything I’ve learned in my fifteen-odd years of being a professor it’s that most administrators think that the class divide ends at the edge of campus. It doesn’t. [Go talk to an adjunct sometime if you don't believe me.] Yet the powers that be generally want to act as if every professor is part of a big, happy family even when they’re not.
Running a university during the age of permanent austerity means convincing faculty to put in the greatest amount of effort at the lowest possible cost. Yelling “Think of the children!” every time people in power want to cut somebody’s salary (using technology to do so or not) is simply a business strategy. What just kills me is how well this con works on most of my colleagues across academia.
As I’ve written over and over at this blog, the wonderful thing about the online education/MOOC debate is that by sticking up for ourselves we professors ARE thinking of the children since a lousy higher education for almost everyone is of no use to anyone, especially the students who pay for it. That doesn’t mean my job is special. It simply means that the quality of the service I provide is just as important as the price when determining its longterm value.
While this rant may seem a tad radical to some readers, all I’m really saying here is that labor and management need to sit down together and work out issues of mutual interest from a position of mutual respect and relative equality. The Teamsters call this process “collective bargaining.” In academia, unless we’re lucky enough to work in a union shop, we call it “shared governance.”
Shared governance? Hasn’t the Internet made that obsolete? Well, it will if we aren’t willing to fight for it.