Aspiring food historian that I am, I’ve been reading Stephen Fried’s Appetite for America. It’s about Fred Harvey, who set up America’s first successful chain restaurant along the Santa Fe Railroad from Kansas to New Mexico during the last decades of the 19th Century. When he passed on in 1901, his son Ford ran the business. However, Ford never let on that Fred Harvey had actually died. As the chain grew further, the railroad literature still said “Meals by Fred Harvey” because that was the name of the company, not because the original Fred Harvey actually had anything to do with the meals anymore. Yet for decades people assumed that Fred Harvey was still alive.
When I first read this, it made me think of Betty Crocker (who would get letters from lesser-skilled housewives and sometimes their frustrated husbands) even though she was a fictional character. Then I saw the news about the superprofessor from UC-Irvine leaving his MOOC in mid-run and thought of Fred Harvey again:
Mr. McKenzie’s microeconomics course, however, will continue—just without him. “The very able course managers have everything they need to post the remaining lectures, course assignments, and discussion problems, week by week, as scheduled,” the professor wrote. “However, I will not be involved.”
Now, it seems quite clear that this class had many problems, many of which were the fault of the superprofessor himself. Nonetheless, there’s still two principles involved here that every professor who wants to receive a living wage really ought to defend.
The first is the idea that every course in a university curriculum needs to be updated regularly. Obviously this guy will never be teaching a MOOC again, but the idea that your class can go on without you ought to strike fear in the hearts of professors everywhere, super- or otherwise. While an Elvis impersonator can still play Elvis’s music after his death, the material that any professor teaches should reflect current scholarship. As Gerry Canavan explained the other day in a post that is well worth reading in its entirety:
The pedagogical justification for MOOCs derives from a misunderstood belief in the surety and fixidity of current academic knowledge when, in fact, the entire point of the academy is discovery and dialogue. That is: the MOOC assumes we know what there is for us to know, and the only question now is how to package that knowledge in its best possible form for widest dissemination.
I think this point is particularly important for history classes since lay people tend to assume that since the past is past it therefore never changes. Anybody who knows what the word “historiography” means knows that this is not true at all. While Frederick Jackson Turner may have been the greatest historian of his era, having Zombie Frederick Jackson Turner teach today’s students would be a terrible disservice to everyone involved.
The other principle here concerns the right to control the fruits of your own work. In the wake of this disaster, Derek Bruff (who’s facilitating the MOOCs coming soon to Vanderbilt) retweeted the link to something useful that he wrote last week:
Amy Collier, who supports online learning initiatives at Stanford, pointed out to me during the MROE workshop that an awful lot of people, including me, refer to these MOOCs as “Coursera courses” and not, say, “Georgia Tech courses” or “Vanderbilt courses.” I’ve used “Coursera course” as a shorthand to refer to the open online courses that Vanderbilt on the Coursera platform, but, thanks to Amy, I’m coming to see that such language is perhaps misleading.
I blogged earlier this month about the challenging design and production process required to launch one of these courses, a process undertaken largely by Vanderbilt faculty, students, and staff. Sure, Coursera assists with the course preparation and provides an online platform for the courses, but the heavy lifting is done by Vanderbilt. It’s also Vanderbilt that is responsible for setting the bar when it comes to the academic quality and rigor of these courses. We decide the content, design the assessments, and determine what merits a “Statement of Accomplishment.”
No disrespect to Derek (who is simply ruminating on the nature of his job), but in the old days nobody would ever refer to a course with a possessive other than an apostrophe “s” after that professor’s last name because nobody had any control over the content of that course but that professor. Yes, in some ways this particular superprofessor is not the most admirable guy (although I certainly applaud his fondness for maintaining academic standards), but this could easily serve as an opening shot in an intellectual property war that faculty are likely to lose.
Regular online instructors would likely be the first targets of this effort, but they’ll come for the rest of us next. When I sat in on a Moodle pitch once, their guy claimed that everything posted on Blackboard belongs to Blackboard. I’ve never had that verified, but I can certainly imagine some campus claiming that everything posted on their LMS belongs to them. Fred Harvey lived on because his family cultivated and benefited from that image. That’s not the same situation for faculty. After all, you’d have no control over whose brain they might insert into the carcass of your course.