What if superprofessors aren’t really all that super?

22 02 2013

I’ve been taking some flack in various places for my continued use of the word “superprofessor.” While I used to think the term was mocking, I would argue that it has become such a regular piece of the edtech lexicon that whatever irony it once held is now gone. That’s a shame, because the word “superprofessor” should serve as a wonderful reminder of the class system that exists in higher education already – the one that the biggest edtech enthusiasts around don’t mind perpetuating. After all, Clayton Christensen will still be able to teach as many classes about disruption as he wants even after MOOCs turn the rest of us into glorified teaching assistants.

I wish I lived in the world in which Clayton Christensen thinks I live. He and his current co-author seem to think that I can pick my own courses, that my research actually gets me rewards and that there’s no such thing as adjunct labor. Now that would be a really awesome place to work! More importantly, if I was actually one of Shirky/Christensen’s Teamsters in tweed I’d be much-better equipped to fight the profiteering vultures who are deliberately trying to destroy my profession while simultaneously trying to make that process seem like an act of God.

The great irony here is that the kind of rhetoric that Christensen and his co-author use in that piece is designed to facilitate that system in some places while destroying it everywhere else. As Sara Goldrick-Rab explains:

To me, the picture Broad painted was not so much of higher education at a “crossroads,” but rather a disturbing vision of colleges and universities frantically trying to pull up the drawbridge and create a new moat for their protection. They want to keep those unwashed masses of unkempt, post-traditional students off their campuses; they want to prevent federal “intrusion” into colleges and universities. If they can’t meet costs by raising tuition (the public won’t stand for it), they shift to protecting the elite survivors of today’s downturn (the “A institutions,” Broad called them) by generating MOOCs that can be launched into the cloud to create a virtual wall between the chosen and the rest.

Perhaps the desire to board the good ship luxury ship before it sails explains the rush to MOOC-ify everything as fast as possible. When superprofessors at “A” institutions get their MOOCs up and running so that the machine runs itself, they’ll be too important to do menial jobs like grading. For the rest of us, grading will be all we have left.

Do professors at “A” institutions deserve to be treated differently? With two Coursera trainwrecks under our belts now, it seems pretty darned obvious that those two superprofessors at least were hardly the best teachers available. In fact, the number of Coursera partner institutions is getting so numerous these days, that it seems likely that practically any tenure-track professor could become a superprofessor in the near future if they are willing to respond to the incentives that Coursera and/or their home institutions offer. You don’t even need to have any online teaching experience to set yourself up with a class of tens of thousands! Does anybody else besides me see a problem with that?

Unfortunately, the whole point of being a superprofessor is to deliver a decidedly non-super class. Christensen et. al. make this perfectly clear when they write:

Eventually, the disruptive innovation changes the very definition of quality in a marketplace.

Ooooh, I didn’t know they taught cultural relativism at the Harvard B School. One of them must have picked that concept up from a really super liberal arts professor somewhere. Too bad those folks are about to become an endangered species.

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2 responses

22 02 2013
Mazel

Yes. The hedge-fund managers’ MOOC dream appears to be to educate the masses without actually spending any money on them, AND to keep the unwashed off the campuses where they might give cooties to the rich kids, AND, since the poor are now being taught by professors from Harvard, to feel all warm and fuzzy about it. Lower taxes, class-segregation, and no guilt: it’s a neoliberal triple play. No, wait–if it further weakens the professoriate and whatever cultural authority it has left, it’s a home run.

9 07 2014
Even superprofessors deserve academic freedom. | The Academe Blog

[…] tens of thousands of eyeballs to the course. While I am not a big fan of superprofessors in general, I am more than willing to defend their academic freedom in the […]

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