Will the last non-super professor in academia please turn out the lights when they leave?

16 04 2013

In 1892, William Weihe, the former President of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers union, testified before Congress that his union:

“never objects to [technological] improvements and makes allowances in every particular where there are improvements…[W]henever there is an improvement made by which certain men will be done away with, then their jobs will be done away with. There is no objection.”

By 1909, his union had effectively disappeared, relegated to a couple of small specialty mills in Ohio.

I realize that I’ve been kind of shrill lately, but this kind of complacency just scares me to death. Yes, skilled iron and steel workers faced a particularly steep hill to climb during the late-nineteenth century because mechanized steel production was a huge improvement over hand puddling, but the question in education is not whether MOOCs and online education are superior to face-to-face instruction. [When Harvard and Princeton start giving actual credit at Harvard and Princeton for their MOOCs, then maybe we can begin to question that assumption.] The question is whether MOOCs and online education are sufficient to serve as substitutes for the face-to-face instruction that so many of us provide.

It’s easy to guess how I’d answer that question, but imagine you’re a college student who’s been convinced that all he or she needs is a degree rather than an education in order to make it in life. Which path are you going to choose?

What faculty need to understand is that a lot of other players in this discussion, particularly the ones who don’t actually teach for a living, are using similar criteria. In other words, they couldn’t care less whether the future of higher education actually teaches students anything or not. Some of these people are interested primarily in efficiency and improved test scores. Some of them are interested in their bottom lines. Some of these people just hate universities.

For purposes of the primary audience for this blog, it is also worth noting that precious few participants in this discussion have any interest in the economic situation facing college professors, adjunct and tenure-track alike. Much to my continued alarm, the people ignoring our economic concerns includes an incredibly high number of actual college professors. They seem to think it is not their place to object to “improvements,” and are willing to make allowances for any such changes even if they work against their own self-interest.

Perhaps if more of us actually understood that there’s a target on all our backs, this shocking degree of complacency will finally change.

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2 responses

16 04 2013
Music for Deckchairs

The blanket protection of the right to work in the industry of your choice doesn’t apply evenly, it seems to me, and it’s a complicated right to argue for, as it conceals very deep fissures between more and less privileged workers.

In our case, I don’t think it’s enough to say “adjunct and tenure-track alike” simply because of the appalling unlike between those two, that we already accept. While we lobby to protect our own jobs, a proportion of those who passionately want to work as college professors and also enjoy the security of white collar work entitlements including healthcare, housing loans, paid leave and pension arrangements, get the daily message that they have no entitlement to that hope. Their willingness to accept precarious work keeps higher education open for business, and keeps us in secure employment.

And then there’s the disparity between our already advantaged position and those around us. For nearly two decades of university work, my economic situation has been a bit up and down, but it has been massively more secure than my neighbour. Should this be the case? I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced, or at least that this particular cause can be the foundation of my own argument against bad things happening in higher education.

So I’m entirely proving your point, I think. But for me there is more than one complacency in the life of the college professor.

18 04 2013
In Hell's Kitchen (NYC)

“imagine you’re a college student who’s been convinced that all he or she needs is a degree rather than an education in order to make it in life”

no need to imagine…my experience these last 23 years tells me that about 80% of college students come to us for precisely that reason. The MOOC crowd knows this.

In addition, college students are convinced that “the customer is always right.” The MOOCers know this too.

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