A theory of the (academic) leisure class.

13 05 2013

“The leisure class is in great measure sheltered from the stress of those economic exigencies which prevail in any modern, highly organised industrial community. The exigencies of the struggle for the means of life are less exacting for this class than for any other; and as a consequence of this privileged position we should expect to find it one of the least responsive of the classes of society to the demands which the situation makes for a further growth of institutions and a readjustment to an altered industrial situation.”

- Thorstein Veblen, from The Theory of the Leisure Class,1899, p. 198.

The other day, Mills Kelly titled a post with two excellent questions, “To MOOC or not to MOOC? What’s In It for Me?”. He came up with two answers: altruism and book sales. In the ensuing Twitter discussion, I noted that some superprofessors do actually get paid by their home campuses for their labor. However, I then got reminded that that sum is generally chicken feed compared to the amount of labor that goes into creating a MOOC.

Pity the poor superprofessor! Spending all those countless hours setting up their Massive Open Online Courses:

There are also significant labor costs that come with offering MOOCs. A recent Chronicle survey found that professors typically spent 100 hours, sometimes much more, to develop their massive online courses, and then eight to 10 hours each week while the courses were in session. This commitment amounted to a major drain on their normal campus responsibilities.

What the Chronicle fails to mention is that those hours come only at start-up – filming, planning, meetings, etc. The entire point of a MOOC, the root of its appeal from a management standpoint, is that once you get it the way you like it, you literally never have to change anything again. I’m not saying that the machine runs by itself, but it certainly will never take 100 hours again. The MOOC would never be profitable to anyone if it did.

The superprofessor, in other words, leads the team building the machinery, then steps back and does minimal work until the money starts flowing. This literally seems to be the lesson that two Berkeley Superprofessors report over on the edX blog:

You will always find ways to improve your material, but remember, you can always revise your lecture recordings later—this Fall we will revise our lectures for the third time. Balance your desire to perfect the material with the need to juggle all the other commitments most faculty must manage.

We’re conscientious, but you don’t have to be. More advice from these guys – “Consider delegating:”

[Y]ou may find it too time-consuming to keep up with the forums. The challenge is exacerbated by the fact that most MOOCs don’t have formal office hours or other means for students to get direct help, so the forums are even more critical to the student experience.

They mention the pioneered-by-Coursera tactic of recruiting “community TAs” from the student population to do the hands-on work of teaching for you, but the deserves-to-be-infamous New Yorker article on MOOCs out this week also notes that graduate students are intimately involved in the edX MOOC-making process. Because, after all, in the future every professor will have their own MOOC for fifteen minutes.

That same New Yorker article also begins to answer Mills’ question about what’s in it for the superprofessors:

Michael D. Smith, the dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, told me that Harvard plans to start paying mooc teachers when revenue begins flowing.

Are they going to shaft the superprofessors who started MOOCs before the investment pays off? Of course not. The MOOC you create now will presumably run for the forseeable future, so the MOOC providers will have to give their creators something. The Penn MOOC article that I linked to over the weekend offers a better analogy: patent policy. A professor creates something that has a market value and then you and your employer split the proceeds. Since humanities professors don’t usually have the potential to get marketable patents, MOOCs become a way for the few well-paid professors in impoverished fields like History or English to become rentiers. MOOCs can make you part of the academic leisure class.

While I realize that my theory bears a startling resemblance to the philosophy of Tim Ferriss, I’m not saying that most superprofessors crave the four-hour work week. It’s more like rich professor, poor professor. Their MOOCs are a direct assault on the rest of our livelihoods. The president of Stanford made this abundantly clear in a piece quoted in that New Yorker article:

“As a country we are simply trying to support too many universities that are trying to be research institutions,” Stanford’s John Hennessy has argued. “Nationally we may not be able to afford as many research institutions going forward.”

If that’s not a declaration of war, I don’t know what is. Superprofessors, despite their often-stated desire to bring industrial higher education to the lesser-industrialized world, are the weapons of mass destruction in this war. They may be aiming to educate people in Africa, but the rest of us faculty will become the collateral damage of their life of comparative leisure.

MOOCs, in short, are nothing but the logical extension of corporate higher education. Karen Michalson explains the ideological background behind the MOOC offensive better than I ever could here:

Corporate culture has now taken over academic culture and destroyed it. The Chinese did something similar with Tibet. European colonists accomplished this in North America. Overwhelm an area with a population that adheres to a different culture and language than the original inhabitants and watch the original culture die, or at least become so weak and marginal you have to squint to see it.

In America, everything is an enterprise, so why should our universities escape that fate? Everything is thought of in terms of a business, and anything that resists that thought category is carved and distorted until it does – albeit freakishly – pass for one. The model is all. The only way to measure value is money. If it doesn’t make money it doesn’t have the right to exist.

But some things have no business being businesses. Just because the capitalist model of competition and free markets sometimes results in better consumer products doesn’t mean it results in better higher education.

We can argue until we’re blue in the face that a living, breathing professor is better than anybody’s taped lectures. They won’t care. The big dogs want to stay “sheltered from the stress of…economic exigencies” even if it kills the rest of us in the process.

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8 responses

13 05 2013

There are so many interesting reflections and analogies in your post.

I was thinking that since currently most of the Community TAs in MOOC classes are retired professors, teachers, and, in general, educated people, with comfortable independent income (perhaps pensions) and plenty of free time, where do the future TAs will come from since they most likely will never retire and will not have the independent income to volunteer their time for MOOC service?

Who will ever want to get a PhD in humanities if he or she has to compete with videos of (deceased) superstar professors in the future? Who would even want to watch these videos if the subject they offer would not be considered of value (if it does not offer any monetary advantage to the student)?

16 05 2013

Having followed this discussion for a while, I think I am now beggining to see the issue.

The difference between a real university and a MOOC is access to professors. (And by professors, I include adjuncts).

So, a MOOC is better than nothing, as you have access to experts in a given field via their videos. You also have access in your local library, with books.

But you can’t meet them. And you can’t ask them questions. And they can’t provide feedback on your work.

20 05 2013
Harvard hates you (and Coursera isn’t all that fond of you either). | More or Less Bunk

[…] You think I’m kidding? Here’s a paragraph from that New Yorker article on MOOCs that I didn’t quote last week: […]

24 05 2013
“‘That’s not my department,’ says Wernher von Braun.” | More or Less Bunk

[…] there’s all that work that goes into setting up a MOOC, but the point of a MOOC is to get it so that the machine can run itself. Once it’s perfected, any additional work is supposed be […]

15 11 2013
The Spectrum of Opinion About MOOCs | EdTechDev

[…] A theory of the (academic) leisure class […]

13 05 2013
Jonathan Rees


Your concern for the economic welfare of myself and my fellow Luddites brings tears to my eyes. We’ll bust a loom in your honor during our next riot.

14 05 2013
Jonathan Rees


Adapt, which means leave the profession or start your own MOOC and let the “market” work its magic. Awesome set of choices.

PS That New Yorker article is all over the above post. Have you stopped reading what’s here entirely?

14 05 2013

Believing that resistance is futile is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Having unpleasant choices is sometime all history offers us. Really? I wish I had the “unpleasant choices” that Wall Street scamsters, mortgage fraudsters, and idiot GM executives had after years of mismanagement of our industrial sector and our economy had. Clearly, it’s OK for some people to use their economic privilege, connections, and social capital to get themselves bailed out, even when prison would have been the right fate for most of them.

Your argument boils down to this: because scribes (most of whom weren’t paid, BTW, but rather were cloistered religious) and buggy whip manufacturers lost their jobs to “progress,” college professors shouldn’t bother defending the value and dignity of our work, not to mention its real value to state and local economies. That’s an argument that gives comfort to the comfortable and afflicts the already afflicted.

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