“In the long run we are all dead.”
- John Maynard Keynes, A Tract on Monetary Reform (1923).
I went to visit my brother the economist last week. As he is simultaneously to the left and right of me, we usually get into arguments, either over either economic policy (with me on the left) or social policy (with me on the right side of the left part of that very broad spectrum). When things get tough, I usually just throw the above Keynes quote at him or simply say, “Assume a can opener.” That drives economists crazy.
I found out last week that talking education policy confuses our usual relationship a great deal. I hate standardized tests, and while Daniel doesn’t exactly like them, he does believe that those tests are excellent predictors of future success – enough that you should pick your child’s school mostly on the basis of other kid’s results.
I probably should have demurred, but as economists in general (and my brother in particular) often drive me into apoplexy, I went directly for the jugular and questioned his assumptions. What happens if a kid doesn’t test well? What happens if the teacher didn’t teach the questions on the test? What happens if (God forbid) the problem in the school is really just poverty? The response was inevitable: “Do you really want to do social experiments on your own child?”
Luckily, I have a pretty good out. No schools at all in Pueblo test particularly well so my wife and I have no choice but to employ my educational survival strategy (close parental attention and support at home and in school) no matter what. What I should have said though is, “Do you really want to experiment on all of American society?,” but then again, George W. Bush and Ted Kennedy already have and American society is a lot worse off as a result. What the whole discussion reminded me of though is how important it is to question popular assumptions. This is particularly true with respect to educational policy as lots of people who haven’t the faintest idea how education works seem to think they’re experts in it. Unfortunately, not enough people spoke out during the 90s when No Child Left Behind was still on the drawing board.
Happily, the future of higher education still hasn’t arrived yet. That gives us plenty of time to stop MOOCification, and perhaps undo some old damage while we’re at it. Let’s start by considering that old damage as I think it’s intricately related to our allegedly glorious online future.
I. Who Is Responsible for the Adjunct Problem?
As I understand it, adjunctification began during the early 1970s and has only picked up enormous amounts of steam in the last two decades or so. [The last big study I saw suggested that 76% of US faculty are now contingent.] Oddly enough, college costs have grown steeply during the exact same time. Imagine how expensive college would be without all those adjuncts!!! But that’s the wrong way to look at the problem. The question that correlation should raise is, “How did college get so expensive despite all those adjuncts?” The answer to that question is easy: since adjuncts seldom participate in shared governance, their rise (or, more importantly, with relative fall of tenure track faculty with respect to total employment at American universities) has made it increasingly possible for administrators to spend university budget money without real faculty input.
Yet one response I often see from contingent faculty to the direness of their situation is to blame tenure-track people like me. For example, there’s this comment at an old post over at the Adjunct Project:
From my experience “adjuncting” at two colleges, I believe that the majority of tenured faculty members don’t care about the exploitation of adjuncts. There are exceptions of course comprised mostly of tenured faculty members who started their teaching careers as adjuncts and have first hand experience with the hellish working conditions that adjuncts experience on a year round, 24 hours, and 7 days a week basis. Save those FEW exceptions, the majority of tenured faculty members are all too happy or indifferent to partake in the exploitation. I hate to say it but I must cynically say that engaging tenured faculty will not work for the reason that tenured faculty members benefit from having exploitable adjuncts at their disposal…
Read the rest of you want to see the reasoning. While I usually argue that adjunctification was hardly the idea of tenure track faculty, the notion that we benefit from its continuation is indisputable. In a climate of permanent austerity, adjuncts make our sabbaticals possible. If they didn’t teach more, the rest of us would never have time for research. But who says the current austerity necessarily has to be permanent? Working together we can grow the pie.
That’s why picking on tenure-track faculty is unhelpful, to say the least. They might, however, still need a little moral suasion. Eugene Debs, in the Canton, Ohio speech that got him arrested, argued :
I would be ashamed to admit that I had risen from the ranks. When I rise it will be with the ranks, and not from the ranks.
What do we do though if we’ve already risen? Quitting is not an option for most of us. Jennifer Ruth has some excellent suggestions over at Remaking the University, all of which I heartily endorse. What they all amount to is fighting like Hell to bring the people at the bottom up as far as the university will lift them. Conveniently, this will allow them to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with you against an even more menacing foe.
II. Coursera Is in the Austerity Services Business.
If most tenure track faculty really don’t care about adjuncts, I think that attitude derives more from a narrow worldview rather than malice. It’s sort of like my brother and test scores. As long as my kid is doing OK, why should I care about anybody else’s children? I wouldn’t expect anything less from an economist, but other faculty I know actually have a sense of civic duty. Besides that, protecting adjuncts actually serves everyone else’s naked self interest. Forget the test scores. Would you want to send your kid to a school where almost every professor is being exploited? Happy professors make better teachers and having better teachers helps everybody at your university.
Unfortunately, the salaries of contingent faculty a permanent reminder of how much universities value teaching – which, unfortunately, isn’t very much at all. Perhaps more importantly, tenure track faculty don’t really benefit from adjunctification anymore in the age of permanent austerity. And thanks to technology, the future may be arriving sooner than we think.
My friend Kate has a particular stunning explanation of how and why this is already happening. [Hint: The answer involves MOOCs.]:
Once content is created to be infinitely reusable, once the work of learning is managed by learners, and once assessment can be automated or outsourced to other learners, then normal service labour costs can be stripped back aggressively. Without these shackles, the opportunities for profit-taking in higher education are suddenly formidable again, which is why traditional textbook publishers and content retailers have perked up.
Why have higher education institutions allowed themselves to be so boxed in, that we end up auditioning to be let back in to our own field?
The amazing Tressie MC refers to this same process as a hustle and she’s got a point. Still, I see it more like David Montgomery or Harry Braverman’s worst nightmare come true. Instead of sitting down like Flint GM strikers of 1937, we’ve let administrators and MOOC providers define our factories right out from under us.
The horrible irony here is that it’s the adjuncts and others who aren’t protected by tenure who’ll be adversely affected first. For obvious reasons, this is my favorite part of Kate’s post:
Jonathan Rees has been right all along that this is about academic labour—just not that it’s primarily a threat to the tenured. What should really concern us is the astonishing prospect that things can get worse for our local adjunct colleagues, who now face being priced out of work by superprofessors with quizzes.
On Twitter, I once described Coursera as a “data-mining company masquerading as an educational concern”, but Kate has now convinced me that they’re actually in the austerity services business. After all, their students aren’t clients and the elite universities they contract with aren’t making a cent off the data their MOOCs generate, at least not yet. What the non-elite universities that are just beginning to contract with them can bank on, however, is a huge cut in labor costs as their courses become MOOCified.
The first victims of that process will be the professors who are the easiest to remove. Most of the rest of of us will likely just be grandfathered out. If people like me choose not to MOOCify, they’ll simply replace us with more vulnerable people who will. Even then, there’s the possibility that the students in our classes will simply slip away before we go out to pasture. Don’t get me wrong, I still think MOOCs will collapse from their failure to earn back their start-up costs by giving their product away. Nevertheless, MOOCs can still do an awful lot of damage during their long death throes.
Yet I still think there’s reason for hope.
III. Kind of Like the Plot of “Independence Day” (but with MOOCs instead of aliens).
Here’s your fake SAT-style analogy for the day: Adjunct is to tenure-track professor as non-superprofessor is to superprofessor. I wish it followed that superprofessor is to non-superprofessor is to administrator as administrator is to superprofesser, but that’s not true. Superprofessors are members of the rentier class. MOOCs are their capital. Higher education is their product. We need to de-commodify education again the same way we have to stop measuring it like widgets.
How can we do this? Making a persuasive argument is a start, but we also have to recruit allies outside of the usual suspects who denounce MOOCs on Twitter and in the blogosphere. Ivan Evans writing at Remaking the University (again), suggests:
Absent a UC faculty union with real teeth, I cannot see faculty mounting anything close to meaningful opposition to the gutting of UC. What would make a difference is an alliance of faculty, regardless of rank, at all three levels of the Master Plan. (Yes, there are other two other levels). But that will not happen, mostly because UC faculty are aghast at the idea of rubbing shoulders with the Untouchables both amongst them and those who labor in recondite places without darkening the views from Sather Gate or scenic La Jolla.
I now feel that we shall deserve what we get.
Does that mean we’re too late? How would I know? I’ll tell you what Mother Jones would do, though: Fight like Hell for the living. That’s why it’s time for a cross-class anti-MOOC coalition, people. And while we’re at it, let’s bring in as many students as possible. As Richard Hall writes:
[T]he forces of production across capitalist society, which are increasingly restructuring higher education as means of production, are also increasingly ranged asymmetrically against the everyday experiences of young people. The question for academics is how to support both critique and the development/nurturing of alternative forms of society that in-turn push-back against the neoliberal agenda that commodifies humanity.
Karl Marx wrote about capital “converting the workman into a living appendage of the machine.” What is an unbundled professor (tenure-track or contingent) without the MOOC? Most likely unemployed – dead in the economic sense. Unbundling is an agressive act which should be about as welcome as wedgie, except that too many of us seem unwilling to admit that our underwear is already showing.
Once our employers reduce teachers to merely human capital, we all face a choice: join the producing class or gradually get squeezed out by the people who do. Being about as accessible as Thomas Pynchon or the pope is a disaster for teaching, but it’s great capitalism. If we join together to fight MOOCification, perhaps we can build the coalition that Hall seeks. If that happens, then maybe higher education can go back and right some past wrongs rather than simply committing a whole bunch of technologically-enabled new ones. The kind of class warfare they’re raging against faculty and students alike can never be won unless all the likely losers from the MOOCification process recognize that we are in this together.
In the long run we are indeed all dead. Emphasis on all. We tenure-track people missed our chance to fight adjunctification. Maybe with MOOCification we can start to make up for that mistake.