A second chance to do the right thing.

3 06 2013

“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.

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13 responses

3 06 2013
pan kisses kafka

Reblogged this on pan kisses kafka and commented:
DOOO IT, TT homies. To quote “Goonies” (obviously): This is your time.

3 06 2013
Contingent Cassandra

That’s certainly a call to arms which I’m happy to applaud, and to support to the extent I’m able from my position at the relatively privileged end of the contingent spectrum.

I haven’t had a chance to read through all of the linked articles, but I think some of the tricky questions (and the temptations) for tenured/tenure-track faculty will revolve not only around release/sabbatical time for research, but also (as they have with adjunctification) around graduate programs, and graduate students, and whether non-MOOC teaching faculty are, by creating or maintaining graduate programs that provide *them* with satisfactory hands-on teaching opportunities, also indirectly supporting MOOC-ification by creating MOOC-fodder. Depending on what accrediting agencies decide about the “instructor of record” issue (I’m very much hoping that they’ll be quite strict, essentially using the same standard as for a textbook — the textbook author isn’t the “instructor” of the class, the person who assigns parts of it to students and is directly available to those students is), even M.A. programs may raise these issues.

I’m not sure what the answer is, but I suspect that at least part of it involves quite senior professors who may not be doing so now (or not doing so frequently) teaching introductory courses in a very hands-on way — sort of an “occupy the core curriculum and teach it the way you think it ought to be taught” movement.

For departments where use of TAs is common, I’d also like to see a greater investment, in the form of credit hours for grad students and FTEs for professors, in pedagogical training (e.g. a double-the-usual-credit grad course — 1/2 disciplinary content, 1/2 pedagogy — that accompanies undergrad courses that employ TAs, to be taught by the same professor as the undergrad course, and taken the first time a TA teaches any particular undergrad course, and some sort of for-credit pedagogical writing/reflection component to subsequent instances of teaching the course, perhaps with an eye toward creating materials that could be used in a job search). That would make using TAs far more expensive for departments/universities, and choosing to be a TA more of a time investment for grad students, but I think it would lead both to think more seriously about the role TAing (and other teaching opportunities) play in a graduate training. If (as many grad programs now claim) the program expects a number of its graduates to pursue non-teaching careers, then students should be spending at least as much time in relevant (paid) internships as in teaching. As grad students finish or simply age out of a program, inertia tends to take over, and they keep doing what they’ve already been doing — which often means teaching a lot of intro courses, which tends to lead them straight onto the adjunct track (and, perhaps, if MOOCs take root — and I, too, very much hope they’ll be the pets.com of the early-mid twenty-tweens — straight into MOOC support positions) if nothing better materializes. If we’re going to keep the grad programs we have, then we need some better-trod paths out of the academy, and a mechanism for making grad students as familiar with those paths as with teaching options.

3 06 2013
Cooking with Clio

As one of those who lives and works in the “other” levels of the California Master Plan, I sincerely do hope that the UC faculty are ready and willing to not only rub shoulders with us but also join forces. Alas, I don’t think it is going to happen…even the AHA tends to view its members as faculty at research institutions and high school teachers (I wish I could quote the issue of Perspectives that sent me over the edge here, but I don’t have it to hand). I, like many faculty at my institution and others in the CSU system, do not have TAs, do not have a grad program, do not have undergraduate graders. Hiring adjunct faculty does make it possible to win the occasional competitive one semester sabbatical (only took me three tries at nine years to get one), and to teach outside my department. But obviously I’m not bitter. What I am is very upset that my administration is probably contracting with Corsera as I write and looking to toss us all out as outdated machinery!

Academic workers of the world unite?

3 06 2013
Monday Night Links | Gerry Canavan

[…] We’re all to blame for MOOCs. (Hey! Speak for yourself. I just got here.) A second chance to do the right thing. Online college course experiment reveals hidden […]

4 06 2013
Why deMOOCification won’t work « Lisa's (Online) Teaching Blog

[…] one would have to turn back for real reform. Jonathan Rees (a MOOC objector from the beginning) predicts the ultimate failure of MOOCs, and calls faculty to arms. He […]

4 06 2013
Doug Holton

I agree with a lot of the concerns you and others have brought up, but I’m not sure it’s going to mean the end of many faculty jobs. MOOCs haven’t seemed to have cost any tenure track or adjunct positions yet, but correct me if I’m wrong.

And to some extent, the bomb already went off in the nineties (and earlier), with the development of “digital diploma mills” (http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/569/490 ), and before that, correspondence schools. I think if there truly are universities that embrace MOOCs to the extent feared and started outsourcing lectures and firing instructors, they’ll basically rapidly devalue their university and turn it into yet another diploma mill. And most universities don’t want that, because that lowers revenue and prestige, and it would also eliminate any income from research funding, patents, etc.

Even after ACE accredited some MOOCs, I’m not sure if any universities have yet said that they would accept MOOCs for credit, but again, I might be wrong about that. Perhaps they would accept credit in money-losing areas, like remedial courses.

I just know that universities are one of the cornerstones of a healthy middle class and economy and way of life, and devaluing that would not be in anyone’s interests, except a few profiteers, who yes, we need to watch out for – see this article on Randy Bass, for example, who now leads MOOC2Degree and Academic Partnerships: http://www.texasobserver.org/randy-best-is-going-to-save-texas-public-universities-or-get-rich-trying/ http://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/technology-and-learning/qa-randy-best-mooc2degree

4 06 2013
Z

I have something coming out in Academe that makes basically this argument: now is the time to push back against the corporatizing admins — I allege it is not already too late but that one must start now.

5 06 2013
This is how MOOCs end… | More or Less Bunk

[…] taking flack for believing that Coursera is the next Pets.com here and elsewhere, so I thought I’d sum up why I believe this with three simple […]

15 06 2013
“Sentence first — verdict afterwards.” | More or Less Bunk

[…] are basically saying that they don’t care. I guess this shouldn’t be surprising as nobody cared when adjunctification rolled in originally, but that doesn’t make a bitter pill any easier to […]

19 07 2013
Doubling Down on #PhDon’t | pan kisses kafka

[…] much relevant experience. There are many tenured and even a few tenure-track faculty who have the balls to speak out about their institutions’ treatment of adjuncts—but just as many are straight-up feudal about […]

6 08 2013
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4 06 2013
Jonathan Rees

Mickey D’s and Walmart actually charge for their products.

5 06 2013
Sporch Ezza

But how many of these people are 18-22 years old and working on their first postsecondary degree? From the comments on the Greek Myths MOOC, I estimated that about half of the people were at least 25, about 15% already had at least one college degree, and only one was working on an undergraduate degree. 50-year-olds with a Master’s degree can thrive in MOOCs, but forcing 18-year-old freshfolk into MOOCs will be a flaming failure.

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