“Alright Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”

18 06 2013

“It’s time for teachers to rethink learning methods. I invite everyone along for the exhilarating ride.”

– Anant Agarwal of edX, “Online universities: it’s time for teachers to join the revolution,” The Observer, June 15, 2013.

Since I’m all for edtech, I’ve decided to take up Anant Agarwal’s call and become a star. Reversing myself on everything that I’ve ever written in this space on this subject, I’ve begun planning my own MOOC. The name of my MOOC?:

Class Consciousness for College Professors.

Can you think of a more underserved population than us with respect to this subject? As I wrote last year, the professoriate is the worst guild ever, so even impersonal learning on this vital subject is better than none at all. Besides that (at least in my experience) nobody starts (and then doesn’t finish) more MOOCs than college professors. But this MOOC will be different. Instead of learning for learning sake, my MOOC will be all about understanding your own self-interest, something that few of us outside of our business schools seem to understand.

Here’s a tentative outline of my syllabus:

Week 1: Introduction to Dialectical Materialism

I’m not a Marxist, but I can play one on stage, screen or computer screen. I did read The Marx-Engels Reader back when I was in college so I can teach this stuff, right? After all, dialectical materialism simply means that class is a relationship. When some get more, others get less. You’d think everyone in academia would know this since faculty have been getting much less for years now, right? Alas no, but college professors are smart enough to figure this out even if the pedagogy behind the system I teach it to them with has so much to be desired.

Everyone says we’re a bunch of leftists anyway. Let’s earn that reputation for once. If I had my druthers, this where I’d assign Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital. On page 94, he explains the urgency of my whole endeavor:

“The destruction of craftmanship during the period of the rise of scientific management did not go unnoticed by workers. Indeed, as a rule workers are far more conscious of such a loss while it is being effected than after after it has taken place and the new conditions of production have become generalized.”

Too bad this is a MOOC, which means that I can’t assign any reading at all unless it’s beyond copyright protection. Even then, there’d be no guarantee that anyone in the class would actually read it. With their research and their lecturing and their service and their so-called “professional development,” college professors are such slackers.

Have you heard? They even get summers off.

Week 2: You Are a Worker

Here’s a subject I know well! I have a job. I get a paycheck. A few weeks ago I (along with a lot of other people) was informed that even though my performance last year “exceeds expectations,” the State of Colorado hasn’t got enough money to give me a merit pay raise. In other words, I have little control of the terms and conditions of my employment, yet I continually read stuff like this (3rd comment):

Just as doctors are dedicated to their patients, professors should be dedicated to their students not job security, a hippocratic oath for professors if you will. As such, arguments against MOOCs should only be based on student benefits/disadvantages.

Sure, some of us have families or medical problems or the need to eat…anything…ever. Yet they tell us we have to think of the children (as well as the adults going back to college) so that they can get real jobs in the new global economy rather than our lame dying ones. Therefore, being a college professor means you can’t travel or accumulate goods like every other American consumer does. Did I mention those summers off?

Silly me, I thought the invisible hand meant that everyone should pursue their own self interest and everything would work out OK. Indeed, since my working conditions are student learning conditions, I figured that I actually was acting in the best interests of my students by sticking up for myself. Happy profs = better teaching.

That’s why I want to be a superprofessor, so that I can spread my message of professorial unity throughout the world, unemploying as many other professors as possible in its wake. Hmmmm, I think I detect a contradiction here. Perhaps I can create a MOOC with a self-destruct mechanism in it.

Week 3: “I’m Good Enough, I’m Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me!”

In 1996, I worked with another grad student who was far more radical than I, but who was going to vote for Bob Dole in order to “accelerate the revolution.” That hasn’t worked out too well yet, but there’s no reason not to try this line of attack with MOOCs. A recent Chronicle piece entitled “Why We Fear MOOCs” is my inspiration here:

What is not often acknowledged, however, is how our understanding of college has created and reinforced rigid social distinctions in American life. In previous generations, it was abundantly clear who had attended college and who had not. College graduates might speak differently, have different pursuits (theater versus television, for example), travel more, or read more books. Attending college served as a clear marker of social class…

Thus, being college-educated does not simply signify that one has completed a task; it is a facet of one’s identity.

My identity shouldn’t be tied into where I teach or how I teach because the imminent academic proletarian revolution will simply wipe those distinctions away. Down with hierarchies of all kinds (including the one that allows me to put food on my table)! Who ever heard of a well-fed radical?

But what if the revolution never comes? What if MOOCs are just a way for the oligarchs to hang onto power during the age of permanent austerity? That’s when I’ll explain to my new vassals all the wonderful opportunities for personal growth in our glorious all-online future. If you can’t be a trained professional, you can still be a personal trainer. Sure, it’s not like you went to grad school for seven years in order to do that, but you have to learn to think like an “edu-preneur.”

Besides, you can still make good money as a trainer. Certainly more than being an adjunct. Which is a nice segue into Week 4…

Week 4: Meet Your Adjuncts.

You may not be an adjunct, but you certainly could have been. No matter what your discipline or where you went to graduate school, quirks of supply, demand or timing might have led to your adjunctification. As the irreplaceable William Pannapacker writes:

I have known too many extraordinarily talented and productive long-term adjuncts to believe that academe is a meritocracy. And I have known too many long-suffering academic-labor activists to believe that such people are enemies of higher education. They are often the only friends that a demoralized job seeker can find, the only ones who acknowledge that the inability to land a tenure-track position is not entirely the fault of the individual alone, that it is a systemic problem.

This may explain why the vast majority of tenure track faculty couldn’t pick their own adjuncts out of a lineup. We wouldn’t want anybody challenging our assumptions, would we?

To be fair, knowing my adjuncts is easy for me as we invite them to the (catered) introductory department meeting every year. However, as they tend to get the worst class times, I’m never on campus at the same time of some of them again. The lesson here is that you have to make the effort to build a relationship. Your adjuncts are too busy.

I’ll definitely use guest lecturers this week because I have so many fine people from from which to choose. Of course, I’ll pay them nothing because they’ll willingly work just for the exposure. After all, aren’t they just doing this out of love? If that’s not enough, they can put it on their cvs for next year’s job market. Of course, that won’t make a difference anyways since too many people think they’re already damaged goods. I’ll correct that impression during my MOOC.

Obviously this week’s assignment will be for everyone to go introduce themselves to their adjuncts. After that, peers in the class will quiz you on their names. What’s that you say? You want to know what happens if an adjunct signs up for my MOOC? That won’t be an issue because they already know the material backwards and forwards as they live the need for class consciousness every day.

Extra credit for saying “Hello” to them in the hall later.

Week 5: We Are at War Already

Did you actually read that Agarwal essay? It’s a direct shot at the bow of professorial class consciousness:

Moocs make education borderless, gender-blind, race-blind, class-blind and bank account-blind. Up to now, quality education – and in some cases, any higher education at all – has been the privilege of the few. Moocs have changed that. Anyone with an internet connection can have access. We hear from thousands of students, many in under-served, developing countries, about how grateful they are for this education.

Race, class, gender and nationality all in the same paragraph! How can we let our petty concerns (like eating or retiring someday) get in the way of ending every social problem of our time? Of course, if we educate everybody everywhere and do nothing to change the structural injustices of the global economy, everybody but the luckiest few will remain in the exact same position before MOOCification began. My MOOC will fix that problem by teaching professors to teach students to help themselves. Of course, if they do it through MOOCs they’ll be cutting the throats of their fellow professors, at least until the real revolution comes. A good revolutionary doesn’t bother with internal consistency.

Then there’s Agarwal’s absolute enormous straw man argument about what MOOCs aim to replace:

Students have always been critical of large lecture halls where they are talked at, and declining lecture attendance is the result. But today we see that there is deep educational value in interactive learning, both online and in the classroom. Colleges and universities are beginning to use Moocs to make blended courses where online videos replace lectures, and class time is spent interacting with the professor, teaching staff and other students.

I’ll let Audrey Watters give him the history of edtech speech if she’s so inclined. What I’m interested in is the way that Agarwal conflates giant lecture halls with the entirety of higher education. He knows that’s wrong. We know that’s wrong. Even if we have 500 students in a class, we can still flip our classrooms anytime we want to without having to use somebody else’s content. If you won’t let somebody else pick your textbook for you, why on earth would you outsource your own content? What did you spend all those years in graduate school for then?

This piece is so out of touch with reality that it makes me think that the whole pitch isn’t really directed at professors or teachers at all. It’s pure public relations, designed to get angry torch-bearing mobs appearing outside university buildings demanding fresh non-superprofessors to satiate their lust for blood. Or maybe it’s a superprofessor recruiting pitch because as a pitch for victims suckers MOOC consumers it’s really weak tea.

Week 6: The Futility of MOOCs

You’ve heard of the MOOC to end all MOOCs?I’ve decided that the only way to match the tremendous reach of MOOCs is to use a MOOC to teach the futility of MOOCs. Don’t believe me? 90% dropout rates should be your first clue. To quote Rebecca Raphael:

“There is simply no way to mass-scale the real attention of another human being.”

Who cares if not everybody gets this lesson because it’s being mass-scaled. Professors are smart people. They can figure it out for themselves, right? And if they don’t, they’ll be going the way of the dodo soon anyway.

Too sum up then (à la Ian Bogost):

1. MOOCs are futile as teaching tools.
2. This is a MOOC.
3. Therefore, this MOOC is futile.

OK…nevermind. I guess I’ll just accept my upcoming obsolescence like a good cog in the machine. I wish I had a mansion and a crazy German butler to help assuage the disappointment, but I’ll have to make do with once having been big in Connecticut.

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3 responses

18 06 2013
RAB

The MOOC may be futile, but the blog post certainly isn’t! Love me some satire. (And you are STILL big in Connecticut.)

25 06 2013
How do you get people to do what they don’t want to do? | More or Less Bunk

[…] my 8-year-old the last time I tried it and it won’t work on faculty either. Even smart people without class consciousness need to be convinced that they are the ones who have to sacrifice for what’s right. Acting as […]

27 06 2013
Udacity is not a charity. | More or Less Bunk

[…] that effort helped lead to a really helpful response on his blog. I’ve linked to that before here, but I’ve been meaning to note publicly that Noor there shows more interest in the welfare of […]

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