When I grow up, I want to be Robert Caro. For one thing, the man is an incredible historian. The chapters in The Power Broker about the building of the Cross Bronx Expressway may be the best narrative anybody has ever written about anything ever.* What I envy more than the guy’s writing skills though are his persistence and patience. He’s literally been writing about Lyndon Johnson since the 1970s and all four volumes of this eventual five volume set have been worth the wait. Think about the patience it takes to interview all those aides twenty – maybe thirty – years ago when they were still alive and to wait decades before there thoughts make it into your narrative. Think of the persistence it takes to keep writing about the exact same subject decade after decade.
In fact, when you consider all of Caro’s work, he’s really been writing about the same thing since the 1960s: power. First with Robert Moses, then Johnson, Caro’s books (as I’ve seen him explain many times in interviews like this one) are really all about power: How to get it, how to use it and mostly importantly how to use it well. This is particularly true with Lyndon Johnson because LBJ started from nothing, got lots of power, lost it and then found it again. There’s also that fascinating Good Lyndon/Bad Lyndon phenomenon. We liberals cheer The Great Society and condemn Vietnam, but there really both two sides of the same coin. Grateful for what Johnson was willing to give us, we elected him in a landslide in 1964, but the Vietnamese wouldn’t trade their independence for a new TVA. When he was Vice President, the Kennedy people called him “Uncle Cornpone” to his face, but when he became President, Johnson could intimidate people into doing his will without them even noticing. [This is the famous "Johnson Treatment" pictured above.]
MOOCification is about power too. If people with access to power want to convince recalcitrant professors to accept MOOCs, arguing that they must be because this must be is a terrible idea. Yet this is precisely what the two quotes following mine in that New York Times article from last week try to do. First, there’s my online buddy Phil Hill, making an argument I’ve read from him a million times on every form of social media except Facebook**:
“The problem with this MOOC-as-labor-issue argument is that it has no place for students and learning,” said Phil Hill, an education technology consultant. “Our starting point ought to be what students need and whether this is an effective form of learning.”
Whenever Phil makes that infuriating argument, I usually respond with some variation of “profs gotta eat.” Not surprisingly that argument works really well on other profs, but not so well on Phil. However, I want to point out to Phil’s clients that they can’t just wish the class divide away. Since profs gotta eat, they’re going to worry about eating whether you tell them they’re allowed to or not. Moreover, plenty of us believe that by looking out for our interests we are looking out for students and learning. Therefore, making this kind of argument simply serves as a way to shut down all discussion of the subject, which will only breed resentment.
Perhaps the real problem with higher education labor policy today is that too many people don’t care how much resentment they breed. The next quote in that article after Phil’s is even worse, if such a thing is possible:
“The issue in higher education is how we get to scale,” said M. Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. “The question now is how long it’s going to take for faculty members to stop saying they can use the same textbooks as others at other institutions, but they can’t use the same lectures.”
Darn it, faculty, what’s taking you so long to accept your own obsolescence? Can’t you see the same future that I see (without you in it)! It’s right there in front of your noses! That kind of argument didn’t work on 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 if your position is the one inevitable future is really just an admission that your argument is too weak to stand up to close scrutiny.
You don’t even need to be a business professor to see that this is a terrible personnel management strategy. Professors of all kinds know the limits of power because we have to convince people to do what they don’t want to do every time we step into the classroom. In other words, employer is to employee as teacher is to student. We manage our classrooms the same way that our employers have to manage us.
That’s why letting too many non-professors into the MOOCif-ication process is a pedagogical disaster. You can’t just say “grade the essays of your peers” and thy will be done. Here’s Karen Head, in another jaw-dropping explanation of what it’s really like to be a superprofessor, documenting firsthand one of the many reasons why peer grading can’t work:
Because the qualitative process is central to our course, I wanted to require students to participate in peer work in order to get credit for assignments. When I wanted to make the penalty for not completing peer review a 100-percent deduction per assignment, the Coursera support team responded that the maximum deduction could be only 20 percent. Coursera acknowledged that other instructors had complained about the penalty figure but gave no indication as to when or whether the problem would be addressed. Predictably, many students have not completed the peer review, leaving others with little feedback. In my opinion, the instructor, not the platform, should determine how an assignment is evaluated.
I’m not convinced upping the penalty would help much either. You can’t make students care when they don’t care. You have to inspire students to care, and you can’t do that if the only way they ever see you is on tape.
Another essential component to genuine education is close, careful, critical reading. MOOCs, however, discourage the acquisition of college-level reading skill. When the edX package of Sandel’s lectures was proposed to us, we were told that the amount of time students would spend using the platform would be monitored. They were expected to work online at home for nine hours a week, mainly watching videos and taking quizzes. Assuming a typical load of five courses, students who took only MOOC courses would spend about 45 hours per week watching video clips and taking quizzes. What time would they have left for reading Plato, Shakespeare, or Freud?
If I assigned my students The Power Broker, which is over 1000 pages long, they’d either not do the reading or murder me. The trick is to assign as much reading as you need to teach history well without alienating too many students in the process and that can be very hard, particularly as the reading skills of the typical college student have dropped through the floor in recent years. Unfortunately, as that Karen Head piece clearly indicates, the customer can do no wrong in Coursera’s eyes. That may yet prove to be good business, but it’s undoubtedly terrible pedagogy.
Lyndon Johnson understood that in order to get people to do what they don’t want to do there have to be both carrots as well as sticks. This goes for faculty as well as students. Drive professors out of their professions and they’re not coming back. Therefore, you have to expect them to use all the power at their disposal to hang on to something they do more from love than for money. Whining about our refusal to accept our own obsolescence will only make us fight harder.
* If you’re a history grad student, do yourself a favor and just get the book out of the library right now and read the whole giant thing this summer. It remains well worth your time almost forty years after publication.
** And that’s not because I wouldn’t friend him there. It’s because I’ve decided that Facebook is just far too creepy for me to ever join it again.