“I hate Illinois Nazis.”

26 07 2013

Following some excellent advice from Lee Skallerup, I still haven’t read the comments over at my Slate article. However, it’s been impossible to avoid the high-profile attention that it has received from the likes of Matt Yglesias, Megan McCardle and Brad DeLong (who called me “somewhat strange.”) I’m actually OK with all of this.

It’s this piece by Jonathan Chait of New York magazine that’s periodically sent me into fits of giggles ever since I first read it yesterday. Now that I’ve read it again, I’m actually a mixture of depressed and angry. While I expected the hostility I’ve been getting from techies (particularly on Twitter), I never in a million years expected to become part of the horserace narrative of a political journalist:

Jonathan Rees’s polemic in Slate against MOOCs today is an important preview of the coming fight within the Democratic base.

Chait’s hook for this point is the fact that President Obama was speaking about higher education and the economy the day before. I checked all three speeches that Obama made on the economy earlier this week. He didn’t mention MOOCs once. [And no, online education and MOOCs are NOT the same thing. If you think that then you have no business writing about this topic at all.] So much for the coming fight between Obama and his loyal professorial base.

But what’s even funnier than that is the implied notion that my little article is somehow the first salvo from the far left wing of the party against what we perceive to be Illinois Nazism. I hate to break it to you, Jonathan, but I voted for Obama twice. While I happen to think his education policies are far worse than George W. Bush’s, I would vote for him again for one reason: I have multiple interests.

I’m a college professor, but I also have a daughter in college. Therefore, I would be delighted to see the cost of higher education drop. Unfortunately, as Scott Lemieux explains in a very astute Chait dissecting at LGM:

Chait seems to be making an implicit assumption that tuition increases — which are indeed a serious problem — are driven primarily by spending on faculty. The problem is that this just isn’t true — the additional revenues that don’t go to increasing infrastructure expenditures have been much more likely to have been captured by administrators than faculty (especially outside of a few specialized areas like law and business.) Which brings us to a related problem — Chait’s even more crucial implicit assumption that cost savings from using MOOCs will be passed on to students rather than captured by administrators, used for physical or marketing expenses, and/or taken as profit when applicable. Given that the turn towards extremely low paid adjuncts instead of decently paid tenure track faculty has coincided with skyrocketing tuition, I’m not sure what the source of Chait’s faith that students will be the primary beneficiaries of reduced education costs is.

Therefore, when professors fight for their own economic interests, they are actually fighting for the interests of their students as well. Multiple interests? Get it? We do this not just because we can help prevent the people running universities from squandering tuition money, but because money spent on teaching is money spent on improving the quality of higher education (online or otherwise). If your higher education doesn’t actually teach you very much, then it isn’t really worth anything, is it?

The issue of quality is where Chait’s analysis makes me more sad than amused. Let me take this part of Chait’s article slowly, in the order that he wrote it:

But, uh – are we sure the only way to teach people what to do with facts is face-to-face?

No, you can teach them in online classes that aren’t massive. The article was about MOOCs. Does he understand the difference?

This seems like something that could at least conceivably be taught to more than one person at once.

I teach sections with between ten and forty people at once all the time. Is he advocating a faculty-student ratio of 1-1? I know I’m not. That’s not efficient.

I can remember lots of professors teaching me what to do with facts via lectures in extremely large auditoriums, which is not that different than a lecture you watch online.

If I hate MOOCs, why do I have to defend large lecture halls? Can’t I oppose them both? Even then, large classes presumably have TAs and office hours and an entire support structure of peers and staff designed to help students learn. With MOOCs, you’re on your own. It’s the student’s job to ask for help if they need it, and anybody who’s ever taught for a living knows that they often won’t do so even if they’re failing.

Nobody claims that the technical barrier has been solved, but it’s amazing that Rees is already declaring it unsolvable.

So we’re going to experiment on tens of thousands of paying students at once (because you know with private companies involved, free can’t last)? Time to quote Tenured Radical:

Could we have some oversight please? It seems to me that if this is all one, grand fun experiment, it should not be paid for by students, nor should they be rolled into a big educational experiment without understanding that no one knows how it will turn out.

I’m not assuming MOOCs can’t work for anybody, but I am assuming they aren’t going to work for many people because, God forbid, I actually have experience teaching. That’s why I know that students all have varying levels of ability. Chait, on the other hand, is willing to generalize from his “classic college experience,” even though he wants universities to conduct experiments that will take that experience away from all but the rich people who can afford it in the future. Isn’t liberalism grand?

Jake and Elwood were on the side of their fellow orphans. Ultimately, this argument is about who’s really on the side of young people here. In his last line, Chait writes of me:

Perhaps some of the students who can’t afford to get a college degree should forcefully explain their plight to him.

Maybe they should explain their plight to their administrators, or the football coaches or the for-profit colleges that are sucking up all the financial aid dollars on their ridiculous excuses for college courses, or the for-profit ed tech companies that are selling MOOCs or vastly over-priced, ill-suited learning management systems to universities that want to act like they’re doing something modern even if they don’t know exactly what it is. But no, Chait has to single out college professors because he mistakenly thinks this plays into his ridiculous political horse race narrative.

Next time you feel like blogging about higher education, Mr. Chait, why don’t you do some homework first? I hear there are many fine MOOCs on the subject in which you can enroll.

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6 responses

26 07 2013

If you’re “Jonathon strange,” where (or who) is Mr Norrell? Why not the NY Mag one? The circular NY subway map makes as much sense. Covering the adjunct beat, I’m fed up with the word “plight” ~ and am considering an embargo. That may seem like meandering but it’s not: this argument the “intelligent” [?] Chait lays on you, is the same one we get. It misses the point and gets in the way of explaining why and how it’s about more than the professors.

I don’t know about the Slate comments, but there are some good ones on the NY Mag article, not that I’m going to read or grade all of them

27 07 2013
Norm Matloff

No one advised me not to read the reader comments, so I did. :-) Not surprisingly, they look a lot like the ones my own op-ed got.

After those reactions, and the many conversations I’ve had on the topic in social occasions, professional meetings and even with some of my own faculty colleagues, I have come to a conclusion that will sound awful (as in awfully condescending): Many students don’t know what’s in their own best interests educationally. They can complete a course and have a real feeling of achievement, and yet not really know much of any real value, whether it be in the sense of value in a career or simply as an informed, aware citizen.

And that will be the obstacle to getting a meaningful evaluation of MOOCs–the criteria for success won’t be ones that have relevance to the putative goals of education, again economic, social or whatever. Instead, they will be very operational in nature. Udacity will tweak its method for delivering instruction, maybe in general or maybe specific to SJSU demographics, and pass rates will increase dramatically. SJSU will then declare victory, and teach ever more MOOCs for standard credit. “Studies” based on these operational criteria will show how “successful” MOOCs, and no one will question the premises on which the evaluation is based. Indeed, in the future, generations growing up in MOOCsville won’t have the capability of questioning premises on anything.

Jonathan makes an excellent point in noting that his criticism of MOOCs doesn’t mean he has to defend poorly taught live courses. As one of the reader comments pointed out, there are some professors of large live courses who do little more than “phone in” their lectures anyway. But it ought to be clear that the larger the course, whether live or not, the harder it is to deliver rich, stimulating instruction, and the stronger the incentive not to do so. The biggest problem with “MOOCs” is the M, not the second O.

27 07 2013
That Was The Week That Was | The Pietist Schoolman

[…] Slate on the topic got him new attention. Some of it fairly critical, though not necessarily fair: Rees dissected one such critique, by Jonathan […]

28 07 2013

I too was totally stunned by how little Chait knows about higher ed. and how yet that didn’t stop him from writing his story. Part of this is just ignorance about how higher ed has changed, and how it’s very different from wherever he graduated from in the 1970s or 1980s (Amherst? Columbia? Yeah, most of us teach at a directional state school, pal.)

But another part of the glee that many writers and journalists manifest about MOOCs is, I’m afraid, motivated by a hope that we suffer the same fates that they did courtesy of the internets. The rise of the internet, and the venal and cowardly response of most major media outlets, has spelled the ruin of their profession. People like Chait used to live a lot higher off the hog than I believe he does now. Is it any wonder that they look on the tenured class with envy as a group of workers who have been so far fairly insulated from the effects of globalization and the internet economy. (And yes, I’m talking about tenured or even TT people; the Chaits of the world clearly have no clue about the casualization of academic labor. They’re not resentful of those schmucks, they’re resentful of us schmucks.)

I have a friend who used to work for the Hartford Courant back in the 1980s and early 1990s as a reporter. When he decided to go to Penn in 1991 to get his Ph.D., his colleagues thought he was out of his freakin’ mind. In their view, he already had a very stable middle-class income–why take a chance on more education that wouldn’t likely get him much better, IF it ever got him a job at all? Well, 20+ years later, he’s a tenured proffie at a major research uni, and his friends have long since been laid off and are piecing together a living as stringers & part-timers for all manner of online publications.

So that’s where I see Chait coming from: distant memories of his proffies at Amherst or Princeton and how great their lives seemed to be, plus ressentiment that their lives appear to be relatively unchanged in spite of the massive “disruptions” of the internet economy on all other workers. He doesn’t want to know that in fact, the academic labor market has already trashed the professoriate, because that too would interfere with his narrative.

29 07 2013
Truths about MOOCs, Rees v Chait, and a bunch of other MOOC article links | stevendkrause.com

[…] the “food fight” between these two, especially Rees’ follow-up on his blog titled “I hate Illinois Nazis.” I’m not sure the connection to The Blues Brothers Movie really works for me, but I enjoyed […]

25 08 2013
Weekend Reading | Backslash Scott Thoughts

[…] I Hate Illinois Nazis, on Poor Columns About MOOCs. […]

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