“Why don’t you call me sometime when you have no class?”

16 01 2014

“Back to School” is hardly my favorite movie. It’s not even my favorite movie about college (which would be “Wonder Boys.”), but they filmed it at the University of Wisconsin – Madison just a few year before I arrived there. For that reason, I think of it fondly as my introduction to the place. [Longtime Badgers will notice how they did everything possible to block out all the ugly buildings on campus, especially my old workplace, the Mosse Humanities Building.]

Despite the explicit efforts in that movie to de-Madison Madison, I can’t tell you how often I thought of the joke excerpted above when I was in graduate school there. Not to spoil the fun by analyzing it too much, it depends upon two meanings of the word “class.” The first is an even during which instruction is taking place. The second is the kind of refinement one gets from being born to or living in affluence. Trained as a labor historian, I always imagined a third meaning for the word class: the dialectical relationship between labor and capital. Yes, it doesn’t fit the context of “Back to School,” but that line sure is handy when discussing just abut anything else in American life.

I thought of that line again when reading Cathy Davidson this morning. Like so many technologically enthusiastic educational reformers, I know she means well. I even agree with the vast majority of what she writes in this article from “Hybrid Pedagogy.” However, this particular part is worthy of very close consideration:

“The hype about MOOCs offering the equivalent of a Harvard or Stanford education for free is just silly. Equally implausible is the ancillary hysteria that MOOCs will be used to take away jobs. The appalling and reprehensible 70% contingent and adjunct labor statistic in higher ed began long before MOOCs were a gleam in Sebastian Thrun’s or Daphne Koller’s eye.”

The existence of adjuncts is precisely the reason that so many of us do think MOOCs will be used to take away jobs. If administrations are willing to sacrifice the quality of the educations they provide by creating and deliberately growing adjunct labor, why wouldn’t they take the next step and do away with tenure track jobs altogether? The motivation of saving money for their own ends would be precisely the same.

Davidson’s chicken/egg problem only grows over the course of this paragraph:

“[I]f we scapegoat MOOCs for all the troubles in higher education, we’ll be left with no solutions, no progress, no innovation, and no change in the status quo. Simply protesting MOOCs is not enough. We have to be smart about new ideas and about what is or is not threatening and what is or is not efficacious about MOOCs. We need to work together, and with the interest of our students utmost, to change the conversation back from a contempt for higher education to appreciation of its importance to civil society and to the future. There is no victory in undercutting MOOCs if our hostility does nothing to change the percentage of adjuncts or public support for higher education — or the status quo of the structures, legacies, outmoded methods, assumptions, and metrics of higher education today.”

I think where you stand on this issue depends upon where you sit. Suppose just for a moment that Cathy Davidson is wrong about MOOCs not taking away people’s jobs. She’s a superprofessor. She’s at Duke. She can offer her apologies and go back to work. A lot of the rest of us in academia will not have that option. Ironically, the people who are most likely to be replaced (or perhaps just further underpaid) because of MOOCs are precisely the adjuncts that Davidson expresses a desire to protect. After all, they’re the easiest people to get rid of during a race to the bottom caused by technological disruption. With MOOC students scattered all around the world, their online mentors don’t have to be on campus either. Administrators (or more likely private MOOC providers) can pay them whatever traffic will allow since they’ll have to compete against every surplus Ph.D. on the planet with an internet connection to even do a pale imitation of the work for which they trained.

Does all this sound as if I have “lost my marbles?” Will people who have “lost their marbles” be welcome in Cathy Davidson’s new Coursera MOOC on the past and future of higher education? Perhaps I would consider attempting to make a glib attempt to follow along except my version of reforming higher education is to try to help save the jobs of up to fifty of my colleagues. That takes up an awful lot of my time these days, along with other important considerations apart from my regular teaching load.

For those of you reading this who are participating in that MOOC, though, let me give you one piece of advice: higher education has always had class, and it always will. And I’m not talking about class in either sense of the word that Rodney Dangerfield meant it when he was trying to pick up Sally Kellerman. I mean it in the third sense of that word, the one I learned in graduate school.

You folks can come up with the most brilliant way to solve every last one of higher education’s problems, but if you refuse to acknowledge the existence of higher education’s inherent class divide nothing you propose will ever be implemented. Not one thing.

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11 responses

16 01 2014
Chuck Rybak (@ChuckRybak)

Well done, and this is very close to what I was thinking. Note: I am a huge admirer of Cathy Davidson’s ideas and spirit; like you say, her intentions are something I have no trouble aligning with. That being said…

She’s discussing this as if there’s a single continuum of intent, and that feels inaccurate, especially when talking about legislators. When am I open minded and thoughtful about a MOOC? When someone like Cathy Davidson or Jesse Stommel is running the show. But when should we “scapegoat” or “simply protest” MOOCS? When they are a legislative weapon wielded by legislators who are anti education, especially in the public realm. Frankly, I can point to a number of administrators and legislators in my state (aptly, Wisconsin!) who don’t give a damn how thoughtful Cathy Davidson is about MOOCS. I give a damn about what she thinks, lots of damns, but I don’t make policy. I think the mark is also missed by thinking that rejecting the specific application of, and intention for, MOOCS is somehow equivalent to their intellectual value. That is simply not the case on the legislative and administrative front. So I’m willing to be of both minds, and I suggest others adopt this approach as well: I’ll be thoughtful about the specifics MOOCS that are worth being thoughtful about because the people and the pedagogy behind them, in that instance, have integrity. I’ll simultaneously “scapegoat” and “simply protest” when they are not an educational tool, but an economic mechanism meant to devalue human resources. Hopefully, while doing the latter, enough good example of the former will appear to make the overall argument easier.

16 01 2014
Chuck Rybak (@ChuckRybak)

But I’d also add that I really like Cathy’s piece in Hybrid Pedagogy, and what I’m commenting on above feels like a very small sliver of the much larger, and useful perspective of a course’s inner workings (like you say, you “agree with the vast majority of what she wrote”). Me too! I just wanted to re-emphasize that. Because the Internet.

16 01 2014
Jonathan Rees

Yeah, but to be fair Chuck, don’t you think that’s a rather important sliver?

I’m not saying that this section cancels out all the good that Cathy Davidson’s doing in the world or even that it cancels the rest of the piece, but this attitude (wherever, whenever and from whomever it surfaces in higher education) is an absolutely gigantic problem.

16 01 2014
Cathy Davidson (@CathyNDavidson)

You will get no argument from me. I devote about 20% of every week on policy, with policy makers, with administrators, giving talks or workshops on the fact that a profession with 70% contingent and adjunct labor robs teachers, students, and society. You miss my point: as long as we blame MOOCs, we don’t focus on the real cause. The MOOC is not the silver bullet legislators were promised (or promise); it is not going to destroy our profession. Neoliberalism is doing a great job of doing that. That is what we must fight. We need a cultural turn. One of my team-teaching colleagues has his students read the 1944 GI Bill to see how far we have come from our understanding of the social role of education and social commitment to it. Brilliant. We need to work on every level, including public awareness, and #FuturEd, HASTAC’s Initiative now involving more than 70 institutions in such conversations and in activism, and the MOOC are intended to mobilize a worldwide community. The motto: It’s Not a MOOC. It’s a Movement. I believe in focusing attention where there is a chance of change.

Again, no argument from me about the horror of adjunctification. I’m a senior and lucky prof now. I was an adjunct and unemployed for three years at the beginning of my career. By accident, and a whole lot of publications and teaching awards (both), I landed my first tenure track job and, if I had been less lucky, I would not have and then I would have changed field. It was the worst job market until the present time. The present time is appalling. We all must work on every level, and by any means we have at our disposal, to change hearts and minds and policy.

Here are four other blogs I’ve written on the economics of higher education today, from multiple perspectives.




Why Does College Cost So Much–And Why Do So Many Pundits Get It Wrong?

16 01 2014
Chuck Rybak (@ChuckRybak)

Point taken. Okay, I do think it’s a gigantic sliver, much in the same way I’m relentlessly hammering this legislative point in the empty “tenured vs adjunct” debate. Still, I feel like I can compartmentalize this particular piece because of its intended audience and venue. Still, if your point is that by convincing educators/students to adopt this position wholesale leads to a naive assessment of the potential repercussions, then my ears open a bit more, because I’ve seen simple legislative decisions render thoughtful positions (like Cathy’s) moot in a second flat. So it sounds like you’re saying that this position, while thoughtful, leaves the vulnerable to exposed. Frankly, I’m sympathetic to that take.

16 01 2014
Chuck Rybak (@ChuckRybak)

Cathy, I agree. I don’t blame MOOCs–I blame the political forces and frequent bad intentions behind them and would never conflate the two. I took “MoocMooc” when it was offered and had a positive experience, but I also never would have considered that a “course” in the true undergraduate sense. I guess my main point is actually aligned with you–yes, it is wrong to blame MOOCs, but it is entirely right to blame the actors who push their ineffective application for financial or ideological gain. (That’s what I hear you saying, largely. Maybe I’m wrong.)

16 01 2014
Cathy Davidson (@CathyNDavidson)

Totally. Blame the motives and the actors and the general social demonization of higher education. And, from the structure of MOOCs, see what we can learn. Clearly there are massive problems in higher education itself. Some are imposed from outside (the subject of the talk I gave last week at the Chicago Humanities Summit) and some are from inside (when professions dig in their feet and are unwilling to change for the benefit of those they are designed to serve: namely, students). I do not see those as contradictory but the same goals—the movement is to transform social attitudes and increase funding for higher education and reverse the trend of exploiting faculty AND to push faculty (including those most secure) to think about the needs of students today. Both/And. Not either/or. Not one or the other.

16 01 2014
Jonathan Rees


But the tendency of too many administrators is to play faculty of all kinds off their students. “You can’t have a raise because we need to keep tuition down.” [They actually made that argument at my place.] This line of argument is possible only by leaving any discussion of educational quality out of budget debates. I’ve read _Now You See It_. I know you care about quality. Unfortunately too many other people interested in MOOCs don’t.

16 01 2014
Cathy Davidson (@CathyNDavidson)

Yep. That is why we have spent 40 hours a week since May working on the meta-MOOC and the HASTAC FutureEd Initiative: we want to change that conversation. Right now, all the noise about higher education is being controlled by MOOCs and it is drowning out real conversation about the quality of learning, the need for innovation, education as a real handcraft that needs care, education as a social and civil good, and the ability of educators to lead real education. This isn’t worth blaming “administrators”: they are the guards of a much larger social system that needs changing. We hope to change a conversation. I’m not naive. Changing a conversation does not change policy. That requires laws, legislators, capital, lobbying, etc etc etc. However, public opinion leads to such change and it’s time we worked, together, to change public opinion. For six months, we’re asking people to use the wikis on HASTAC and their own communication channels to communicate successes, models of successful and good change, in the classroom and in institutions. We want to build upon those models to counter the ridiculous conversation that only CEOs and venture capitalists have ideas. We want good publicity for higher ed to counter all the bad. We want loyalty and public opinion to support higher ed. It is what movement building is. Period. I do not disagree with you. I just feel this is one six-month experiment on behalf of building a transformative conversation. Thanks for taking the time to work this through. We could go on at length but right now I am trying to concentrate all my energy on a social change on behalf of higher education. Including changing the social rules that make it acceptable to send your kids to a university with 70% adjunct labor. It’s bad for teachers, students, society. Period. It is unacceptable. Period. Let’s all work together to change the social values that have made it seem acceptable when it is a human and social travesty.

4 02 2014

One thing to consider is the professionalization of online learning, for (as usual) both good and ill. Online learning, especially in the context of MOOCs, needs certain kinds of professional support, namely technical support for the course infrastructure and platforms (just ot keep things running) and support for instructional design (so that teachers don’t continually have to reinvent wheels). But in both cases, and especially the latter, one runs into a new cadre of professionals who have been trained to give help in such matters. That is a find and necessary thing in general, but when the professionals wind up controlling the medium itself, they threaten to take over the show. Consider “Quality Matters” (QM), a “peer review process” to facilitate online education. A key feature of QM’s program is its rubric for course design, which can be found at https://www.qualitymatters.org/rubric. The rubric (a word I grudgingly use) contains a very useful checklist of considerations in designing an online class (and at least 80% of its content could apply as well to in-class education). But it’s all too easy to get caught up in the rubric and its various levels and to let it dictate rather than guide one’s efforts in designing a course and evaluating its structure. If professionals who are bound up and in the QM mindset run the show, the rest of us will once again be simply tagging along. In short, the tools and those who know how to use the tools should not be the ones who determine how and why the tools should be used.

11 02 2014
The MOOC don’t work ’cause the vandals took the handles. | More or Less Bunk

[…] labeling issues in Coursera’s History and Future of Higher Ed MOOC, which I’m not taking, but have been following in blogland. Here’s Tamson Pietsch and Melonie Fullick describing […]

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