A world without us.

25 06 2014

By now, you should have “met” John Kuhlman. My correspondence with him began after my office hours piece, and has only gotten more interesting over time. One of the things he’s suggested to me that I particularly like is the idea of measuring teaching effectiveness by the responses that professors receive from their students. I imagine this not simply as a question of counting the number of comments you get on your teaching evaluations, but looking anywhere (e-mails, LinkedIn requests, whatever) for active engagement with your pedagogy, both good or bad.

You say I’m a dreamer? Of course I am. The corporate types that have taken over most of higher ed will never let qualitative measures happen because this flies against everything that modern management philosophy represents. As Chris Newfield explains in his epic contextualization of the Christensen/Lepore grudge match:

In contrast to professional authority, which is grounded in expertise and expert communities, managerial authority flows from its ties to owners and is formally independent of expertise. Management obviously needs to be competent, but competence seems no longer to require either substantive expertise with the firm’s products or meaningful contact with employees. The absence of contact with and substantive knowledge of core activities, in managerial culture, function as an operational strength. In universities, faculty administrators lose effectiveness when they are seen as too close to the faculty to make tough decisions. In the well-known story that Prof. Lepore retold, the head of the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors decided to fire the university president on the grounds that she would not push online tech innovation with the speed recommended by an admired Wall Street Journal article. The Christensen model does not favor university managers who understand what happens in the classroom and who bring students and faculty into the strategy process. For employees and customers are exactly the people who want to sustain and improve what they already have, which in disruptive capitalism is a loser’s game.

What universities already have is us – by which I mean the professoriate. Applying Christensen’s value-neutral philosophy of “progress” to higher education inevitably means getting rid of faculty entirely, no matter what kind of meaningful responses they can illicit from their students.

Perhaps a very brief history is in order. Starting around 1970, universities began to use adjunct faculty to spare themselves the cost of hiring tenure track faculty who demand crazy things like health benefits and academic freedom. People not in those positions mostly did not object to this development because they did not see that it affected them. Where are we now? As the anonymous genius behind “100 Reasons NOT to Go To Graduate School” noted in their first post in a really long time:

There are now nearly 3.5 million Americans with doctorates (see Reason 55) but only 1.3 million postsecondary teaching jobs (see Reason 29), and the oversupply of PhDs is becoming a crisis in the rest of the world as well. A Norwegian newspaper has called it the academic epidemic. Legions of graduate students spend years of their lives preparing to compete for jobs that are few in number and promise little opportunity for advancement. The academic world is one in which ambition is rewarded with disappointment millions of times over.

The real “disruption” in higher ed is the entirely understandable willingness of people at the wrong end of that numerical divide to undercut the wages and prerogatives of the faculty on the other in order to scrape out a living. Technology which allows anybody with an internet connection to teach anywhere makes this process ridiculously easy, while academic management types use the tuition checks that keep flowing in to hire more managers.

The obvious next step in this process is to cut out faculty entirely. Since you can’t survive without teaching entirely, then you unbundle it so much that almost nobody can make a living doing it. Here‘s Katherine Moos from Chronicle Vitae last year:

Private and public universities are pouring millions of dollars into MOOCs. Where will the savings be realized? An organization (in this case, a university) won’t invest in a new technology unless there’s a long-term labor cost advantage to doing so—hence the term “labor-saving technology.” Remember Adam Smith’s pin factory? Now picture one professor video-lecturing, another taking attendance, and yet a third grading assignments (perhaps from another country). Rather than producing original research and unique pedagogy, professors could quickly join the ranks of workers providing highly specialized and deskilled services.

I would suggest that this kind of de-skilling is so drastic that the word “faculty” is no longer appropriate. Indeed, just try to imagine someone receiving the kind of letters that John Kuhlman received simply by taking attendance really, really well. And while students might be listening to content from the most qualified content providers in the world, the whole idea of splintering the learning process into a million pieces is obviously an idea that only a manager (rather than an educator) could love.

Of course, I don’t want to blame this whole thing on MOOCs (as tempting as that might have been a couple of years ago). MOOCs, like any other educational tool, can be used responsibly or irresponsibly. The problem here (as it is with so much of higher education) is the dictatorial, top-down management philosophy that makes their misuse not just possible, but likely. If the practitioners of this management-centered higher ed philosophy can imagine a world without us, perhaps we can begin to imagine a world with a lot fewer of them – a world in which faculty prerogatives over the educational process can be re-established.

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2 responses

30 06 2014
Pat Lockley

Analytics, or perhaps Chris Newfield’s expertise / authority is reliant on trust (if without measure). I wonder if in times of austerity, trust is no longer something we can afford. Adjuncts easier to trust, as via short term compliance there is little scope to dissent. But perhaps also a classic division of labour between admin and academics?

I’m one of the downstairs admin in a small uni team, and I’ve never seen such strong distinctions in roles and work. More often than not we’re run ragged by requests made to us which don’t work, or we don’t have the time to do well, if at all. l wonder if there is some case for greater exchanges between groups?

1 07 2014
Peter Onuf on MOOCs |

[…] are dependent on financial factors beyond our control. Add to those circumstances the very real threat to future academic employment posed by MOOCs as currently conceived, and it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to see them as […]

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