What is going on at CSU-Pueblo?

17 12 2013

From this morning’s Pueblo Chieftain:

Colorado State University-Pueblo administrators are revising next year’s budget projections and the new bottom line could mean as many as 50 positions on campus will go dark in fiscal year 2015.

The combination of declining state revenues and declining enrollment on the Belmont campus is forcing CSU-Pueblo President Lesley Di Mare to reassess next year’s ledger and cut projections by $3.3 million….

The cuts will come from faculty and staff.

This is the response from the CSU-Pueblo chapter of the American Association of University Professors, compiled after an emergency joint meeting yesterday afternoon with the Faculty Senate, read at a rally that I just attended (taken from the final draft that appeared in my e-mail last night):

As many of you are no doubt aware, CSU-Pueblo has been tasked with cutting 3.3 million dollars in the 2014-2015 budget. What may be less clear to some of you, is that job cuts are not a “possibility”; they are a foregone conclusion. Faculty and staff alike have been told to expect as many 50 of our co-workers will lose their jobs. More troubling is that, though most faculty just learned the specifics of the cuts on Friday, names and positions have already been submitted to the deans, and deans have submitted proposed cuts to the provost. We stand before you now, not just as faculty concerned for the future of academics at CSU-Pueblo, but as concerned citizens of Southern Colorado.

Our president, Dr. Lesley DiMare, has been stalwart in her work for CSU-Pueblo, but at the CSU Chancellor’s request, decisions have already been made regarding the process for identifying proposed personnel cuts — all at a time of the year when both faculty and students have left for the holiday break.

What this means is that proposals have been put forward with minimal faculty input and without adequate time to communicate information to those on campus and off who will be most affected by the layoffs that are coming. Few administrators or system officials seem to have considered the impact that 3.3 million dollars in lost salaries would have on our Southern Colorado region in a time when the CSU System is operating with a 200 million dollar surplus. Most importantly, while faculty do not dismiss a need to be frugal in difficult fiscal times, we were not allowed time to discuss this situation among departments or colleges, nor were we allowed the opportunity to adequately assess the impact that immediate budgetary cuts would have on our ability to serve students and our community.

We are asking now that Dr. DiMare and the CSU System chancellor, Michael Martin, allow faculty to take a more prominent role in developing alternative budget-cutting proposals that will avoid such a drastic impact on campus jobs. And, we are asking that our colleagues throughout the state, our alumni, our students, and our community partners contact our state representatives now. The future of CSU-Pueblo is very much at stake, and decisions made in haste now have the potential to harm our students and the community for years to come.

And here’s our rally:


Reading is fundamental.

10 12 2013

One of the great themes of the MOOC Research Initiative conference I went to last week was trying to define what exactly constitutes success for a MOOC. Is it the percentage of people who finish it? Is it the number of people who start it? Is it the number of people who report that they got whatever they wanted out of it? This explains why everyone there could learn that “MOOCs have relatively few active users with only a few persisting to course end” and not just pack it in and go home. MOOCs in the eyes of the earnest, well-meaning people who are creating them are a different animal than the regular college course. Therefore, they argue, the success or failure of MOOCs should be judged by a different standard than the courses that the rest of us teach.

Unfortunately, succeed or fail, the “lessons” that MOOCs teach us are still going to be applied to regular college courses whether those of us who teach them like it or not. That’s why Anant Agarwal of edX, the guy who thinks Matt Damon should teach a MOOC, writes about unbundling higher education here as if it’s both inevitable and good for everybody involved. For example, consider this paragraph about unbundling just the functions of a university in general:

Traditional, four-year higher education institutions do far more than provide an education. Universities are responsible for admissions, research, facilities management, housing, healthcare, credentialing, food service, athletic facilities, career guidance and placement and much more. Which of these items should be at the core of a university and add value to that experience? By partnering with other universities, or by enlisting third parties to manage some university functions, could schools liberate resources to focus on what they value most?

I doubt it, but even so tell that to the people whose jobs are outsourced. The university as some bizarre hybrid of General Motors and Walmart certainly isn’t a future that I relish.

However, as a teacher myself, the part of his op-ed I find most interesting is his description of how we would unbundle content. It’s based on a very common analogy among MOOC enthusiasts between MOOCs and textbooks:

This practice actually began with the textbook centuries ago when instructors started using course content written by other scholars. Instructors are generally comfortable using textbooks written by a publisher’s team of authors, which they sometimes supplement with their own notes and handouts and those of their colleagues.

Leave aside the fact that some of us don’t assign traditional textbooks at all, what’s most interesting to me here is that he’s treating video lectures and the written word as if they’re the same thing:

MOOC technology may provide a new resource in online content for professors to do more of this in the future. Professors will have a choice to use multiple sources of content — the key being “choice” — in their lectures and classrooms that best fit the topic or their teaching style, and the learning styles of their students.

This is a classic example of a product purveyor struggling to find a market. While this might work in some disciplines for which outcomes matter more than the processes by which you reach them, it won’t work in the humanities at all. Here’s why::

1) Texts (using that word in its traditional sense) require more interpretation than film.

I’m not a film studies guy and I know nothing about theory, but I do know a little bit about auteurship, the notion of film reflecting a director’s personal creative vision. By focusing your attention on different parts of the screen, they can control where you look and, to a great extent, what you think about the story after it’s done. It’s like when I saw that “I see dead people” movie, and proceeded to kick myself after it was done for not picking up on the surprising twist until that guy who hasn’t made a decent movie since wanted to me to see all the clues he dropped earlier.

Books, especially textbooks, can’t paint the whole picture for you so you’re left to fill in much of the gaps yourself. That’s why teaching from a textbook that compliments your class is so important.

Sure you can go back and watch a difficult part of a lecture again, but it’s even easier to go back and read the difficult parts of a book. Suppose you do exactly that and you still don’t get it and you need to ask your professor about the concept that you missed. Are you two going to go back and watch everything from 2 minutes, 34 seconds to 4 minutes, 5 seconds again during class time? Isn’t that going to disturb everybody else around you? Indeed, it is much harder to discuss a “text” (in the broad sense of that word) if that text isn’t written because it’s much harder to access and process the parts of it you need.

Writing has persisted for thousands of years for a reason. You can run a video lecture on x150 speed, but you can’t skim it.

2) Reading is a skill. Teaching that skill is why the humanities exist.

Reading trains your attention span. You can’t read and watch TV at the same time if you hope to retain anything. In a MOOC, you can open a new tab and check Facebook while you’re listening to the lecture because nobody is there to watch you (except maybe the NSA).

Even in the Internet age, jobs require lots of reading. You’re reading right now. Shockingly enough, I think it’s a good idea to develop the reading skills to deal with long texts while in college so that graduates can apply those skills to shorter texts once they leave.

Unfortunately, too few people read these days. Indeed, I believe this is the root of our educational crisis today. These statistics come from a book about e-readers called Burning the Page:

“We’re a nation of readers and nonreaders. According to these studies, 33 percent of high school graduates who do not go on to college never read another book for the rest of their lives, and 42 percent of college graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives. Sadly, 80 percent of U.S. families didn’t buy or read any books last year.”*

Making more MOOC content available for professors won’t help this crisis one bit. That’s why “All reading is good reading” is my new mantra (but that’s a subject for another post).

3) Humanities or otherwise, choosing the content you teach yourself is a vital component of academic freedom.

Oh God, there he goes bringing academic freedom into it again! Well, it’s not just me really. Here’s part of a very recent report on the freedom to teach from the AAUP:

The freedom to teach includes the right of the faculty to select the materials, determine the approach to the subject, make the assignments, and assess student academic performance in teaching activities for which faculty members are individually responsible, without having their decisions subject to the veto of a department chair, dean, or other administrative officer.

Now read that sentence again in light of MOOCs. Yes, nobody has been forced to flip their classroom and use MOOCs – yet. But as is the case with learning management systems, the pressures to use one particular collection of recorded content as opposed to the textbook of your choice is going to be immense. What gets me is how MOOC providers know this, as evidenced by their decision to contract with administrations rather than marketing to individual professors and counting on them to decide if they’ve built a better mousetrap.

Let me end this long post where Anant Agarwal began. This is from the very beginning of his piece:

When massive open online courses (MOOCs) first launched early last year, we had no idea what to expect. And even today — with dozens of global institutions and millions of learners participating — we as an industry have so much more to learn as we puzzle out online education. One thing that both supporters and critics of online education agree on is that the MOOC movement has ignited a spirited conversation about the future of higher education.

I heard a lot of similar sentiments at the conference last week, especially about a new focus on the quality of online education in general, and I kind of agree. Why just “kind of?” Because if some people involved in that conversation don’t think reading is fundamental, then they have no business telling me what or how to teach.

* Since I read it on my Kindle (well worth the $1.99 I paid for it), I can’t include page numbers (sigh), but that passage is at Loc. 1740.

Superprofessor or marionette?

8 11 2013

“Individual professors largely retain the right to choose what they teach and how, even when they’re teaching sections of the same course as other professors. That’s the American Association of University Professors’ take on individual vs. collective responsibility for course design, as laid out in its new statement on the matter.

- Coleen Flaherty, “‘Freedom to Teach,’” Inside Higher Education, November 8, 2013.

The professors said they typically developed the lessons and sent them to the Udacity employee to turn the lectures into scripts, complete with demonstrations and jokes. For the lesson on “Sensation and Perception,” Ms. Castellano came up with the idea of staging a “sense Olympics.” She and another Udacity employee pretended to be news anchors giving updates from contests that demonstrated human senses. The scenes are playful, and the professors even filmed mock advertisements for related “products.”.

- Jeffrey R. Young, “Will MOOCs Change the Way Professors Handle the Classroom?,” Chronicle of Higher Education, November 7, 2013.

Dear Superprofessors: Your labor has value.

1 09 2013

Dear Superprofessors:

I know that I’ve been hard on y’all in the past, but to mark Labor Day today I wanted to give each and every one of you some useful info: Your labor has value. Now I know that many of you know this already (particularly you business proffies), but too many of you out there are charging MOOC providers and your own universities too little or even nothing for your services. Has the fame bug bit you that badly? I know you think you’re doing a public service, but you don’t teach face-to-face for free, do you? Why should running a MOOC be any different?

How many of you are selling yourselves short? That’s part of the problem because it’s impossible to say. I’m not going to dig out every link I’ve seen on this subject, but I know that Princeton’s Jeremy Adelman told readers of this blog (see the comments here) that he wasn’t charging anything to teach his Coursera World History MOOC. Duke’s Cathy Davidson told readers of her blog that she only got $10,000 for teaching her upcoming MOOC and that she was spending it all on the MOOC itself. Vanderbilt’s Derek Bruff has hinted (in a post that I can’t find now) that superprofessors there are getting paid, but he (quite rightly) didn’t want to tell how much. That would be the job of the superprofessors themselves.

Why you ask? Because asymmetric information about salaries, like hiding information about the true costs of MOOCs themselves, hurts your fellow superprofessors and it hurts us in the lumpenprofessoriate* too. Those of you who think of MOOC instruction as just a part of your regular duties are hurting the ability of other superprofs to be paid fairly for the countless hours of work that go into making any MOOC possible. Of course, the whole point of a MOOC is to build a machine that can go itself, but you don’t want other people to get rich off your labor do you? After all, without a professor out front your MOOC is just another computer program.

Come to think of it, do you even own the rights to your lectures? The copyright and intellectual property issues involved with MOOC creation must be enormous. Have you called a lawyer? Have you consulted the AAUP? I ask these questions because I’m afraid that some of you are setting a very bad precedent by giving your services away for free, a precedent that might make it much more difficult for the rest of us to make a living whether we teach MOOCs or not. So why don’t one of you just leak your contract to the Chronicle or IHE and get it over with? I bet they’ll be delighted to remove your name from the resulting story.

Then there’s what you’re doing to the value of teaching as a service. William Pannapacker (rightfully) points out how awful it is to teach solely out of love, but his context is always the adjunct problem. You folks at least have the economic and professional security so that you can afford to be magnanimous. However, if too many of you offer your services without proper compensation, then I’m afraid administrators everywhere are going to get used to thinking that teaching should be free – and if that happens then all the rest of us are even more screwed than we are already.

I do realize that this is something of a no-win situation for superprofessors everywhere. Stay silent or work for free and I hassle you. Make the size of your big payday known, and others will hassle you – probably harder than I am now. But here’s the thing: At some point you have to realize that you do not work in a vacuum. Teaching a MOOC or not teaching a MOOC, speaking out in favor of them or remaining silent – these things all have an effect on the rest of your profession. You can’t just declare that MOOCs are the future and let the chips fall where they may. You have the ability to influence what kind of future we’ll all face.

If you don’t know it, there’s more than one model of MOOCs out there. Unless your school has a noncompete agreement, you’re perfectly welcome to superprofess any way you want. So if the spirit moves you, you can help create not-for-profit collaborative MOOCs that will never cost any student a dime. Perhaps these efforts won’t make you famous, but at least you’ll have the solace of knowing that they’re a lot more benign than the for-profit model that you’re participating in now.



* Thanks to Marcus Fontaine for coining that term. Now I will proceed to beat it like a dead horse from now until the end of time in the hope that it catches on.

No MOOCs were harmed in the making of this post.

17 08 2013

Well, at least not directly.

Jonathan Rees Becomes Conference Co-President

8 07 2013

Jonathan Rees:

Here’s another reason the frequency of posts around here is going to stay comparatively low, even when summer ends. The conference in question is the Colorado AAUP (American Association of University Professors).

Originally posted on :

Rees.portraitEffective July 1, 2013 Jonathan Rees became Co-President of the Colorado Conference. He joins Steve Mumme as Co-President for a two-year term, and replaces Dean Saitta. Dean served as Co-President for 4 years and will continue as Conference webmaster.

Jonathan Rees is in the History Department at Colorado State University, Pueblo.  He writes an excellent blog called More or Less Bunk, which includes many essays on the phenomenon of Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs. Jonathan is a tireless champion of academic freedom, shared governance, and budgetary transparency.  Given the state of higher education at the moment, the Conference is fortunate to have both Jonathan and Steve at the helm.

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The “Down With MOOCs” World Tour, 2013-14.

6 05 2013


My grades are in, the post I promised on Friday is up at the Academe blog and now I have (different) work to do. I need to prepare to take my show on the road.

Cheap Trick is big in Japan. I’m told that I’m big in Connecticut. This would explain why the Connecticut AAUP invited me to be the speaker at their annual spring meeting on May 17th in New Haven. Looking at the registration form, it appears that today is the last day for that. Therefore, if you’re in that area and want to come by you should let them know immediately.

Stop #2 will be on Thursday, June 13th at 2PM at the national AAUP’s annual conference in DC. My topic for both presentations will be the same, “Should Professors Be Afraid of MOOCs?” In the interests of drama, I will not reveal my answer to that question. You’ll have to come by and hear it from me directly.

Following a longstanding principle, I promise I will not read my speech/conference paper like a script. I do, however, need to write something, so if you don’t see as many missives as usual in this space during the next few weeks you’ll know why. Indeed, since I might actually want to write some history this summer, I’m hoping the number of posts here goes way down for the length of the season.

Nonetheless, I’ve gone and gotten myself a cause so I’d like to help by more than just blogging about it. If you represent an impoverished academic organization that wants to help me add dates to my “Down With MOOCs” World Tour, I’ll go just about anywhere in exchange for expenses. If your worthy organization isn’t impoverished, I’ll still work cheap as I’m in the humanities (so very little money looks like a lot to me). Just e-mail me at the address in the right column of this page. I’ll announce more dates here as they come by (and I’m hoping to hear about a very interesting one very soon).

Image courtesy of the Connecticut AAUP.

“When danger reared its ugly head, he bravely turned his tail and fled.”

2 10 2012

Why yes, I do take requests. I’m particularly glad to when they remind me of scenes from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” that I haven’t used on this blog yet. Whose brave deeds do I wish to sing about here? Glenn A. Hartz of Ohio State, who used to be opposed to online classes, but thanks to the inevitable forward progress of technology has now changed his mind. He writes in the Chronicle:

So, do I like online courses? My answer is that it doesn’t matter. The students like them, and we have to adjust to their demands.

I hear that students all like getting “A”s, so I assume we must adjust that way too. While we’re at it, we can give up on homework since that might offend their delicate sensibilities. Hey! Why don’t we just give up getting paid entirely and become volunteers? After all, the idea of professors fighting for their own interests (which might actually coincide with the interests of their students) is simply unseemly.

I’m not going to fisk the whole essay because I’ve covered Hartz’s points a million times before on this blog. What I will do, however, is note how ludicrous it is to think that there are only two possible positions on the subject of learning online: for or against. Anybody who really understands this subject knows that the right tools can be used in the wrong ways (or vice versa for that matter). If fewer administrators used online learning as a club to bash the concept of shared governance, perhaps I’d be a lot more positive about it.

Let me cite a better essay from the Huffington Post to illustrate my position better:

Distance learning technologies should be seen as one more tool at an educator’s disposal. Some educators have an almost ideological reaction to distance learning. They hate it and think its evil, or they love it and think it is the solution to all of our educational problems. The specific tool used should be the one best matched to the educational objective. Just because you have a tool and you know how it works, doesn’t mean you have to use it. Form should follow function.

As I’ve explained before, I’m not anti-edtech. I’m pro-professor. In a professor-centered edtech world, faculty could pick and choose the tools we want, making sure that education not profits remains the primary goal of universities everywhere.

This is not some utopian dream. My friend Jonathan Poritz’s essay about open source technology (now available in Academe) can serve as a road map for creating that kind of world. On the other hand, ceding edtech decisions entirely to administrators and profit-seeking private companies almost guarantees that the future will be a nightmare.

For this vision to become a reality, we professors need to stick to our principles. We can’t just mindlessly accept the free market ideology that our critics are so desperate to impose upon higher education everywhere. We need to be willing to have our eyes gouged out and our elbows broken.

Seriously, isn’t control of the future worth fighting for? Isn’t control of YOUR future worth fighting for?

An instant classic.

25 08 2012

My friend CSU-Pueblo math professor Jonathan Poritz has made appearances on this blog before. You just didn’t know it was him because he was untenured and therefore wanted me to keep his name out of my posts. However, I can tell you he’s been an incredibly important influence on my thinking about technology issues of all kinds.

Now that he’s tenured, he’s speaking for himself in the pages of Academe, the journal of the American Association of University Professors. His subject is technology and academic freedom. Specifically, he’s arguing that professors should embrace open source software not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it will improve pedagogy, increase efficiency, cut costs and support academic freedom.

And here’s the part that just kills me: Jonathan convinced Academe to publish the article under a Creative Commons license so I can link to it in .pdf format on his web site before it even appears in the journal.

I’ll have more to say about all this stuff at the Academe blog once it actually appears in that journal, but for now you should just read a piece which I’m certain will become an instant classic and think hard about how to bring more open source software to your campus.

Workers’ control in academia.

15 06 2012

I’m sure new readers will be shocked to learn that my original field was American labor history. I still teach it once every two years at which time I always get exactly enough students to keep the class from being canceled. Like a lot of labor historians I know, I’ve developed other interests. Still, what I’ve learned can be very useful for understanding the situation currently faced by everyone in my profession.

I’ve written about Harry Braverman in this space before. The title of this post is a variation of a book title by the late David Montgomery. However, my favorite labor historian has always been Herbert Gutman. To my mind, Gutman’s first collection of essays, Work, Culture and Society in Industrializing America, is the best labor history book ever published because it’s all so accessible.

Since I don’t want to set foot in my office any more than absolutely necessary this summer, I’m going by memory here: Throughout the book Gutman explains how nineteenth century industrial workers had different priorities than their bosses. Since many were immigrants, they came to America with a pre-industrial mindset. They were perfectly willing to demand a barrel of beer to drink at work because work was alienating and producing non-stop for ten or twelve hours at a time was generally not an appealing prospect. Over the course of the 19th century, their employers broke the power of these workers through mechanization and the division of labor.

Skilled workers could once set the pace of production or even drink on the job because they had control of the shop floor. Once managers broke that control, more of the profits from industrialization inevitably flowed toward capital.

I’m not suggesting that professors start drinking on the job. However, I am suggesting that online education is a threat to our control of the shop floor. In fact, it entirely eliminates the shop floor we once controlled. Online educators can hardly even interact with their students at all without negotiating a space controlled almost entirely by their employers.

Yet unlike in nineteenth century America, there is no guarantee that increased production serves the best interests of society. Is teaching more students a good thing if the education they get is superficial and impersonal? I say “no,” but even if you say “yes” don’t you think actual educators should have a major role in answering that question? After all, public education is not supposed to be a private profit center.

Ever heard of shared governance? It’s a principle that has guided American higher education for decades now. It means that faculty should play an important role in the way their universities operate. After all, without them there would be no university at all. Shared governance also suggests that faculty maintain at least some of their prerogatives as the terms and conditions of their employment are determined to everyone’s satisfaction. That’s why when non-profit university administrators insist on acting like Robber Barons, the cause of education isn’t served.

What can faculty do in response to John D. Rockefeller-like behavior? First, wake up and smell the coffee. Your job is being redefined right under your nose and most of you don’t even realize it. Second, insist on participating in the conversations about what your job will become. Third, if you aren’t treated with the respect you deserve, then organize. It doesn’t have to be into a trade union. Even the simple act of joining the AAUP will do wonders for your understanding of how the university works. The more people who understand what’s happening, the more people will be willing to do something about it.

In any event, you have to do something. History suggests that once you lose control of your shop floor, it’s darn near impossible to get it back.


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