What happens if you lose control of your own courses?

27 07 2014

“What’s happening right now is that xMOOCs are moving backwards into replicable content from the interaction and assessment pole while textbooks are  are moving forward into interaction and assessment from the replicable content pole.

The end result of this is not necessarily massive classes. It’s broadly used courseware — software that provides much of the skeleton of standard classes the way publisher texts do today. In other words, the best way to think of a MOOC isn’t really as a class brought to your doorstep — it’s more a textbook with ambitions.”

– Mike Caulfield, “Both MOOCs and Textbooks Will End Up Courseware,” January 28, 2013.

Whenever I get involved in one of those big publisher focus group thingies, I always make the same suggestion. Instead of being forced to enter their chosen universe, I ask for their services à la carte. I think this dates back to the early days of my career when I got sick of carting thirty-year-old maps into my classroom and started accumulating plastic overlays for the elmo. [If you don't know what an elmo is, you can click here.  I'm shocked to see that there are any of these things still around.] I wanted maps and pictures that reflected what I talked about in class already, not what some publisher thought I should be discussing. Therefore, I had to accumulate overlays from a wide variety of U.S. History survey textbook publishers to create something essentially personalized to meet my needs.

The Internet has rendered that collection obsolete for me now. I can create my own PowerPoint slides (with very little text) faster and with a much greater selection of possible pictures than I ever could have imagined when I started out in this business. To me, this is what teaching with technology is all about. More choices. Better control of my own time. Three cheers for progress!!!

Unfortunately, the giant publishers and my own employer for that matter are either unwilling or unable to give more options unless I enter their particular technological universe. Time saving is invariably the incentive for making the move to any technology, but this seems especially true for moving any aspect of education online. This is from Anya Kamenetz, writing for NPR:

But instructor time remains the most expensive resource, and it’s often scarce and rationed, especially in the online realm.

[Andrew] Smith Lewis [of Cerego, an edtech startup], along with other ed-tech people I talked to, framed the next generation of computer enhanced learning as a way to free up professors to do what they do best — not to replace them.

Professor [Jeff] Hellmer [of U-T Austin], for one, was so taken with the Cerego platform that he decided to incorporate it into his live, in-person classes, starting this summer. He sees it as a labor-saving device: The machine will handle the shoveling in of facts, while he does the cultivating of the students’ mental gardens.

Pardon me if I’m not quite so trusting. I want to maintain control of the technology rather than let the technology control me because if my technology doesn’t reflect my own teaching priorities I might as well be signing my own unemployment compensation request form. No matter how often edtech entrepreneurs insist that they want to do things right,  there’s a class of administrators who have already shown time and again that they want to do things wrong. You know, the ones who brought us adjunct labor and huge executive salaries.

Of course nobody should trust these administrators to use MOOCs responsibly either. I’ve already discussed the prospects of the just-in-time professor here, but the idea of creating a MOOC-y textbook or a textbook-y MOOC raises the prospect of eliminating teachers entirely for those students who can’t afford a college education that includes them. If this sounds ludicrous to you, what exactly is a self-paced, on demand MOOC then? A video game with scholarly content.

Unlike the early days of this blog’s technological turn, my somewhat paranoid rantings are hardly alone anymore. As Andrew Leonard wrote in a little-noticed piece at Salon on Friday:

Early returns on MOOCs have confirmed what just about any teacher could have told you before Silicon Valley started believing it could “fix” education. Real human interaction and engagement are hugely important to delivering a quality education. Most crucially, hands-on interaction with teachers is vital for the students who are in most desperate need for an education — those with the least financial resources and the most challenging backgrounds.

Of course, it costs money to provide greater human interaction. You need bodies — ideally, bodies with some mastery of the subject material. But when you raise costs, you destroy the primary attraction of Silicon Valley’s “disruptive” model. The big tech success stories are all about avoiding the costs faced by the incumbents. Airbnb owns no hotels. Uber owns no taxis. The selling point of Coursera and Udacity is that they need own no universities.

“No more pencils. No more books. No more teacher’s dirty looks.” The whole thing has the feel of some kind of teenage revenge fantasy against educators everywhere, but it still makes perfect sense. If textbooks have ambitions to be courses and MOOCs have ambitions to be used like textbooks, what’s left for the professors to do then? If we faculty let this happen all in the name of our own convenience, then we have nobody but ourselves to blame.





The just-in-time professor.

23 07 2014

Have you noticed the new emerging consensus? MOOCs will no longer make faculty go the way of the dodo. It will be the technologies that enable MOOCs (presumably employed by people who know more about teaching than various current and ex-members of the Stanford Computer Science department) that will disrupt us all. Here, for example, is Bill Gates making something that sounds like that argument. This study of the effect of MOOCs on MBA programs argues essentially the same thing. I would argue that the emerging consensus around hybrid classrooms, that they are a way to have the “best of both worlds” (online and face-to-face instruction), as yet another way to make the same point. “Education,” writes Mark Guzdial in a post describing two more studies that also seem to me to support this new consensus, “is technology’s Afghanistan.”

So does that mean we faculty can relax now? After all, if we’re not extinct we’re alive (if not exactly thriving), and if we’re alive what is there to worry about? Afghanistan may be a permanent stalemate for all invaders, but unfortunately there are still casualties in stalemates. The thing to worry about now in the post-MOOC world is exactly what our jobs will be like when they are infused with technology. Will we faculty run the technology or will the technology run us? Experiences in other industries suggest the latter rather than the former.

One of the scariest things I learned about during my days as a Walmart blogger was their computerized scheduling system (which I wrote about on this blog here).  The NYT‘s labor reporter, Steven Greenhouse, recently did a story that validated this trend without really explaining the technology behind it.  You need to look to the British journalist Simon Head’s book Mindless to learn about computer business systems in their full glory. As Head explains, these powerful programs, pioneered by Walmart (p. 3):

“bring the disciplines of industrialism to an economic space that extends far beyond the factories and construction sites of the machine age: to wholesale and retail, financial services, secondary and higher education, healthcare, “customer relations management” and  “human resources management (HRM),” public administration, corporate management at all levels save the highest, and even the fighting of America’s wars.” 

If you’ve never worked at Walmart, the time that you most likely encountered one of these programs is when dealing with a customer service representative who was clearly going by the book. The computer IS their book scripting their every interaction with you the same way that the computer tells the company how many calls it gets in which hours, which then determines how many representatives to have waiting for calls at any particular time.

Unfortunately, Head does very little in his book with higher education, but it is easy to imagine a future in which power-hungry administrators attempt to use technology to dictate both how and when we all deal with our students. The students customers have a complaint? Handle it by the manual. If professors aren’t allowed to say anything controversial on social media, how can we ever expect to be able to do so in class – especially in online classes during which our every interaction with students can be monitored and searched?

Even more troublesome, however, is the prospect of the just-in-time professor. If MOOCish technologies really are used to unbundle us all, what exactly will they be paying us to do? Somebody has to greet the students on the first day of class, right? Make them feel at home. Somebody has to grade the final exams. But what are we all going to do in between? Press play for some superprofessor’s video-taped lectures? Our bosses certainly aren’t going to let us all sit back and do our research for the fourteen weeks until finals start.

This is exactly why that story about outsourcing the hiring of adjuncts in Michigan just scares me to death. For all the problems that adjuncts have (which are manifold), at least they are guaranteed work through the end of a semester. If their hiring can be broken up on an as-needed basis, what’s to stop schools from hiring them on an as-needed basis during the semester? Get more workers when you need them – like during finals. Don’t pay for them when you don’t. This is the logical end to which faculty unbundling will bring us all – tenured, tenure-track and adjunct alike.

Perhaps you scoff at this notion, but if the power relationship between faculty and administrations gets any more one-sided than it is right now we are all going to pine for the good old days like they are now at the University of Southern New Hampshire. As George Siemens explains:

When unbundling happens, it is only temporary. Unbundling leads to rebundling. And digital rebundling results in less players and less competition. What unbundling represents then is a power shift. Universities are today an integrated network of products and services. Many universities have started to work with partners like Pearson (ASU is among the most prominent) to expand capacity that is not evident in their existing system.

Rebundling is what happens when the pieces that are created as a sector moves online become reintegrated into a new network model. It is most fundamentally a power shift. The current integrated higher education system is being pulled apart by a range of companies and startups. Currently the university is in the drivers seat. Eventually, the unbundled pieces will be integrated into a new network model that has a new power structure. 

Perhaps most faculty won’t be unbundled and rebundled right out of their jobs, but after this process is completed nobody will want those jobs anymore. Equally importantly, what kind of education will it be if the human relationship between a student and professor is replaced by a business relationship between a student and a temporary worker who happens to have a Ph.D. (and perhaps more than a few that don’t)? The kind of education you get at a for-profit university now, but pleasantly housed inside a semi-public shell like at Arizona State University online.

I guess all this means that I hate the future. But as George suggests elsewhere in that same post:

The parts of a social system are less than the whole of a social system. 

Anybody who has the least bit of experience teaching can tell you that this rule applies to higher education in spades. Too bad nobody wants to listen to us. While we get called Luddites for sticking up for a sick system, the powers that be go off and kill the patient in the name of “progress,” which looks a lot more like profiteering to me.





You are not special.

20 07 2014

“The contradictions inherent in the movement of capitalist society impress themselves upon the practical bourgeois most strikingly in the changes of the periodic cycle, through which modern industry runs, and whose crowning point is the universal crisis. That crisis is once again approaching, although as yet but in its preliminary stage; and by the universality of its theatre and the intensity of its action it will drum dialectics even into the heads of the mushroom upstarts of the new, holy Prusso-German empire.”

- Karl Marx, Capital [Afterward to the Second German Edition], 1873.

“Why do established scholars, who speak openly about other social and economic injustices, refrain from allying themselves with those of us who are denied academic freedom by virtue of our identities as adjuncts?,” asks Lori Harrison Kahan in Vitae. “How are we to explain this silence?” Great questions, but if you really want to make this point stick in the minds of most tenured and tenure-track faculty, I’m not sure this line of argument is going to work. Instead, I’d explain how the adjunct problem really is every professor’s problem. Drum dialectics into the heads of these mushroom upstarts and we’ll all be better off together.

For this to happen, it’s essential to convince the people on the tenure track now that they aren’t as special as they think they are. The master at this line of argument is, of course, Rebecca Schuman. Unfortunately, king cannibal rats on a festering ghost ship are unlikely to lend a hand until the moment they realize that it’s time to swim to shore.

So now then is the time to point out that it might be time for all of us to paddle the burnt-out hulk that we all occupy a little closer to shore than we are right now. I’ll let the numbers speak for themselves. Here’s Reason 55 from 100 Reasons NOT to go to Grad School:

In November 2010, the National Science Foundation reported that 49,562 people earned doctorates in the United States in 2009. This was the highest number ever recorded. Most of the increase over the previous decade occurred in the sciences and engineering, but the NSF’s report noted a particularly grim statistic for those who completed a PhD in the humanities: only 62.6 percent had a “definite commitment” for any kind of employment whatsoever. Remember that this is what faces those who have already survived programs with very high attrition rates; more than half of those who start PhD programs in the humanities do not complete them (see Reason 46). The PhD has been cheapened by its ubiquity.

Every one of those disposable academics in your field would gladly fill your tenure track job at substantially less pay than you’re making right now. And why shouldn’t they? You probably aren’t doing very much to help them, so why should they help you? Moreover, plenty of administrators would gladly fire you and replace you with an adjunct if they thought they could get away with it.

What’s that, you say? You write articles, do you? Too bad only three people read half of all articles. And most of those university press books we all write aren’t exactly setting the world on fire either. Adjuncts and people fresh out of grad school can do the exact same things that existing tenured faculty can do. They even have books published at the same university presses that you do! They’re also likely to perform all the functions that you perform for much, much less money.

At the same time (and you knew I was going to get to this at some point), MOOCs (or as these guys stress, the technologies that enable MOOCs) can do the same job you do rather badly for a lot less money in the long run. Therefore, university bosses who couldn’t care less about what books you’ve published will replace you with pre-recorded lectures and an interactive web site without blinking an eye.

Anybody with a basic understanding of organized labor knows the solution to all these problems. Join together. Help the people willing to do your job for less get the opportunity to do the job you do with you (not instead of you) for the money they deserve. Don’t be a mushroom upstart. Be an organizer. Be a truth teller. Be a fighter. And if your own liberal ideals aren’t enough to motivate you to do such things, just remember that you’ll be better off in the long run too.

You are not special. Neither are your adjunct colleagues, but they live with that fact every day. The point is that you need to learn that too if we are ever all going to save higher education together.





The worst of the best of the best.

8 07 2014

During the early 1870s, the American industrialist Andrew Carnegie championed something called the Bessemer process, a new way of making steel that was only about fifteen years old at that time. As a result he could make more steel at a cheaper price than any of his competitors. He then took the profits from his initial success and plowed it back into the business, investing in other cutting-edge technologies and buying out his rivals who didn’t fall out of the market naturally. By the early 1890s, he was the owner of the largest steel company in the world. I’d argue that the principle that made this story possible is the first-mover advantage.

That’s not a statement about making steel, which of course had been going on for centuries before Carnegie came along, but with respect to the Bessemer process. Building steel plants was expensive, but Carnegie (who actually made his initial money working for the Pennsylvania Railroad), had the money to invest in pricey new technologies while his competitors didn’t. His steel was cheaper, more abundant and actually of higher quality than the other steel available on the market at that time. No wonder he got so rich.

Mark Zuckerberg’s wealth is much harder to explain. I know there were other social networks before Facebook, but I’m not exactly sure what made Facebook the one network that people absolutely had to join. Certainly, at some point it reached a certain critical mass of people that newbies came to believe that they’d be missing out if they weren’t on it.  Unfortunately, to me the ultimate problem with Facebook is that it actually impedes meaningful interactions with your friends rather than helps it by doing crazy stuff like conducting experiments upon you without your knowledge. That’s why I collected the e-mails of all my friends that I didn’t have already and got out. Facebook has shot whatever first-mover advantage it had to Hell.

As anybody who’s studied MOOCs in the slightest can tell you, the Stanford Computer Science department did not invent them – those nice Canadians did. However, it was those Stanford people who first decided to treat MOOCs as a market rather than as an educational opportunity. I can’t remember which came first, Coursera or Udacity, but there’s no question that Coursera at the very least has gone to great lengths to take advantage of its opportunity to be an early mover, putting MOOCs up regardless of quality – essentially beta testing them in front of tens of thousands of people – because they care more about quantities of students than they do about the quality of the educational experience they were providing.

Think I’m being unfair? Sebastian “lousy product” Thrun essentially admitted this to Fast Company last year. With respect to Coursera, do you remember the Google Document that brought down that online learning MOOC? The superprofessor who quit his MOOC in the middle of the course? How about the “no right answers” guy? These were not, as the MOOC Messiah Squad always like to put it, “the best of the best.” The people running these MOOCs were the worst of the best of the best, which actually turns out to be pretty darn bad in some cases. Well, I hate to judge a situation solely through its news coverage, but it looks like we have a new entrant in this particular Hall of Shame. From the Chronicle:

A massive open online course on making sense of massive open online courses caused massive confusion when the course content was suddenly deleted and the professor started writing cryptic things on Twitter. The MOOC, called “Teaching Goes Massive: New Skills Required,” was taught by Paul-Olivier Dehaye, a lecturer at the University of Zurich. Offered through Coursera, the course had been conceived of as a meta-MOOC designed to help disoriented educators find their feet in the online landscape. The course “grew out of the author’s experiences as an early adopter and advocate of newer technologies (such as Coursera) for online teaching,” according to a description on Coursera’s website. So far, the course has produced chaos rather than clarity. All the videos, forums, and other course materials mysteriously vanished from the website last week. As students in the course grappled with the bizarre turn of events, Mr. Dehaye offered only vague, inscrutable tweets.

And here’s some of the IHE coverage, which begins to explain the reasons for this weirdness:

“[Dehaye] appears to be conducting a social media/MOOC experiment in the most unethical manner,” the student said in a post that is currently the most viewed on the forum. “In my opinion his behavior is discrediting the University of Zurich, as well as Coursera.”

As the mystery captivated the post-holiday weekend crowd on Twitter, more details about the potential experiment were unearthed. Kate Bowles, a senior lecturer at the University of Wollongong, found Dehaye’s name attached to a 2003 paper in which the authors calculated how 100 people could escape from imprisonment when their only means of communication was a lightbulb.

Bowles also found what appeared to be Dehaye’s contributions to the community blog MetaFilter.

“I would be interested to hear people’s opinions on the idea of using voluntariat work in MOOCs to further research (in mathematics, particularly),” Dehaye wrote in one post. “Would this be exploitative? What would be good reward systems? Fame, scientific paper, internship?” He later shared his plans to teach the MOOC, and in response to a thread about the Facebook experiment, wrote “it is hard to pass the message on [C]oursera that emotions are important in teaching but that expressing those emotions can lead to data collection.”

Picking on the superprofessor here seems very, very easy, so I’d rather wonder what responsibility Coursera has for this disaster. I’m sure they’d tell you that picking instructors is the job of their partner universities, but Coursera still has to approve the courses. What standards do they use to decide who really is the best of the best? Judging from the failures I’ve listed in this post, not too many.

Coursera, in its search to attract eyeballs, has forgotten that education is not like steel – or at least steel rail.*  Quality matters. Frankly, I’d take any adjunct professor with ten years experience and put them in front of 50,000 people before I’d do so with any star in their field. After all, adjuncts devote practically all their professional time to providing a better educational experience, in fact their continued employment often depends upon it. Many (but certainly not all) professors at elite universities are too busy doing their own research to care about what’s happening in their own classes. Commercial MOOCs are simply the logical extension of that kind of negligence.

Professors who really care about the quality of education don’t give a damn about the first mover advantage. They’d rather do their jobs well than become famous or conduct massive social experiments on their students without their consent, which probably means that they’d never in a million years work for Coursera.

* The quality of steel actually did matter for later steel products like structural steel for building skyscrapers and armor plate for battleships. I’m just talking about the 1870s here.

Update: I wrote this post so early this morning that I forgot two really important entries into the Coursera Hall of Shame: 1) What I like to think of as the MOOC Forum Circus incident and 2) the truly terrible UC-Santa Cruz MOOC that Jon Wiener described in this article.  And just in case you don’t read Wired Campus (and you should), here’s Steve Kolowich’s truly weird update on the story behind the truly terrible MOOC at hand.





You do not need an LMS in order to teach with technology.

28 06 2014

“…Silicon Valley’s reigning assumption: Anything that can be automated should be automated. If it’s possible to program a computer to do something a person can do, then the computer should do it. That way, the person will be “freed up” to do something “more valuable.” Completely absent from this view is any sense of what it actually means to be a human being.”

- Nick Carr, “An android dreams of automation,” Rough Type, June 26, 2014.

Who dropped the ball? It certainly wasn’t me. Was it you?

When I stopped taking graduate classes in 1993, people had barely heard of the Internet, let alone any kind of learning management system (or LMS). I had never even taken a class that used the Internet, let alone an LMS. I didn’t start teaching with any kind of technology until I got some professional development when I was working at what is now Missouri State University. My department chairman there mandated that all syllabi must be posted online (a really good idea that I still don’t think most universities bother to do). As a result, I learned what I think was then called Microsoft FrontPage and haven’t handed out a piece of paper in class since.

I also remember attending the first time my current employer offered BlackBoard classes. I thought it was mostly bells and whistles and refused to use it. In the same way I hated Moby Dick the first time I read it (actually, I still hate Moby Dick, but that’s the subject for a whole different blog), I gave Blackboard another chance a couple of years later. I came to the same conclusion and haven’t touched any LMS since

Yet while I was learning what technologies for teaching I like and eschewing others, a sea change was taking place in higher education. Learning Management Systems were quickly (if you call fifteen years or so quickly) going from a novelty to being the norm. At first, I was simply annoyed because my students kept asking me what their grade was during the semester (since they could always see it for most other classes in the LMS) and I had to keep telling them that I hadn’t done the calculations yet. Over time, however, LMSs have become a way for administrations and edtech companies to control the manner in which professors teach. Yes, you can still pick your content – I think – but many of the other decisions that professors used to be able to make by themselves (whether to tell students how they’re doing at every point during the semester, for example*) have been determined by the capabilities of learning management systems to process and present information.

What I’m wondering now is how this happened. I wasn’t really paying attention at the time and I haven’t done the research into this little piece of edtech history, but I do have some theories that I was hoping people better informed than I am might kick around:

1. It was the online instructors. They did it!!!

OK, maybe not the online instructors, but certainly online instruction is possibly to blame here. Imagine it’s the late-1990s. All these universities want to go into online instruction on the cheap so like IBM with the Windows, they outsource the operating system to companies that are dying to serve them. The universities themselves are so pleased with the ability to monitor classroom interactions, that they then go and encourage every other faculty member to use the LMS too. Pretty soon, scads of us can’t live without one.

2. Faculty were sold a bill of goods with respect to convenience.

Why would anybody first pick up the LMS habit? Time would be a great incentive. I still remember how amazed I was when I first learned Excel so that I could compute my grades on them. It literally saved me at least eight hours each semester at exactly the time of year when my time was most important! Gradebooks in any LMS would do the same thing. Such conveniences may have convinced lots of people to invite a guest to the party who decided to monetize the punchbowl. Pretty soon, who has time to learn any other system?

3. It started with the adjunct faculty.

The same way that adjunct faculty can’t pick their textbooks in many cases, perhaps they were the natural beta testers for learning management systems – particularly in online settings where the regular tenure track faculty was likely not paying attention. Once they became hooked on doing things through an intermediary, regular faculty joined along because that seemed like the right thing to do. I don’t know exactly how LMS contracts are structured, but imagine them all being on campus-wide licensing systems. Even if it costs more the more users you have, the later users are always cheaper than the earlier users and pretty soon the whole thing would have just snowballed.

Whether it’s all these things or none of these things, there’s still time to remember three very important points and begin to act upon them:

1. You do not need an LMS in order to teach.
2. You do not need an LMS in order to teach with technology.
3. The selection of educational technologies you can use outside the LMS are only getting better.**

If we forget these simple facts, we will all likely become victims of the reigning assumption of Silicon Valley sooner or later once the LMS takes over most of our jobs entirely. At least this will free us up to spend more time looking for better-paying work, while our students suffer from a chronic substandard education which just happens to be delivered with a few elements based upon the use of modern technology.

* I strongly suspect that those of you who actually teach with LMSs can come up with a better example than that one. Please do so and explain it in the comments below.

** Who remembers what happened to AOL? I certainly do.





“How could you have dignity in labor if you secretly believe your job shouldn’t exist?”

12 05 2014

The first post I wrote about on this blog after leaving my previous all-MOOCs-all-the-time format was about David Graeber’s short masterpiece on bullshit jobs. My focus then was about bullshit academic jobs. Graeber’s back talking to PBS’ NewsHour about precisely the same thing so I want to revisit the subject too.* This time I’ll consider the non-bullshit jobs of academia, better known as faculty positions.

I remember when I was younger and I was considering going to law school. I finally decided not to because I wanted to be able to look at myself in the mirror every morning. I think Graeber would conclude that I wanted to keep my dignity:

“How could you have dignity in labor if you secretly believe your job shouldn’t exist? But, of course, you’re not going to tell your boss that. So I thought, you know, there must be enormous moral and spiritual damage done to our society. And then I thought, well, maybe that explains some other things, like why is it there’s this deep, popular resentment against people who have real jobs? They can get people so angry at auto-workers, just because they make 30 bucks an hour, which is like nowhere near what corporate lawyers make, but nobody seems to resent them. They get angry at the auto-workers; they get angry at teachers. They don’t get angry at school administrators, who actually make more money. Most of the problems people blame on teachers, and I think on some level, that’s resentment: all these people with meaningless jobs are saying, but, you guys get to teach kids, you get to make cars; that’s real work. We don’t get to do real work; you want benefits, too? That’s not reasonable.”

In other words, we professors pay a premium to do work that doesn’t make us question our overall purpose in the world. Maintaining our dignity has real value. Without that dignity, I don’t see how any adjunct could do what they do for so little. Yet despite our comparatively poor salaries, we still drive ourselves to work harder even as what we do is valued less and less. Soon our dignity may be all we have left.

Using Graeber’s logic, this situation is the result of constant attacks from economic parasites who have nothing better to do with their time. These parasites are the people, Graeber suggests, who are paid:

“to sit in an office, and basically valorize the idea that everybody should look busy all the time, that work is valuable in itself.”

It’s summer now. Does that mean we professors stop working entirely? Of course not, it just means we work differently. Indeed, if I didn’t work during the summer I’m not sure I could afford to stay in my comparatively poor-paying job. The opportunity costs of not being a lawyer would have been too great.

What really makes my blood boil though is the way that the psychic benefits of being a professor are getting priced out of existence. Here, for example, is Historiann describing a situation common to many of us:

“Here’s my thinking: at least 50% of my pique comes from the fact that faculty at my university are dramatically underpaid compared to our “peers” at our own “peer institutions.” I also didn’t get a dime’s worth of a raise between 2008 and 2012, and when I finally got a raise in 2012, it was a measly $1,860! Seriously. Another 25% of the rest of my irritation stems from all of the unpaid labor I do that the university doesn’t even recognize (like donating time to the university archives, one of the causes I was asked to support tonight on the telephone!), and the remaining 25% or so comes from the fact that my research agenda has largely been self-funded. Yes, that’s right: humanities faculty end up paying for the privilege of doing more work, because we end up without any meaningful research or travel funds to help us move our projects forward.”

To make matters worse, administrative pay (to say nothing about the sheer number of administrators) is being driven up to an incredible degree. I don’t begrudge college presidents the first couple of hundred thousands dollars they make each year (after all, I don’t want to spend most of my day begging people for money), but anything above that is basically an obscenity.

So what can be done about this situation? I propose two responses – not solutions, just responses. The first is to rub your dignity in the faces of the undignified every chance you get. Don’t forward your administrators a link to Graeber’s work. This doesn’t have to be cruel. Next time you see your friendly neighborhood Associate Dean, just ask them exactly what they’ve been doing lately. Request that they describe their work life to you in some detail and ask them whether it has achieved any tangible results. If nothing else, this will make you more happy with the choices that you’ve made.

My second response is to value your own time more. I was recently making a fundraising pitch to a big local donor to my university.** Much to my shock, in the middle of a conversation about our university’s troubles, he asked me what I really wanted out of life. Answering that question took some time because the answer wasn’t money. Yes, an extra $20,000/year would be nice, but I’m more interested in time. I’m not talking about living to be a hundred years old here. I’m talking about having the time to do the things I want to do because they make me happy, rather than the things I have to do because somebody with a bullshit job tells me that I have to do them. As one recent study concluded:

“30 percent of faculty time “was spent on activities that are not traditionally thought of as part of the life of an academic.””

That’s meetings and e-mail, people. Not always the worst things in the world, of course, but how many of them really demand your immediate attention? Think how much better your life would be if you can pick and choose from them to a greater extent than you do now. Well, guess what? You can.

Assuming you have the power to determine your own schedule (and most of you professors out there reading this probably do), then do more of what you enjoy and less of what you don’t. This is hardly the same thing as going on strike, but if more of us assert the prerogatives that we’re supposedly paying for through the opportunity costs of doing meaningful work, it may have the same effect.

* For some reason, I’ve been having trouble getting to that PBS link on Chrome since I tweeted it on Saturday. It does, however, work when I switch to Firefox. I have no idea why.

** No, I haven’t sold out completely. This donor is a pro-labor Democrat who I’ve known for over a decade now. The fact that it was for a labor history function explains why I got an invite to the meeting.





“Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto.”

7 04 2014

Good news everybody!  Robots will only replace SOME us at our jobs by 2034, not all of us.  Who’ll be safe?  As the Huffington Post explains part of it:

Human social intelligence is critical for those professions that involve negotiation, persuasion, leadership or high touch care. Those positions demanding high social intelligence tasks might include public relations specialists, event planners, psychologists and CEOs.

Does that include university professors? You’d hope so, but that would force the people in control of universities to actually respect the quality of the education they produce and I’m not sure we can trust most of them to do that. The corporatization of higher education over the last forty years strongly suggests that most of them would rather treat education like any other manufactured product.

If education were a real factory problem this transition might actually be an improvement. It’s not just that robot arms never get tired or ask for a pay raise. They can work with greater precision than even the best skilled craftsmen. I’ve toured the steel mill on the south side of Pueblo, Colorado many times now. While 10,000 people used to work there during WWII, fourteen people can handle a shift in a building the size of several football fields rather easily now. [And even then, a few of them are just waiting around in case something goes wrong.] Foreign competition, pensions, environmental regulations aside – the payroll in that plant would have gone down over the last fifty years just because of automation. Furthermore, the steel they produce there might actually be better as a result.

Can you say the same thing with a MOOC? The New York Times Magazine makes an argument for the effects of automation on workers in general that reminds me a lot of the argument for MOOCs:

Man invents a machine to make life easier, and then that machine reduces the need for man’s work. Ultimately, it’s a virtuous cycle, because it frees humans up to work on higher-value tasks.

Flip your classroom with the latest MOOC, spend more time in class teaching one-on-one. Everybody wins, right? Only if you completely ignore the class politics that surround labor-saving machinery of all kinds. Nick Carr, explains this point here far better than I ever could:

The language that the purveyors of the endless-ladder myth use is fascinating. They attribute to technology a beneficent volition. The technology itself “frees us up for higher-value tasks” and “propels us into more fulfilling work” and “helps us to expand ourselves.” We just need to “allow” the technology to aid us. Much is obscured by such verbs. Technology doesn’t free us or propel us or help us. Technology doesn’t give a rat’s ass about us. It couldn’t care less whether we have a great job, a crappy job, or no job at all. It’s people who have volition. And the people who design and deploy technologies of production are rarely motivated by a desire to create jobs or make jobs more interesting or expand human potential. Jobs are a byproduct of the market’s invisible hand, not its aim.

If you think most administrators give a rat’s ass about whether there’s a human being or a robot at the front of the classroom then you haven’t been paying attention.





“Luxury” thy name is flipped classroom.

19 02 2014

Way back in the day, I had to teach all my classes for the whole period, every period. I would lecture or lead a discussion of the reading or do some other hierarchical teacher thing. But now that the flipped classroom has come along, all my problems are solved! Now I can sit out on the veranda smoking cigars rather than prepare for whatever class I’m teaching the next day. Better yet, since my students are all working out the answers to the questions I’ve given them all by themselves, I can sit on my butt all class period long and just act like I’m busy.

What about the reading, you ask? As Rebecca Schuman indirectly implies here in an obviously ignorant attempt to dismiss this wonderful solution to every professor’s problems, the flipped classroom is a great way to get rid of the annoying busywork that reading entails altogether:

“[W]hat about the reading? I assign a lot of it, and if I piled on a 30-minute YouTube of me yapping about the connection between childlike being and the concept of “genius” in Faust, wouldn’t that incite mutiny? And what would constitute a “problem set” about Goethe, anyway?”

Silly Rebecca, learning about Goethe won’t help tomorrow’s college students become tomorrow’s drones in the technological “utopia” that our Silicon Valley overlords are planning now! Besides that, the taxpayers of America want a return for their investment in higher education as we twiddle away on useless humanities! How much tax revenue can your precious Goethe generate?

That’s why I’m cashing out now. I’m going to tape all my lectures (and write them for the many courses for which I don’t lecture at all) pronto so that I can start living a life of leisure! I want to become a rentier (just like all those superprofessors)! I want to be an educational entrepreneur! If I start early maybe I can contract with some desperate college that can impose my content on some poor, unsuspecting adjunct who doesn’t have the same freedom to flip as I do.

Thank you, thank you, Flipped Classroom Messiah Squad! You’ve solved all my financial problems forevermore. See you all on the veranda!





“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.





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.








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