Don’t feed the beast.

12 09 2012

If you don’t read the Academe blog because I contribute over there sometimes, then you should read it because of the high quality of material provided by the other contributors. This piece by Martin Kich, for example, is incredibly persuasive even though I don’t agree with it:

The issue of whether faculty ought to resist this “automation” of higher education is already moot. Tenure-track faculty now constitute just 35% of the faculty employed nationwide, and full-time non-tenure-eligible faculty account for just another 18%. And at many institutions, the percentage of full-time faculty is much lower—at some technical and community colleges, even as low as the single digits. Faculty, in the traditional senses of the classification, are already on the verge of becoming anachronisms. Resisting or, worse, denying one of the major factors in our radically changed circumstances will serve only to hasten our demise.

OK, but the problem with that assessment is that it would require me to teach online. Life is too short to teach online. I didn’t get into this business to stare at a computer screen all day. Of course, you can do remarkable things by staring at a computer screen all day, but the administrators who Martin wants you to engage with don’t care about how remarkable your course is. They’d replace you with an adjunct in the blink of an eye. All they care about is revenue. Therefore, my position is don’t feed the beast.

So what happens if the beast eats you? I think he’ll eat you faster if you enter the cage than if you stay outside. The more faculty who engage in online pedagogy, the more legitimate this form of instruction will become. Now that would be awesome if online education deserved that legitimacy, but if you judge the online education industry on its own terms it hasn’t earned anyone’s respect yet:

Education researchers have actually conducted a number of studies about this. As of a few years ago, the findings were pretty bleak for the industry. A literature review in 2009 found that ”all scholarly research to date has concluded that the ‘gatekeepers’ [human resources managers, executives, etc.] have an overall negative perception about online degrees.” But online teaching has gotten a lot better in the past three years, and the results are starting to show up on surveys of employers. One study found that half of executives viewed MBAs earned online as no different from ones earned in person. That’s still substantial stigma, though. If half of employers don’t think your degree is worth as much as those of other people applying for the same position, that’s not a great position to be in.

What happens to the online education industry if things stay this way? What happens to the professors who’ve made the jump online if it all turns out to be just another bubble? What happens to the students who jumped with you?

I refuse to have the answers to those questions on my conscience.





…what are the problems with online universities?

4 09 2012

Did you know that online universities are blossoming in Asia? I know because AFP told me so. Read the whole article if you want to see the hype for yourself, but I find their obligatory nod to critics much more interesting:

The growth of online degree programmes is also constrained by poor Internet accessibility in parts of Asia and beyond.

More than 80 percent of South Koreans and 60 percent of Malaysians have online access, but in China the rate slips to about 40 percent and it slumps to around 10 percent in India.

Other criticisms include inadequate regulation, allegations of poor-quality teaching, student cheating, and the fact that online degrees are still not as widely recognised as traditional ones in the marketplace, say industry experts.

Reading that list reminds me of this scene from “Life of Brian”:

Apart from the limited Internet access, inadequate regulation, poor-quality teaching, cheating and the facts that employers won’t give their graduates jobs, what are the problems with online universities?

Well, I guess the argument’s over then, isn’t it?





“[Y]ou must cut down the mightiest tree in the forest with…a herring.”

28 08 2012

Laura Gibbs deserves some kind of prize for public service. I’ve been tweeting her series of posts about peer grading in Coursera for a while now, but since Audrey Watters has written them up I figured I might as well consider them here too. What you need to know going in is that Laura teaches online for the University of Oklahoma so she’s clearly rooting for Coursera as she takes their course on Science Fiction and Fantasy. I think this makes her indictments of the process all the more damning.

For example, there’s this:

So, what kind of data is Coursera collecting about the efficacy of this process? None. What kind of feedback are people getting on their feedback? None. What kind of guidelines and tips did we get on offering feedback? (Almost) none. Given that this is a skill, and a skill that many people have not had to use in the past, I think we would need a LOT of tips and guidelines to help with that, along with feedback so that people who are just now developing this skill can estimate how well they are doing.

And this:

By far the biggest problem, though, is vague and/or inaccurate feedback… and that’s a much harder problem to solve. It’s much like the problem with the poor quality of the essays overall; yes, there are inappropriate essays (blank essays, essays only a few words long, plagiarized essays, even spam essays) that need to be flagged – but the larger problem is the bewildering number of essays that are of such poor quality that it gets very discouraging to spend time on them. Without some kind of additional instructional component to the class, I am just not convinced that this often unreliable and/or unhelpful anonymous peer feedback can really help people to improve their writing.

Remember, this is just about the peer feedback system. I haven’t even mentioned the plagiarism problem or the lack of writing instruction in general.

“Can peer feedback really work in a setting where there is so little community and where this is little sense of reciprocity?,” asks Audrey. Well, that depends upon how you define the term “work.”

If you watched that Daphne Koller TED video, you probably remember the joke about how she tried to convince those terrible humanities professors that multiple choice was a perfectly acceptable way to test for higher order critical thinking and they did’t buy it. Ha ha ha. Unable to do that, they went with Plan B: peer grading. The impression this story left on me was that Coursera was only interested in doing the absolute minimum in order to make their humanities classes acceptable. Certainly, everything Laura has written suggests that they didn’t exactly put much forethought into some pretty basic problems.

But I want to take this point one step further. I would argue that creating an effective peer review process for grading writing is impossible – like chopping down the mightiest tree in the forest with a herring. Since writing is a skill that you never really stop learning, peer grading is therefore almost always the blind leading the blind.

For example, I am about to go into deep seclusion to polish my book manuscript for the last time before it hits the copy editor. It needs polishing because I have a bad habit of using the passive voice the first time I write anything at all complicated. Usually I turn those sentences around when I catch them during proofing, but I don’t always catch them. If your peers don’t know what passive voice is, or (as seems very likely in a lot of these Coursera classes) your peers don’t even speak English as their first language, learning how to write well solely from them is going to be impossible.

Since I teach history, I am prone to think of learning history as an excellent end in itself. However, if you desire employment when college is over, learning how to write well is the best skill that academic history classes can offer you. No wonder employers don’t take job applicants with online college degrees seriously then.

It appears that Coursera is giving them little reason to think otherwise.





As if the Monty Python reference wasn’t proof enough.

30 07 2012

That is in fact me writing about whether the Internet will make professors obsolete at Inside Higher Ed. If you’re arriving here from that link, I invite you to take a look about a year’s worth of posts making related points. If you’ve been around already, I hope you’ll help me monitor the comments over there so that I can do a follow up post (assuming one is necessary).





“Suicide Squad…attack.”

29 05 2012

I hate to pick on Kate as she’s so nice. Besides, this post is smart and reasonable in its own way. It’s also so much better than the technological utopian day-dreaming that I often find myself reading. Still, her analogy is really useful for helping me make my point here:

A couple of miles away from the place where I grew up is this beautiful Iron Age hill fort…Within the inner circle are the remaining stone foundations of an original castle, and—critically—the well that stored water for the whole settlement. Soldiers controlled the resources in the middle, and the villagers and clergy lived in the outer circle, in wooden buildings of which nothing remains. In the early 12th century, exasperated by disputes with the castle guard over access to the well, the clergy took off with the community and restablished the city in a new location, where it still is today.

It’s a metaphorical stretch, but for me this decisive, strategic and disruptive move is a caution to those who are guarding the well of traditional higher education. For a long time, we’ve held the inner circle, letting prescribed numbers in across narrow bridges that we also control. We’ve enjoyed the security of higher ground, protected by an impressive moat. But here’s the tricky part: we only get to do this as long as the whole village accepts the way in which we manage their resources.

In other words, we’re not kept in business by market demand for the service we supply, but by taxpayer-voter consensus that a public higher education system is national infrastructure worth funding, even though the majority of the population don’t get to use it.

Perhaps I should have found a Holy Grail clip to respond to this one. Nevertheless, this kind of argument always reminds me of the suicide squad from Life of Brian because no army worth its salt would give up their fort or their village voluntarily. Maybe they’ll fight to the death. Maybe they’ll negotiate a surrender that will guarantee them their lives. Maybe the soldiers will open access to the well, but get some nice land to tend somewhere outside the castle walls in return. Only academics and the Judean People’s Front will up and kill themselves before the battle or even the process of negotiations ever starts.

The American financier Jay Gould once said famously that he could hire half the working class to kill the other half. Something similar might be said of professors. The super-professors work for Gould, but they aren’t going to constitute anywhere near half the professoriate that we have now. In this case though, I at least understand their motives. The rest of us are bringing a knife to a gun fight – or worse yet, no weapon at all.

For so many academics, all you have to do is say “Think of the children!” and rational self interest flies out the window. The founders of Udemy aren’t thinking about the children. The founders of Coursera aren’t thinking of the children. [And if I'm wrong, and students are somewhere down there on their list of concerns, they certainly aren't thinking about what happens to the professors they want to displace.] I, however, am thinking of students, thank you very much, even if I’m also thinking about the fate of myself and others like me too.

American higher education doesn’t have an access problem because the face-to-face relationship between teachers and students has somehow failed. It has an access problem because the number of administrators has exploded, the pay of university presidents has become obscene, football programs at all levels are engaged in an eternal arms race with each other and directors of admissions insist that universities need to have not one but two climbing walls in the gym in order to attract the best students. Most importantly, American higher education has an access problem because state and federal revenues have dried up since the one percent don’t want to help anybody but themselves.

Fully funding public higher education not only benefits the mostly underpaid professors (adjunct and otherwise) who work in the current system. It creates better-educated students than you’d get if you just sit them in front of a computer screen and make them watch tapes of super-professors all day. Direct interaction isn’t just key to the educational process. It’s key to the social dynamics that make real learning possible.

Professors welcoming the advent of MOOCs are therefore, to my mind at least, worse than suicidal. They’re a distraction from fighting the battle that really matters, namely the fight for a quality education for everyone who can directly benefit from it. Offing yourself before that battle is even over isn’t going to help anyone.





“Now we see the violence inherent in the system!”

20 12 2011

As your king, I’m sure you’re wondering where I stand on the Grafton-Lemisch history job market controversy which Tenured Radical explained so eloquently for us yesterday. I think they’re both right! I believe that everyone who gets a Ph.D. should get a job that puts the skills acquired during that long, difficult journey to best use. Whether that job is at an academic institution or some other place that’s interested in history really shouldn’t matter as long as it pays a living wage. I also agree, as Lemisch suggests, that “an acceptance of things as they are” would be a terrible, terrible thing.

My problem with this whole discussion though is that the AHA is probably not the best place to be having it. That’s because the crisis in question isn’t discipline specific, it’s…wait for it…systematic.

I hate to sound like a broken record here, but there isn’t a shortage of tenure track jobs in the humanities or elsewhere. The problem is a longstanding, systematic restructuring of academic work that devalues the contributions of individual instructors, both on the tenure track and off. When those on the tenure track catch cold, adjuncts get pneumonia. Recently, some of this problem has become technological, but it’s mostly a logical outgrowth of the systematic starvation of academics in favor of spending on things like sports and unnecessary new buildings at public and private universities alike.

My fear is that the more time we spend arguing with one another about the best way to approach this decades-old problem that we can’t solve by ourselves, we’ll forget about the common enemy. No, not the Judean People’s Front! I’m talking about the Romans!!! I realize I’m mixing my Python movie analogies, but you know who the Romans are here, right?

There I go bringing class into it again. I really would make a lousy king. My heart is with the bloody peasants even though I’m only moderately repressed.





Will college professors go the way of the milkman?

19 09 2011

I have been a Natalie Merchant fan since I first saw 10,000 Maniacs in college. In the old days, when I still went to concerts, I saw them more often than I did any other band (even after their shows were overran by teenage girls in peasant dresses). I pre-ordered the first Natalie Merchant album in seven years before it came out last year (rather than download the tracks) so that I could read the liner notes, and have had it in my car ever since. It’s two discs of the work of mostly obscure poets put to music, so there is actually a lot of interesting stuff to learn there.

This is my favorite track on the album:

The poet is Eleanor Farjeon, well-known in English places, but not in America. As Merchant notes, poetry aside, perhaps the most endearing thing she ever did was to turn down the title Dame of the British Empire with the line, “I do not wish to become different from the milkman.” Words to live by if I’ve ever encountered them.

They seem particularly useful to us academics, as we (myself included, of course) tend to greatly overrate our own usefulness. So many of us assume that whatever we’re interested in will be interesting to others, even if it isn’t. [See here for an important variation on this phenomenon.] I’ve also seen far too many examples of academics who assume that they’re somehow different than other working people just because they have a Ph.D.

We had time, and somehow we found the resources to study something for seven-odd years. This does not make us immune to the same rules of employment that blue collar workers face, like technological unemployment or the inevitable class struggle between employer and employee. This post by Tenured Radical about her computer troubles from over the weekend reminded me of Henry George’s complaint that industrial workers had been reduced to “mere feeders of machines.”

At the same time, there’s one way that I really do hope to be different from the milkman. Unlike milkmen, I hope my chosen profession continues to be practiced beyond a boutique existence long after my career has ended. If anyone has studied the demise of milkmen in America, I’d be interested in reading their work. If I had to guess though, I’d say that milkmen were probably victims of better refrigerated transport. It became cheaper to make milk on vast dairy farms and keep it cold for hundreds of miles than to squeeze it fresh and send it down the street. Yes, I know milk delivery is still a boutique operation in some places, but most people aren’t willing to pay that much more for a better product.

Will the college students of the future be willing to pay more for a better education? Will they even be able to pay more for a better education? Earlier this summer I wrote:

Seriously, the primary reason that I don’t go totally Luddite on this entire profession is that if given the opportunity, I don’t think the average bean counter is going to remake the university very well at all.

I still believe that, but now I’m afraid that the vast majority of both administrators and college students couldn’t care less. If I’m right, that should be enough to make you empathize with working people of all kinds. Especially milkmen.

Perhaps we can all double as psychiatrists, just like this milkman did.





Einstein’s chalkboard or why you don’t need to buy a Kindle.

6 08 2011

That photograph comes from Keith Erekson of the University of Texas – El Paso. He took it at a museum in Oxford, UK. Apparently, Einstein was visiting at some point during the Thirties. He worked a bunch of equations out on a chalkboard and they immediately whisked the chalkboard away to a museum, hanging it high enough so that nobody would ever accidentally erase the great man’s handiwork.

Keith uses this to illustrate the importance of ideas relative to the technology by which they are conveyed. After all, if Einstein could convey such complicated ideas on a mere chalkboard, his choice of technology did not stifle his genius. [Did I mention that Keith was serving as the technology specialist during our teacher colloquium last week?]

While I may seem obsessed with online education these days, the first thing that I thought of after seeing Keith’s picture and hearing his interpretation of it was the Kindle. I still think Kindles are for suckers, but besides the reasons I gave in that post I also think they are also a very complex technology where a simple one will do just fine.

I have come to this conclusion despite knowing that the future seems to be entirely against me. This was in the Telegraph under the headline, “The printed book is doomed”:

A couple of weeks ago I spoke to a senior executive from a big Silicon Valley company. We talked about digital media and in passing he mentioned digital books. “I doubt that my daughter will ever buy a physical book,” he said. His daughter is nine.

Why exactly is the printed book doomed? Apparently because Silicon Valley executives say so and because Telegraph reporters don’t read very well:

I’ve noticed that I’m increasingly frustrated when reading printed books because they don’t have a search function. With an ebook I can quickly search the text to remind myself who a character is or to re-read a particular passage.

Ever heard of reading slowly or (God forbid) an index? With reading skills like that he’ll never make it in the All-England Summarize Proust Competition? [Come to think of it, reading Remembrance of Things Past on a Kindle might explain why all the participants at the All-England Summarize Proust competition did so badly at it.]

I also hear that Kindles are much better than iPads in direct sunlight. Well I’ll bet good money that neither one of them is better than an actual book (unless, perhaps, the words are written in invisible ink). Seriously, can’t Amazon come up with a better marketing hook than that?

If there’s anything good about all this e-book stuff, it would have to be that it’s focused attention on the fact that books are really the physical manifestations of ideas rather than objects for people to simply buy and covet. Unfortunately, if you let one company gather a monopoly on distributing all those ideas, it’s not exactly going to serve the cause of universal enlightenment. This is from the Guardian:

It’s still early days in the ebook story, and no doubt there’ll be many disputes and disruptions along these lines in the future. But here’s a final thought for now. Was it wise to allow a situation in which a single company – Amazon – became market leader in terms of both a digital product (the ebook) and the hardware through which it’s delivered?

Luckily, we can still turn to physical books to read the same content that Amazon wants to monopolize. While it may difficult to impress your friends with a paperback in your lap, an awful lot of ingenius ideas have been conveyed that way over the last five or six hundred years. I’m guessing, against all odds, the book will survive five or six hundred more. Despite competition from those dry-erase monstrosities, I bet even the chalkboard has a few more decades in it.

After all, aren’t the simplest solutions to complex problems often the best?





Two Monty Python jokes.

21 02 2011

That’s the best part of my post for this President’s Day, which is not located at this blog. It’s at the Historical Society blog – a far, far better blog than this one (and without the snarky angry attitude you get from my labor posts).





Another Analogy for Tenure.

16 12 2010

Tenured Radical compares tenure to scene from Through the Looking Glass. While I would have thought the Caucus Race from the original book would have been a more obvious analogy, I’ve been thinking of an entirely different one based on my favorite movie of all time:

My point here is not that if you fail to answer the questions you get cast into the Gorge of Eternal Peril (although unlike Tenured Radical, I’ve never known anyone who’s been denied tenure that ended up with a job at anywhere near the same pay grade, let alone prestige). The point is that the questions get harder as you go along.* So you’re not a Python weenie like me? The newly tenured Laurie Essig at Brainstorm offers a good explanation of my argument in plain English:

The increasing scarcity of tenure means that the standards for getting it are getting more and more difficult to meet. At Middlebury, it is not unusual for older faculty to have received tenure without a single book, while those of us undergoing review now often have two books at the point of tenure.

I’ve seen the same thing myself even long before I got tenure or promotion to Full Professor. Just yesterday I heard from a friend in a different discipline at a different school that his promotion to Full Professor got rejected solely because he hasn’t been the PI for enough grants (and he’s not in the hard sciences!). It’s like first you have to hit the lottery and then run a triathlon after that just to stay in place.

What I wonder though is whether Essig’s explanation of why standards are harder than they used to be is entirely correct. An increase in supply certainly makes it possible for administrations to make earning tenure harder if they want to, but I don’t think they’d do it just to torture people. My guess is that their motivation is money. Deny an Associate Professor promotion and you save the cost of their raise. Deny an Assistant Professor tenure and you can hire a new one for less or, even more likely these days, cut the line and replace them at fire sale prices.

I realize that people like me have it much better than all the contingent faculty of the world, but we are still all in this together to a great degree. Every rank from contingent to Full Professor does essentially the same thing in he classroom. [I know that ranked faculty should in theory be able to teach better, but come on! There's a lot of awfully good contingent faculty out there these days and when's the last time you met an administrator who could even tell the difference?] Therefore, we all suffer when there is a huge excess labor supply, because even Full Professors can be replaced by someone (or perhaps several someones) for much less money. They can treat us all badly with full knowledge there are plenty of readily available replacements if we whine too loudly.

So what can we do to solve this problem? I say limit access to graduate school to cut down the supply of excess labor. Organize everyone. And most importantly (at least for this topic), make sure your department and your university has clear and reasonable standards for tenure and promotion because being cast into the Gorge of Eternal Peril isn’t really all that funny.

* Except for Sir Galahad, but cut me some slack here, OK? This analogy is a work in progress.








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