29 07 2011

Before this blog turned into all-ed tech, all the time, I wrote a lot of posts about academic labor issues. To me, the question of whether to go to graduate school in the humanities falls into that category since the issue of whether you can support yourself when you’re done is probably the best reason to avoid going. Unlike Chronicle columnist William Pannapacker, I have never told a student, “Don’t go.” I have nonetheless always tried to explain to potential history grad students the economic realities they will face when they’re done. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t.

If you read the same stuff I do online, you’ve probably seen Pannapacker’s latest in Slate. However, you may not have seen this eloquent response to it by an underemployed English Ph.D named Jonathan Sench. Don’t get me wrong. I think I’m on Pannapacker’s side in just about every facet of this issue, but stuff like this just gets me all choked up:

Then in the fall of my junior year, the director of the college honors program – who’d accepted me into the program as a sophomore – called me to his office and asked me what I wanted to do when I was out of school. I told him that my plan had always been to become a high school English teacher. He asked me how that was going. Well, I said, my preparation was going along well, I’d spent a lot of time in classrooms becoming prepared and I found the coursework a little too easy.

He asked me whether I found it satisfying. This was the first time in my life that anyone had ever asked me whether the work I was doing was satisfying. There’d been jobs that I liked, like delivering flowers. There’d been jobs that paid well, like construction. There were jobs that didn’t pay well and that I didn’t like, like washing dishes. But no jobs were ever particularly satisfying to me. I didn’t know how to respond to this question about my chosen profession. My idea about teaching was that it could be satisfying and that it was within reach. I’d seen people from my church or my mom’s friends’ kids go on to be teachers. I’d imagined that one day being a teacher would allow me to stop working with chemicals and heavy machinery, to read, to influence children positively, and to live a life that involved owning a house. But was I finding it satisfying? Was that even a rabbit hole worth going down?

If there’s anything I disagree with Pannapacker on, it’s his notion that getting a tenure-track job in the humanities is like winning a lottery. Winning a lottery pays a lot more. I do, however, find being a professor to be extremely satisfying, which is precisely why I am now convinced that I will never teach online. [You just knew I’d get around to that eventually, didn’t you?]

I remember when speaking in front of a live audience made me nervous. It still does under certain circumstances, but never in front of students. I particularly enjoy leading discussions because you never know where it’s going to go or what the next question is going to be. Spontaneity is key to a good discussion. Perhaps my fondest teaching moment was when one of my students threw a Coke can at another because she was so mad at something he said about the history of slavery.* I enjoy lectures precisely because, like a stand-up comedian (which I am not) I can see how they react to what I’m telling them. For that to happen, I have to be able to see the whites of their eyes.

Yes, I’ve seen the claims that online classes are better for shy students and I don’t buy it. If someone is afraid their ideas are stupid, why would it make a difference if they’re written down rather than spoken? I know plenty of people who talk far better than they write. What advantages do online classes offer them?

Certainly, online classes offer plenty of advantages to the university. Besides being cheaper to put on, they allow your employer to expand the potential labor pool to just about every underemployed Ph.D. on earth. I live in Pueblo, Colorado which has many good qualities, but alas there aren’t a lot of Ph.D.s walking its highways and byways. Send my courses online, and it doesn’t matter whether the professor is situated in Pueblo or not.** The more people willing to do your skilled job for less, the less money you’ll make doing it. And like I just said, winning the lottery pays a lot better.

Besides, I spend to much time in front of a computer as it is. Why on earth would I ever want to spend more if it gives me no satisfaction?

* Don’t worry, she missed. It was the thought that counted.

** The professors are in one place, the students are in another, the administration is in a third place counting all the money. Sweet deal, no?



12 responses

29 07 2011
Middle Seaman

Dealing with online courses is tantamount to mutilating a corps. It’s violates the Geneva Convention.

Satisfaction seems to be difficult to define or put your arms around. Even in the best ( for me) class I teach occasionally has the dullest, most disinterested and even obnoxious students. Teaching such a class is anything but satisfying. The list of “problem” classes has more than one item. Do you really like everyone you work with? Do you respect your colleagues?

Even the best academic job is not a Belgian chocolate, it’s Hershey which I don’t like. Still, it’s the best job I ever had. Generally, I am satisfied, but my dean is a moron.

30 07 2011
Music for Deckchairs

You know, much as I’d love to sing along with this one, I just can’t buy into landscape sized pronouncements about something (oh, let’s say, just for argument’s sake, um, online learning) being wholly bad, any more than I’m keen to drink the Kool Aid with those who think it’s going to either a) save the budget b) transform our lives c) etc.

But on your specific concern with satisfaction, I suspect something about creativity is connected to happiness both for teachers and students, and sometimes–sometimes, that’s all–online learning environments do enable a bit of creativity that’s not subjected to quite the same degree of oversight as the other things we do. Is this what’s about to come to an end, though, if we outsource the content and design of our online subjects to Big Publishing? Maybe. And maybe this is why Big Publishing is more of a threat to your satisfaction than some hardworking, interesting, competent PhD colleague who isn’t just down the hallway.

On the subject of shy students, you’re making quite a leap to assume that they’re shy because they think their ideas are stupid. Sometimes they’re just shy.

30 07 2011
Middle Seaman

“The shy cannot learn and the strict cannot teach”. Talmud, Avot 2:5.

In other words, the source of shyness doesn’t matter; it’s the lack of learning that matters.

30 07 2011

If I won the lottery (…if I played the lottery) I would go see the Stones. I have a live album from 95, and they were still good on that one. I bet they still are.

Online learning in and of itself would seem to have some obvious benefits, but in most cases must be inferior to learning via in-person conversation. In the context of capitalism, it has the potential to seriously fracture the bargaining power of teachers up and down the education spectrum.

I have been reading about the Bessemer process, which I’ve always been taught to think of as an unequivocal improvement. In fact, the metal produced by the Bessemer process was dramatically inferior (and less useful) to that made by artisan steel makers (“puddlers”), but the process was enthusiastically embraced by industrialists because it allowed them to reduce the pay and hours of those well-paid artisans. God help you if you find yourself standing between a capitalist and his profit, no matter how socially valuable your trade-skills may be.

31 07 2011
Jonathan Rees


I’m pivoting here from the question of online educational quality to the question of the effect of online education on working conditions. A good online class is a threat to those of us who choose not to partake of this practice if it leads to a collapse in demand for face-to-face classes [i.e. no students – no department – no job]. A bad online class would have the same effect if that’s where all the students go because the administration pushed them there in order to destroy faculty prerogatives.

I’m guessing that students can tell the difference between good and bad classes. Alright, I’m hoping that students can tell the difference.

31 07 2011
Music for Deckchairs

Ouch: double whammy. Online classes are a) necessarily bad and b) when they’re good, they’re worse. As the poet said:

“We’ll all be rooned,” said Hanrahan,
“Before the year is out.”

I’m just not sure this is the best defense of our labour or our craft, nor am I entirely convinced that we do this well by bucketing on the shy. Middle ground, people, middle ground.

31 07 2011
Jonathan Rees

How Obama-like of you, MfD.

It’s not that they’re worse in every sense of the word. I just mean worse for the faculty. Seriously, academics are just about the only people I know who will sacrifice their own livelihoods for the sake of others, namely their students. I don’t mean to be crass here, but what’s in it for me? What benefit do I get from this whole online education revolution thing that makes MY life better? Name one. Please.

1 08 2011
Shy? | Music for Deckchairs

[…] one for the “learn something new every day” box. Last week Middle Seaman, via More or Less Bunk, alerted me to the idea that “the shy cannot […]

1 08 2011
Not fade away. « More or Less Bunk

[…] My last Rolling Stones-inspired post already noted that spending less time on the Internet is something I value. Teaching online classes would seriously undermine my ability to control that aspect of my time. Students may like going to school in their pajamas, but I don’t like the idea of teaching them that way. I want to keep my work at work and my fun at home. Maybe I could do everything related to an online class at work, but I fear things would get the same way kids are with those text messages these days – every question must be dealt with immediately or they’ll take it as a slight. Neither them nor I can ever have that same problem when we’re all in the same room together. […]

3 08 2011
Means to an end. « More or Less Bunk

[…] Satisfaction. Can you see where I’m going with this? It’s not just that I don’t want to spend […]

18 08 2011
When the cat’s away… « More or Less Bunk

[…] from CSU-Pueblo last spring, and will be starting our history MA program next week. [Yes, we've had that talk.]* What we on the faculty love most about her is her infectious enthusiasm for history and […]

29 09 2011
And to think we knew her before she made it big. « More or Less Bunk

[…] to each other it’s still inferior to face-to-face interaction. Is anybody going to bother throwing Coke cans at one another if they’re not in the same room? Ironically, the kind of direct interaction I’m looking […]

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