The Socratic method is the past. Clickers are the future.

12 09 2011

My new favorite Twitter feed is from Grumpy Historian. How can you not like someone whose slogan is “Most historians are grumpy.”? Ironically, there is also a very good Twitter feed coming from someone who calls his or herself Happy Historian. Their slogan is “History is Fun, Valuable, And Historians Do Great Work!”

I have this theory that these two are in fact the same person, tweeting away on different accounts depending upon their mood. Even if I’m wrong, it’s certainly no coincidence that Grumpy Historian tweets much more often.

Here’s one reason why: Catherine Liu at Remaking the University discusses the war on teachers in America, making reference to someone with an excellent Twitter feed of her own:

After years on the battlegrounds of policy and education reform, [Diane Ravitch of NYU] came to the realization that policy makers and politicians had no real intention of improving American schools. They much preferred to keep teachers off balance and real debates over academic content off the pedagogical agenda. Ravitch denounces politicians, philanthropists, principals and callow administrators who are willing to consult with everyone from Bill Gates to Simon Cowell about education reform, but don’t care to ask experienced teachers what is needed in order to produce improvements in classroom learning.

Liu goes on to bring up one of my favorite books of all time, a book that was just about ubiquitous in Madison used-book stores, one of the two books I can think of that I’ve broken the spine on from reading it so much (this is the other):

Teaching is a craft, but administrators prefer to think of it as an industrial process that can be made more and more “efficient.” In Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century, Harry Braverman demonstrated that monopoly capital seeks to discipline labor by imposing increasingly stringent constraints on workers through relentless rationalization of the work process: Frederick Winslow Taylor’s drive for efficiency degraded industrial labor even as it deskilled the laborer.

Unfortunately, since I can’t find it on my shelf, it appears that I haven’t gotten myself a replacement copy of Braverman yet. Nevertheless, just this post is enough to remind me of the thesis.

It’s one of those E.P. Thompson/Herbert Gutman-inspired work culture arguments. The Man imposes the clock on poor, defenseless skilled workers and pretty soon their whole life has gone to Hell in a hand-basket. I kid, but there is a highly useful abstract point here: The struggle in the workplace manifests itself in cultural terms, but the effects are largely economic.

We professors face that same kind of struggle. For those of us who care about education, teaching is a craft. We refine our lectures, write the best questions for discussions into our old copies of classic monographs and do our best to get our students thinking. Then this economic crisis comes along and we’re told we have to adapt to a new way of educating because economic necessity requires such a thing. I’m not saying that the people telling us to do such things don’t care about education (although undoubtedly many of them don’t), but if your job depends upon a bottom line that can be measured easily rather than abstract thought processes that can’t be measured easily at all, I have no doubt which way the average administrator is going to lean if the two things come into conflict.

We who teach in the humanities are steeped in a different culture than they are, but they control the means of production. The reason I’m not a real Marxist (and don’t even play one on TV) is that I think compromise is possible, but for that to happen those of who care about preserving the old ways have to stick to our principles. If they dangle shiny gadgets in front of your eyes, ask yourself, “Does this help me do what I already do better or does it send me down a dark path from which I will never return?”

Don’t willingly participate in your own obsolescence. Otherwise you’re going to end up really grumpy.



4 responses

4 10 2011
Online education and the degradation of academic work. « More or Less Bunk

[…] in the Twentieth Century again for the first time in many years. I didn’t do it justice the last time I mentioned it. The guy wasn’t just aping E.P. Thompson, he was describing why hating your job in an […]

10 04 2012

Very rightly said i totally agree with you.

15 06 2012
Workers’ control in academia. « More or Less Bunk

[…] written about Harry Braverman in this space before. The title of this post is a variation of a book title by the late David Montgomery. […]

17 12 2012
For faculty, educational entrepreneurship is a devil’s bargain. « More or Less Bunk

[…] written about Braverman before here and here, but I picked the book up again last week and reread an extended excerpt he has from the […]

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