More paying students, fewer teachers to pay.

15 09 2011

The new issue of the AAUP magazine Academe is out. It’s on the subject of “The Humanities,” and it’s very, very good. I might do some more blogging from it when I get my paper copy, but for now let me simply call your attention to this review of several recent titles in the “higher education is doomed” genre by Ellen Schrecker:

The readers of Academe need no reminder about the execrable working conditions and inadequate remuneration of the men and (mostly) women with contingent appointments. For Hacker and Dreifus, outrage is the only response: “It is immoral and unseemly to have a person teaching exactly the same class as an ensconced faculty member, but for one-sixth the pay.” (Emphasis in original.)

But it’s not the “ensconced” faculty member’s fault.

Thank you so much for that last part, Ellen. Perhaps it’s self-evident to all of us with tenure that we actually prefer more tenured colleagues to less (if for no other reason to spread the committee work around), so we don’t say that enough. It should also be self-evident that a better-paid professor is a happier professor and a happier professor can concentrate more on every aspect of their work, including teaching.

Of course, anyone who’s read Bousquet or any other higher education tomes by authors who actually know what they’re talking about can tell you that the growth of adjuncts in the academy dates from the 1970s. The online learning gold rush, however, is of much more recent vintage, and it should go without saying that the way it’s being done now isn’t exactly helping the cause of education either.

Nevertheless, it’s still nice to see someone say that too every once in a while, which is why Donald Eastman, the President of Eckerd College in Florida, is my new hero. Do yourself a favor and read his entire piece from the St. Petersburg Times after you finish reading this post. For now though, here’s a taste:

To be sure, online learning has its place. But for most students, it is a last resort. For those who have no other options, who cannot get to a classroom because of time or distance barriers, online instruction has to suffice, and thank goodness for it. Adult students who simply have neither the time nor the scheduling flexibility to attend classes are understandably the primary users of online course work.

Increasingly, however, public universities expect traditionally aged students to take online courses because of lack of space. This year the Florida Legislature passed the Digital Learning Now Act, which mandates that all high school students take at least one class online to graduate — as if high school students need to be required to use the Internet!

This is precisely why UD calls online education the “poor white trash” of academia. But since this has always been a labor blog, I want to talk about who’s teaching the classes rather than who’s taking them. While I know a few tenure track faculty who’ve taken the plunge into full online learning (often on the side to supplement their not quite stellar incomes), for the most part it’s the adjuncts who teach these kinds of courses. [The University of Phoenix, if I remember it right, is based on a model where EVERYONE is an adjunct.]

Seriously, who has the time to learn a new system when you have committees, research, shared governance issues and all your existing face-to-face classes to teach already? I’ve become an online education Quaker precisely because I’m so busy trying to be the best face-to-face teacher I can be, and because I like to leave as much of my work as possible at the office when I leave for the day. Nevertheless, I’m still concerned about how online education plays out around academia because I care about educational quality.

Leave online education entirely to administrators, the non-tenured and the non-tenurable and educational concerns will inevitably be squashed by the drive to save money during our new austerity. It won’t be sold as austerity, though. It will be sold as efficiency. [There’s that “MBA thinking” again!] Check this out from some tech guy writing in IHE:

[A]ctively seek vendors as partners that can provide technology to “scale” any of your existing processes out of the classroom — marketing and communication, financial aid, student services, community building, and student success. Over the past 30 years or so, technology has been used within the existing educational model and within the operating framework of our institutions. Institutions need to look at technology differently — they need to see it as an opportunity to transform what they do and help them adapt.

“Scale” classroom teaching and you get hundreds of students enrolled in a single online class. More paying students, fewer teachers to pay. That’s our online future. A single adjunct overseeing hundreds of students taking multiple choice tests may be good for the bottom line, but it’s not good for education. And if we really care about education, that’s precisely the sort of thing that we all need to work to stop.




2 responses

18 09 2011
Music for Deckchairs

OK, well [insert usual MfD expression of disquiet about all this here], the thing is that it doesn’t have to be this way. But the serious labour problems that you describe here are only going to be addressed by sustained engagement by those of us still maintaining a toehold on the diminishing landmass of academic tenure.

One practical approach is to be vigilant about defining standards for online learning in terms of labour issues so that both students and teachers working online have clear horizons of expectation and, most importantly, that this creates the framework for serious accountability from higher education managers.

I do honestly think that to achieve this we have to stop just saying, oh, online is going to be dreadful. Because among other things I think this very low expectation creates an enormous window of opportunity for it to be just that, in terms that are really serious for our adjunct colleagues, as you rightly point out.

18 09 2011
Jonathan Rees


I think the problem here is that (in America at least) online is already for the most part dreadful. To make matters worse, most of our schools don’t seem to care.

So yes, engagement is necessary for both improvement and job preservation purposes. However, the self-fulfilling prophesy part that you’re predicting has alas already come true.

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