The invisible supply chain in higher education.

16 12 2011

There are books you don’t have to like, but you have to acknowledge that they capture the zeitgeist of their respective eras:  Jonathan Livingston Seagull, The Passing of the Great Race, and then there’s The World Is Flat by Tom Friedman. Despite the fact that the guy admits that he did research with just Google for some sections of the book, he really was describing globalization in 2005, long before that term became cliché.  The problem with the book is not the reporting.  The problem with the book is Friedman’s childish enthusiasm for anything technological, accompanied by his complete disinterest in the effects of whatever he describes on workers rather than consumers.  Take his description of the Walmart supply chain (p. 133):

In improving its supply chain, Wal-Mart leaves no link untouched.  While I was touring the Wal-Mart distribution center in Bentonville, I noticed that some boxes were too big to go on the conveyor belts and were being moved around on pallets by Wal-Mart employees driving special minilift trucks with headphones on. A computer tracks how many pallets each employee is plucking every hour to put on trucks for different stores, and a computerized voice tells each of them whether he is ahead of schedule or behind schedule.

Sounds like a great way to work, huh?  Well, teach online and this is your future. You will become a mere tender of machines.  Real human relationships?  A luxury that we can no longer afford. Even during the age of austerity, rich people can still afford a real education.  Everyone else gets a computer program – students and teachers alike.

I’m beginning to think that higher education is beginning to reach its Tom Friedman moment.  We can either accept the fact that some students will get a quality education, while others won’t or we can fight back against what the people with power claim is inevitable.  I’m not really a big fan of the term edu-bubble because there’s no question a good education pays still pays dividends in the long run, but a future of students paying through the nose an education conducted entirely over Blackboard is simply not sustainable.

The people in the best position to point this simple truth out are, of course, faculty.  Even if you have a (comparatively) cushy tenure track job, you’re fooling yourself if you don’t think the forces of austerity will threaten your livelihood eventually.  That’s why I bookmarked WE ARE NOT CONTINGENT:  An Adjunct Manifesto the moment I saw it. Here is the beginning:

We are the non-tenure track faculty who now constitute two-thirds of the instructional workforce at universities and colleges across the nation. We are frequently invisible to administrators, yet we are the first professors and instructors that undergraduate students meet on their journey to becoming engaged learners. We are the majority. We have been silent too long, and it is time for us to reclaim our voices and outline our demands.

Unfortunately for higher education’s 1%, it is impossible to keep your supply chain silent if it consists of human beings with rights who refuse to stop telling the truth to power.  When I was listening to Marc Bousquet a couple of weeks ago, I thought wouldn’t it be great if adjunct faculty had their own “We Are the 99%” Tumblr?  I bet it would be a sensation, because most faculty – heck, most STUDENTS – are totally blind to what most faculty have to do to just survive. Indeed, as Marc himself suggested, we are all blind to everyone else’s terms and conditions of employment in academia and that’s exactly how administrators want it.

The only way to stop all us losers from talking to each other is to enlist our student-consumers into their war as our enemies. This piece in the National Review (which deserves its own special takedown) on how teachers unions are destroying online education in California’s public schools is a classic example of that. But what I liked most was this throwaway line:

Online courses are valuable because they customize curricula to students’ individual learning needs, allow students to access teachers at virtually any time of the day or night, and produce immediate and transparent progress reports on students’ performance.

[emphasis added]

Um…who are they going to get to staff those LMSs in the middle of the night to answer all those student homework questions?  Indians?  You just know that would get Tom Friedman all excited, but even Friedman recognized that globalization has its limits. “If societies are unable to manage the strains that are produced by this flattening,” Friedman wrote on p. 296 of The World Is Flat:

there will be a backlash, and political forces will attempt to reinsert some of the frictions and protectionist barriers that the flattening forces have eliminated, but they will do it in a crude way that will, in the name of protecting the weak, end up lowering everyone’s standard of living.

But what if it’s “progress” that’s destroying everyone’s standard of living?  What if the virtual product is inferior to the actual good? More importantly, if the poor need protection in the short term, why should they have to wait for the trickle down fairy to spread the wealth?

The invisible people in the higher education supply chain are the ones best suited to answer that question, but apparently nobody wants to listen to what they have to say.  It works the same way at Walmart.  Unfortunately, a Walmart-style education will still set students back thousands and thousands of dollars.


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