Bambi meets Godzilla: Higher education edition.

21 01 2012

One of the lessons I’ve learned by paying attention to distance education and the digital humanities in recent months is that many smart people are investing a lot of time doing creative and wonderful things for education’s sake. Despite my philosophical opposition to online courses, I’ll even agree with Tim Burke that they might actually constitute a new art form when they’re done well:

[I]f you created a really rich body of materials that looked somewhat like an “online course”, what you really might be doing was crafting a completely novel form of publication. Imagine a work of historical scholarship that included video of the author giving an explanatory lecture at the beginning of a section of the reading; that had direct links to a huge body of archival pictures, audio recordings, maps, and other supporting materials; that extensively linked to relevant (or competing) analyses available in digital collections like JSTOR; and where the author would appear live once every week to take questions from students reading the book in a class.

But what happens when the rubber meets the road? When art collides with MBA thinking? When Bambi meets Godzilla? I’ll tell you what happens: Bambi gets stomped.

Administrators and higher ed reformers see online classes as a means to cut costs by saving on both overhead and wages. As a result, most of the artists among us will be beaten down by the pressure of having their class sizes continually scaled up and their salaries continually scaled down in response to increased access to unemployed Ph.D.s all over the world who are too busy to care about art.

The really heartbreaking thing though is that Bambi in this scenario is likely going to act as if everything is just peachy even after the hunters shoot his mother. Professors (as opposed to teachers, who are heavily unionized) may just be the only workers in America who’ll reject organization for their self-protection in the face of appeals that their job is a higher calling even as their employers make doing that job next to impossible.

Consider this story from Friday’s Inside Higher Education:

Each of Professor Pam Watkins’s 70 podcasts took almost two hours to produce. Then she spent another 100 hours uploading and editing her handouts. The result is an intermediate algebra course that is one of the first classes in Apple’s new iTunes U library.

The Harrisburg Area Community College math professor wasn’t paid to design the course, but volunteered to do so in hopes of helping math students in central Pennsylvania and beyond.

Pam Watkins is obviously an extremely dedicated teacher. Yet how many math professors won’t be hired in the future because of the unpaid work she did? Teaching may be a calling, but it’s also a profession and that profession not only requires fair compensation so that teachers can afford to keep doing it, it requires a certain amount of class solidarity in the face of employers who are more than willing to sell the product of our free labor and then use the proceeds from that sale for their own less-than-benevolent ends.

I’ve argued repeatedly in this space that online education is not a good thing for students, but think of the professors too! Is machine-tending really what you signed up for when you took your current job? Are you willing to make the transition to our glorious online future even if the people in charge won’t let you turn your course into a work of art?

I’m not saying that you have to be Godzilla when it comes to this particular transition, but there’s no reason that you have to be Bambi either. If you won’t fight for your own sake, maybe you can fight for the sake of art and creativity.


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5 responses

21 01 2012
Sunday Reading « zunguzungu

[…] Bambi meets Godzilla: Higher education edition. […]

29 01 2012
CourtJester

Having viewed the whole of Prof Watkins algebra course I have to say that it is a magnificent effort. Its certainly helped me along the road to gaining an understanding of algebra.

I recall a great debate in the 70’s about the desirability or not of allowing students to use calculators. Laughable to think back to that argument. Here we have the argument presented that education is something that must always be paid for, received face to face, and never acquired second-hand or indirectly, lest that should dilute the earning power of the highly educated.

So what do we do now? Close down Wikipedia, The Open University, correspondence schools and all the rest?

30 01 2012
“That don’t impress me much.” « More or Less Bunk

[…] over on this post of mine, responds: Here we have the argument presented that education is something that must always be paid […]

31 01 2012
It attracts the easily exploited. « More or Less Bunk

[…] faculty: MBA thinking on the part of management and over-generousness on the part of labor. Filming yourself and letting Apple profit from people accessing your work is merely an extreme case. I think the entire contractual structure […]

11 02 2012
Weekend Reading « Backslash Scott Thoughts

[…] happens when Bambi meets Godzilla? Labor in higher […]

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