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.