Why professors are like low-wage workers (even if their wages aren’t particularly low).

13 04 2012

When I was in Santa Barbara at that op-ed workshop last month, my contribution about adjunct faculty began by comparing them to workers at Apple’s Foxconn plant in China. Both groups produce a beloved product. Both are treated badly. Understand these conditions, and moral observers should be outraged. Yes, I know that adjuncting isn’t really life-threatening (at least in the short-term) like at Foxconn, but I still thought this analogy was a pretty good hook for the essay.

Harold Meyerson disagreed. Well, disagreed might be a little strong, but he thought this comparison was too provocative for a newspaper essay in which I wanted to bring people over to my side. Even though the rest of the room split about 50-50, I changed the analogy anyway. That does not, however, mean that I won’t make it again in the (mostly) friendly confines of this blog.

This is from a columnist in the new issue of Fortune magazine*:

The infotech revolution is great for high-wage workers because it turbocharges them; an executive with three screens on her desk and an iPhone in her pocket is enormously more productive. Infotech doesn’t much hurt low-wage workers, many of whom do place-based work (cooking in restaurants, pouring concrete) that can’t be done elsewhere. But infotech makes middle class jobs disappear; software takes over routine back-office tasks, and infotech coordinates supply chains, so manufacturing jobs can be done by lower-paid workers abroad.

Could my job be done by a low-wage worker abroad? I’m an American historian, so I doubt that the pool of people like me in China or India is all that big. Perhaps if I were a math professor I’d be slightly more worried. [Of course, I’d also be paid better.]

Irrespective of discipline, however, I would argue that good teaching is place-based by definition. Teach over the Internet from across the country or across the world and you lose something. At the very least, you lose the distinctly personal relationship that good teachers have with their students. I communicate electronically with people I wouldn’t know otherwise if not for Twitter or this blog, but as much I like so many of you out there we don’t really know one another. The teacher/student relationship, on the other hand, should be a much more personal relationship. How else are you going to understand precisely what expectations you have for one another?

As Sherry Turkle repeatedly suggests, the Internet is so seductive because it allows you to separate yourself from real people who carry the baggage of real world problems. If you don’t like how things are going with your Internet-based relationship, you can always turn off the computer or just de-friend the offender. Your relationship with your favorite teachers, on the other hand, should be one of the more important ones you’ll ever have because it helps determine how you think about the world. Forging that relationship while learning online is like trying to make friends during a rock concert. It’s not impossible, but is much harder to do than in normal circumstances with all that loud noise in the background.

Factories are also full of background noise. One of the first rules of any good factory is that the workers shouldn’t talk to one another on the job as it saps productivity. Perhaps that also applies to workers talking to the product, for as Mario Savio once said, the students are the raw materials in the factory that is modern higher education and the faculty are a bunch of employees. While the labor force to which I belong might be treated marginally better than the workers at Foxconn in China, we’re all in the same dire need of help from our consumers if conditions at our respective factories are ever going to get better.

* No link, because it’s not up yet. And yes, I do actually subscribe. I got it with unused frequent flier miles. Even if I don’t agree with most of what’s in there, the magazine is still serious and informative (just like CNBC used to be until the Jim Kramer mentality took over the whole channel).


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