When I was in Kansas City a few weeks ago, I heard David Wrobel of the University of Oklahoma talk about John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. I’ve been teaching that novel since graduate school (even though the majority of students still hate it), yet Wrobel taught me something I didn’t know.
Apparently, Steinbeck wrote an entirely different book about migrant farm workers called L’Affaire Lettuceburg. It was a rip-roaring denunciation of California growers and the corrupt political system that kept them in power. Steinbeck trashed the whole thing. Never published a word of it. Then he wrote The Grapes of Wrath instead. It was like he had to get the anger out of his system before he could focus on the people who deserved the most attention.
I recommend we do the same thing when considering the economic effects of MOOCs. Don’t focus on the growers. Don’t focus on the fruit. Focus on the people. Do you stand with the dispossessed or not? That’s the fundamental question here.
Who exactly are the dispossessed in this analogy? Potentially every faculty member everywhere (except the super-professors). Let me explain:
Here are two things I know about all online courses, MOOCs or the more ordinary kind:
1. The same way they increase the potential number of students, they increase the potential number of faculty. If the professor asks for more money, they can easily be replaced by someone wherever there’s an internet connection. This will drive down wages and benefits even lower than they are now for adjuncts and non-adjuncts alike (and they weren’t exactly all that high now).
This has nothing to do with the quality of the MOOC. It is a simple economic fact.
2. When professors toil away at their home computers, John Steinbeck or Dorothea Lange will have a hard time telling the story of these dispossessed people because they’ll have a hard time finding them. At least for the moment, professors don’t live in labor camps. Similarly, the NLRB won’t accept virtual signatures on union cards.
Again, it doesn’t matter how good the course in question is. Even if it’s good for students, working in isolation from your colleagues is bad for labor. It’s even worse for labor if the ordinary tasks of teaching have been automated out of existence.
So faced with this predicament, who do we shoot? Don’t shoot Margaret Soltan because if you do they’ll just find some other super-professor who has to feed their family (on champagne and caviar) to take her place. Don’t shoot the bankers because the people behind Udemy or Coursera will just find other bankers who’ll still try to make money off making you obsolete. Alas, just as it was for poor Muley Graves, shooting anyone won’t solve anything.
All you can do is yell at the top of your lungs for the sake of quality education and the sake of your own economic well-being. It’s not going to keep the tractor from plowing under your shack, but maybe at least then they’ll put you in a migrant labor camp with flush toilets.