I’m sure new readers will be shocked to learn that my original field was American labor history. I still teach it once every two years at which time I always get exactly enough students to keep the class from being canceled. Like a lot of labor historians I know, I’ve developed other interests. Still, what I’ve learned can be very useful for understanding the situation currently faced by everyone in my profession.
I’ve written about Harry Braverman in this space before. The title of this post is a variation of a book title by the late David Montgomery. However, my favorite labor historian has always been Herbert Gutman. To my mind, Gutman’s first collection of essays, Work, Culture and Society in Industrializing America, is the best labor history book ever published because it’s all so accessible.
Since I don’t want to set foot in my office any more than absolutely necessary this summer, I’m going by memory here: Throughout the book Gutman explains how nineteenth century industrial workers had different priorities than their bosses. Since many were immigrants, they came to America with a pre-industrial mindset. They were perfectly willing to demand a barrel of beer to drink at work because work was alienating and producing non-stop for ten or twelve hours at a time was generally not an appealing prospect. Over the course of the 19th century, their employers broke the power of these workers through mechanization and the division of labor.
Skilled workers could once set the pace of production or even drink on the job because they had control of the shop floor. Once managers broke that control, more of the profits from industrialization inevitably flowed toward capital.
I’m not suggesting that professors start drinking on the job. However, I am suggesting that online education is a threat to our control of the shop floor. In fact, it entirely eliminates the shop floor we once controlled. Online educators can hardly even interact with their students at all without negotiating a space controlled almost entirely by their employers.
Yet unlike in nineteenth century America, there is no guarantee that increased production serves the best interests of society. Is teaching more students a good thing if the education they get is superficial and impersonal? I say “no,” but even if you say “yes” don’t you think actual educators should have a major role in answering that question? After all, public education is not supposed to be a private profit center.
Ever heard of shared governance? It’s a principle that has guided American higher education for decades now. It means that faculty should play an important role in the way their universities operate. After all, without them there would be no university at all. Shared governance also suggests that faculty maintain at least some of their prerogatives as the terms and conditions of their employment are determined to everyone’s satisfaction. That’s why when non-profit university administrators insist on acting like Robber Barons, the cause of education isn’t served.
What can faculty do in response to John D. Rockefeller-like behavior? First, wake up and smell the coffee. Your job is being redefined right under your nose and most of you don’t even realize it. Second, insist on participating in the conversations about what your job will become. Third, if you aren’t treated with the respect you deserve, then organize. It doesn’t have to be into a trade union. Even the simple act of joining the AAUP will do wonders for your understanding of how the university works. The more people who understand what’s happening, the more people will be willing to do something about it.
In any event, you have to do something. History suggests that once you lose control of your shop floor, it’s darn near impossible to get it back.