For faculty, educational entrepreneurship is a devil’s bargain.

17 12 2012

David Brody is my favorite labor historian of all time because of his extended interest in industrial relations. However, my favorite labor history book ever is one most people outside the field have never encountered. Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital has been treated like a classic 70s socialist polemic (which I guess it is), but it’s also a careful reconstruction of the capitalist worldview which has become ever more accurate as America has slipped further into the new Gilded Age.

I’ve written about Braverman before here and here, but I picked the book up again last week and reread an extended excerpt he has from the efficiency expert Frederick W. Taylor. Taylor, you see, was incredulous that workers didn’t want to labor in shops using his system of scientific management because they could benefit greatly if they worked more efficiently than anyone else. Here’s Taylor (from Braverman, p. 65):

“I began, of course, by directing some one man to do more work than he had done before, and then I got on the lathe myself and showed him that it could be done. In spite of this, he went ahead and turned out exactly the same output and refused to adopt better methods or to work quicker until finally I laid him off and got another man in his place. This new man–I could not blame him in the least under the circumstances–turned right around and joined the other fellows and refused to do any more work than the rest.”

Taylor’s solution was piece wages, thereby giving workers the opportunity to make more money if they work harder. This encourages them to think more about their own welfare rather than the welfare of their colleagues. It also gave management the opportunity to cut wages once the workers got used to working at an accelerated output.

I thought of Taylor when I read what Straighter Line is up to these days:

Instructors who offer courses on Professor Direct will be able to essentially set their own sticker prices, as long as they are higher than the company’s base price. One professor teaching an online mathematics course with a base price of $49, for example, plans to charge $99. For each student who signs up, the company will pocket the $49 base price, and the professor gets the remaining $50.

Let’s cover one aspect of the evil here right off the bat: Paying professors by the student is immoral and anti-education. This gives them every incentive to make their classes easier and grade easier whether students are learning or not.

But let’s leave that aside and stipulate that this scheme becomes both acceptable and widespread. How much do you really know about what your course is worth on the market? More importantly, how much do your students know? Here’s the multi-talented Josh Boldt:

If I have a broken bone, I know exactly what the doctor will do to fix it. If I am being sued, the value proposition in which I engage with my attorney is relatively understood. I will give him a certain amount of money and he will attempt to win my case. Once my transactions with this doctor and lawyer are complete, we move on with our lives. Here again, there really is no chance for any hidden value or any future compounding of the service I received in exchange for my payment. Both the professional and I can agree on a fee and be pretty confident exactly what we will both gain from the transaction.

And then there’s education. How many of you can say that at 18 years old, you knew exactly what value you would receive from each class you took in college?…

It’s just not possible. We can’t possibly negotiate a fair market price for education because we have no idea what hidden value lies in the information we will gain from a given course. Often we don’t realize until semesters or even years later how much value we actually received from a course we took.

Yet no matter who wins and who loses in this ill-informed exchange, Straighter Line would still make money. Frederick Taylor couldn’t have planned the bait-and-switch any better. Better to band together and keep control of our jobs.

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One response

18 12 2012
Contingent Cassandra

Agreed. But keep in mind that many people signing up to teach on Straighter Line (which, at least last time I checked, offers mostly “commodity” core courses) are looking for an alternative not to a decently-paid full-time job with a reasonable teaching load, but to putting together a patchwork schedule of adjunct work. They’re already “entrepreneurs,” though not by their own choice, and the temptation to cut out the middleman is understandable.

The same holds for students, I suspect; if the course you need to graduate is going to be taught by an adjunct with few ties to the institution — quite possibly the same adjunct, in fact — no matter whether you take it at the local state university, the local community college, or the local branch of a bricks-and-mortar for-profit, there’s very little incentive not to take it online. Mind you, I don’t think that’s the best way to get an education, but if traditional universities want to compete, they’re going to have to offer coherent core curricula taught by people who are paid not only to teach the courses, but also to talk to each other about the university’s students and their needs, and to shape and regularly revise the curriculum accordingly.

So whatever form the banding together takes, it’s going to have to include agitating for conversion of adjunct and no-service non-TT lines to more traditional jobs. And the people who can do the agitating most (which is not to say very) effectively are the tenured faculty. The pattern I’ve seen over the last few decades is that tenure-line faculty have been willing to trade lower, mostly upper-level undergrad and graduate teaching loads for increased use of non-TT faculty in the core curriculum. That pattern is going to have to reverse for non-TT faculty to see the devil’s bargain for what it is.

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