“Our house was our castle and our keep.”

18 03 2013

This year is the fiftieth anniversary of E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. I already wrote about that book last summer when I read it again, but that was a post about what the word “Luddite” really means. A recent Guardian piece reminds me that that part has very little to do with the reputation of the book:

Thompson touched on the trade unions and the real wage, of course, but most of his book was devoted to something that he referred to as “experience”. Through a patient and extensive examination of local as well as national archives, Thompson had uncovered details about workshop customs and rituals, failed conspiracies, threatening letters, popular songs, and union club cards. He took what others had regarded as scraps from the archive and interrogated them for what they told us about the beliefs and aims of those who were not on the winning side.

Professors, as much as some of us want to deny it, are working class. We have rituals that seem bizarre to the uninitiated. We have long periods of apprenticeship in which we pick up these rituals. We have bosses that want to make us work harder for less pay. We even have common styles of dress.*

Academia is our house of labor, and MOOC providers are deliberately trying to tear down the door so that they can rush in and trash the place. To do this, they have to appeal to the same populist instincts that doomed earlier generations of skilled workers. After all, no other workers get tenure. This whole hatred of the “sage on the stage thing” is another example of technology putting the elitist professor in his or her place. But who are the real elitists here [h/t Undine]?:

No students at Irvine or Duke or Penn will be able to take any of these courses for credit, though. Matkin said UC-Irvine does not consider its Coursera courses, as currently constructed, to be worthy of its credit because “we do not control learning environment of these students…. There are 250,000 signups in our six courses, with open enrollment so anybody can sign up, and those anybodies can influence negatively the learning environment of students who are serious about taking it.”

One kind of education for people who can afford college tuition. A lesser kind of education for those who can’t.

But what about access and individual empowerment? If the entire world can’t go to college then something must be terribly wrong, right? This kind of thinking drives me absolutely bananas:

Bricks-and-mortar campuses are unlikely to keep up with the demand for advanced education: according to one widely quoted calculation, the world would have to construct more than four new 30,000-student universities per week to accommodate the children who will reach enrolment age by 2025 (see go.nature.com/mjuzhu), let alone the millions of adults looking for further education or career training.

So we’ll educate the entire world, but not do anything to provide jobs for them once they graduate? Let them pay through the nose for an inferior education, then blame lack of effort on the part of students for their inevitable un- or underemployment. Makes me think that that Edububble guy may have a better schtick than I first thought.

Or maybe not. I think the key omission in all those “college professors are a bunch of elitists” arguments is that we let students themselves into our house, not just by teaching them our respective disciplines but by looking after their best interests, sometimes even years after they graduate. In contrast, who invited all the for-profit vultures in directly through the front door of the University of California system? Administrators, of course. That they did in the name of students’ best interests only means that the powers that be there are steeped in the rhetoric of education reformers whose real goal is to destroy education. After all, what happens when Coursera and Udacity pull a Google Reader and decide that running all the MOOCs that UC students need to graduate no longer meets those companies’ longterm interests? The students will be left holding the bag.

The sad thing about comparing MOOC Madness to the work of E.P. Thompson (or just to the work of Madness for that matter) is that the English working class got crushed by industrialization (or Thatcherism). Most of us professors (even contingent faculty) are in a much better economic position than the machine breakers ever were. Unfortunately, as Thompson so beautifully demonstrated half a century ago, they had us beat hands down in the class consciousness department.

* My wife keeps begging me to get rid of my herringbone tweed jacket, but I always explain that sometimes I actually need to look like a professor.




3 responses

18 03 2013
Cooking with Clio

I am ready to get the Liberty Tree up and ready…now all we need is, as you say, a bit of class consciousness!

18 03 2013
AcaMOOCia RoundMOOC | Gerry Canavan

[…] * And @zunguzngu gets smashy: It is perhaps time to reconsider the problem of machine-wrecking in the early industrial history of Britain and other countries. Related:  […]

24 03 2013
Weekend Reading | Backslash Scott Thoughts

[…] Professors are a Working Class. […]

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