One of these days these MOOCs are gonna walk all over you.

11 04 2013

If you think this blog is depressing to read, then imagine how depressing it is to write. To be fair, academia today really is depressing (at least if you actually try to understand everything that’s going on in it), but at least my friend Kate has given me a good excuse to get depressed about something new:

There’s no other way to say it: just keeping up with an academic job means that I habitually shortchange the people that I really love, and I’ve made very little contribution to the community where I live, even on things that are important to me. Half a kilometre from my house is a community garden; right under my nose is a mountain of email, grading, a wildly overdue book contract and administration. Take a guess.

I’m not an exception in this. Looking around me I see colleagues figuring out how much work they can secretly do while their kids are watching TV, how many emails they can answer or papers they can grade at the soccer game, how many family occasions they can miss or somehow multitask, whether or not they really have time to go to the gym. Then there are quieter conversations about alcohol, fatigue, shame and depression.

By all means read the whole thing. It will really help you put everything in perspective. So does this interview with the journalist (ex anthropolgist) Sarah Kendzior:

Realize that people in academia have a warped and limited view of what constitutes “success.” Academia has been described as a cult, and when you leave a cult, you have to shake off its values and judgments. Only in academia is working four adjunct jobs for less than 10K a year “success” while working a non-academic job that provides personal satisfaction or a living wage “failure.” A profession that exploits people’s fear to staff its positions is not one to which you owe loyalty.

Of course, it’s not just fear that academia exploits. It’s also your willingness to sacrifice the kinds of things that Kate describes in the name of education. This goes triple if you’re one of the 76% of university faculty who are adjuncts. You don’t even get a living wage to do what you do, yet your teaching is mostly judged with the same standards as those of us who do.

That’s one of many reasons that we faculty are almost all part of the same sinking navy, even if adjuncts are much, much closer to the waterline than the rest of us. To make matters worse, the captains of our respective ships have no qualms about throwing anyone overboard. No gratitude. No loyalty.*

The best sign of that attitude is that too many of the powers that be are chomping at the bit to replace you with a MOOC – often nothing but a videotaped superprofessor and a discussion forum in many cases – because they want to save money. As if they aren’t saving enough money on adjuncts already, who, as Karen Gregory points out, are likely to feel most of the initial impact of MOOCification anyway. Unless you’re a superprofessor who signed a non-exploitive contract, there’s no guarantee that you won’t be next. Perhaps that might even explain why so many smart and gifted teachers are willing to become superprofessors in the first place despite the obvious flaws of MOOCs as instructional tools.

How long can these superprofessors play with fire?  “You keep thinking you’re never going to get burned,” sang Nancy Sinatra back in the day. Unfortunately, so many of us are working so hard that we might not even notice when that happens to us, assuming we haven’t been burned already.

* Don’t even start with me on higher ed being just like any other business. Academia is not just like any other business. In fact, it’s not a business at all. It isn’t supposed to turn a profit, and even if it was who says that systematically shortchanging your employees is the best way to make money?



5 responses

11 04 2013
Music for Deckchairs

Hi Jonathan

It’s not all gloom over at the deckchairs — I’m actually feeling quite positive that we are all still speaking up, both coherently and collaboratively, about the common concerns about health, wellbeing and values that we share in higher education, especially as our institutions grapple with austerity. Probably just in time, looking at the political and economic weather systems building up around us.

Thanks so much for the mention.


11 04 2013
Cooking with Clio

I’ll be honest, Jonathan, reading this blog is enough. I really can’t imagine writing it…but thank you for doing it. I think we all need to keep up with the various fronts on which we are being threatened (ok, attacked really), and your blog really does help. My baby is sleeping and I am not grading right now…aaaaarrrrrgggghhhh

12 04 2013
Contingent Cassandra

Agreed, to all of the above, especially the vulnerabilities that the overuse of contingent faculty create for *all* faculty. Do keep in mind, however, that not all of the 76% of faculty who are contingent are part-time. In fact, I suspect there are growing numbers of people in positions like mine: full-time , with a multi-year contract and benefits,but no hope of tenure, significantly higher course loads (4/4 as compared to 2/2 or, in a few cases of older faculty, 3/3, at my institution) and significantly lower pay (c. 2/3 of the starting wage for TT faculty, even for FT contingent faculty with the same education and much more experience). Also, we don’t do service (to allow for the 4/4), which works out to considerably less real participation in curriculum and governance (but more work, proportionately, for our TT colleagues).

Our positions, which look pretty good in the various rating/accreditation schemes (the occupants are full-time, and most have terminal degrees), are indeed a major improvement over PT contingent positions with even lower pay and no benefits, but they may actually erode the arguments for traditional TT teaching/research/service positions, especially those in the humanities, even more, by treating both service and research as “extras.” My department is up to the university-mandated limit on such positions (30% of full-time faculty). I thought we were an anomaly, until I looked at my institution’s statistics, and found that the institution overall is at 30% (NYU is up to 50%, and TT faculty are getting worried: ). So, as with the overuse of part-time contingent faculty, the temporary and/or situation-specific response that each department was able to get approved by administration — and that they probably congratulated themselves upon because it was clearly more humane that hiring more part-timers in response to the labor needs that, if they had their druthers, would be met by new tenure lines — is beginning to look a lot like a new, very different model of FT faculty work.

16 04 2013
Will the last non-super professor in academia please turn out the lights when they leave? | More or Less Bunk

[…] realize that I’ve been kind of shrill lately, but this kind of complacency just scares me to death. Yes, skilled iron and steel workers […]

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