Dear Superprofessors: This is how a labor market works…

3 05 2013

I know I’m late to the party on this, but that letter to Harvard’s Michael Sandel from the San Jose State (SJSU) Philosophy Department really is quite wonderful. I’m going to try to take up its implications with respect to academic freedom and shared governance over at the Academe blog as soon as I get my grading done, but what I want to discuss here is the way that those nice folks in California actually called out Sandel, not just their administrators.

You can see this most clearly at the very end of the letter:

“We respect your desire to expand opportunities for higher education to audiences that do not now have the chance to interact with new ideas. We are very cognizant of your long and distinguished record of scholarship and teaching in the areas of political philosophy and ethics. It is in a spirit of respect and collegiality that we are urging you, and all professors involved with the sale and promotion of edX-style courses, not to take away from students in public universities the opportunity for an education beyond mere jobs training. Professors who care about public education should not produce products that will replace professors, dismantle departments, and provide a diminished education for students in public universities.”

Sandel, to his credit, responds the way faculty everywhere would hope he would:

“The last thing I want is for my online lectures to be used to undermine faculty colleagues at other institutions.”

The question then becomes what happens when the rubber meets the road. I’ve observed a common attitude among superprofessors that they’re unquestionably providing a service for humanity by taping their lectures. I think it seeps down from the propaganda of the MOOC providers. For example, there’s a prime specimen of this in today’s Washington Post:

To be clear, Lander himself does not suggest that his videos should replace what biology faculty do from day to day. But MOOCs such as his might offer some professors elsewhere a chance to spend less time preparing and delivering lectures and more time working hands-on with students.

“Everything in education should be about the value that can be added by having the real teacher there,” Lander said in an interview. “The mistake is the idea that this [MOOC] replaces the teacher. That’s crazy.”

Yes, but your MOOC empowers crazy people. As the SJSU Philosophy Department niftily explains in that letter:

“Let’s not kid ourselves; administrators at the CSU are beginning a process of replacing faculty with cheap online education.”

So, Michael Sandel and other superprofessors, what exactly are you going to do about this? Are you going to stall and make believe that budgetary austerity does not exist anywhere in academia or are you going to stand on the side of the other members of your discipline and your profession? If the folks at SJSU are too distant for you, how about your own graduate students? Are you going to make them compete against your own taped lectures for teaching work long after you’re retired or dead?

Inquiring minds want to know.

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18 responses

3 05 2013
Vim, Ph.D. (@Exhaust_Fumes)

What I want to know is this: how do people imagine profs like me using those lectures to save time? How does it save me time and allow me more time to work hands on with students? I have no idea how the equation is supposed to work. preparing lectures takes me far less time than the hands on stuff, because like Lander, I HAVE A PHD IN MY SUBJECT & KNOW HOW TO LECTURE ON RESEARCH in my field. What a weird conception of other people’s jobs some have…

3 05 2013

I think that people who are stating that profs can use those lectures to save time aren’t really thinking about (a) what they’re saying ie they don’t understand the implications of what they’ve just said…and (b) they think that if you as a prof can use these other lectures then perhaps in the long run there’s money to be saved….since after all if one prof can give a lecture over the ‘net and it can be re-used then why can’t it be re-used and all those other profs aren’t necessary.

I have to say that I think that those people who tend to make statements on these MOOCs possibly AREN’T thinking about the consequences of these MOOCs and they’re seeing them as a bandwagon/cool fad to follow. It strikes me that perhaps those people who are making statements aren’t as educated or aware of the fact that its very hard to use those lectures to save time since as you say time is required to prepare hands on stuff for students. The problem here is that lots of people are pronouncing on situations that they may not be qualified to do so.

3 05 2013
Jonathan Rees

It’s worse than that, Anthea. They’re actually proud that they don’t know what they’re talking about. They think it’s an asset.

4 05 2013
Clockwork Professor

That is precisely what scares me (and the profs who,wrote the letter). It’s all about cost savings. Use the MOOC, hire adjuncts to use a standard rubric to assess, and boom! Cost savings galore!

3 05 2013

I’m suddenly reminded of one of the strongest negative remarks a student could make, back in my student days: “His lecture notes are yellow with age. You don’t have to go to class–just get the notes from somebody who took the course before.” It was actually a BAD thing, in our eyes, for a professor to recycle his lectures. So what would this say about MOOCs?

4 05 2013
Clockwork Professor

This is the exact same thought that I had! It is astonishing to me that this is now considered the way to go. But it is all about saving money. In an era where at least at state levels, support for higher education has diminished, schools are scrambling for cost savings. Hence the steep rise in the number of adjuncts, and the shift to online, where the courses are “canned” (For example ours hadn’t been updated in 10 years) and the grading can be done by adjuncts.

3 05 2013
Cooking with Clio

As a CSU faculty member I am too well aware of the attempts our system and government are making to replace us with MOOCs and other cheap forms of online education…and it really makes me hopping mad, out in the streets with pitchforks mad, that folks who want to be even more famous at elite institutions do not see or care to think about how disastrous all of this will be for those poor, deprived students they claim to want to help! As one of my profs in grad school said, they are probably too busy being disappointed and hurt that they aren’t at an even better institution or in an endowed chair to think about the rest of us…

3 05 2013
Cooking with Clio

Reblogged this on rowanberrywine and commented:
For my friends in California…food for thought!

4 05 2013
MOOCs, shared governance and academic freedom. | Academe Blog

[…] sharp published criticism of someone who’s decided to teach a MOOC. [I've written about that here.] But it’s also the first serious public attention that I’ve seen given to what […]

5 05 2013

Imagine lectures going public after the invention of the book press. If someone could benefit from reading a lecture instead of hearing it in a crowded classroom, then let the student (the family, the employer, the community, etc.) decide on the value of content transmitted in this alternative medium. Internet is only a medium. If faculty do not add value, they will become extinct like many other respected and popular occupations have in the course of history. If they make a difference, they do not have to worry. I do not believe that canned lectures replicating dominant centuries-old instructional formats can revolutionize learning. It takes a lot more to succeed in the real world. But I certainly can benefit from new ideas shared online by original thinkers. Let the consumer decide.

5 05 2013

“Let the consumer decide”…. Which consumer? The parents who trustingly fork over their dollars, or go into debt, for the sake of their kids’ degrees–the more “prestigious” the better–without really understanding much about how the school works? The students who have nothing to compare with what they’re getting (the same students who fill out faculty evaluations according to the grades they’re getting or how much fun the class is)? The celebrated-man-on-the-street who eats at McDonald’s because it’s fast and cheap, instead of cooking at home or going down the street to somewhere a little pricier maybe but with a more healthful menu? The consumer who fills her closet with bright, cheap clothes with no consideration for the wellbeing or safety of the worker half a world away who keeps those costs down? The voter who chooses to elect people solely on the basis of what Rush Limbaugh says? Anyway, education is NOT, NOT, NOT a product that can be “consume”d; it’s an unending and complex process. And all these people who are making MOOCs, or contracting for MOOCs, benefited themselves from the kind of education they are now saying is passé, inefficient, not “worth” it. Then are they willing to step down or step aside, since their own educations evidently stand for nothing?
Sorry if I sound pissed off. I’ve been in higher education for forty years and have watched it get sold off and given away and taken away piece by piece…and STILL I believe in its essential value, if only we could sort our way back to the essence.

5 05 2013

The consumers you mentioned are certainly the product of the pre-MOOC era. Apparently, many brick-and-mortar educators either (1) knowingly contributed to or (2) comfortably ignored or (3) were incapable to oppose their advent. Either option is immoral. As I mentioned, canned lectures will only perpetuate these vice of consumerism, while parents and students will keep their options open and continue doing exactly what you are saying with their money and learning choices. Well, there are many ways to control online and paper publishing as well as education in general: China, North Korea, the Nazi Germany and the Communist Russia are good current or recent examples to follow. I believe in the essential value of education just like you do. But I see nothing wrong with the content distributed virtually with yet another medium. Will students learn? Most likely not, because this is an extension of the teaching models conceptually conceived in and widely practiced since the 19th century. What I am trying to say is that the sky is not falling, and if faculty want outperform global lecturers they certainly can do it transforming outdated instructional practices, learning outcomes and adding real value. And I agree: this is not easy. But there is no substitute for the mentor.

5 05 2013

I mentioned those consumers not as products of any particular style of education but as examples of “consumers” who don’t give me confidence in them as “deciders”–to quote one of our wordsmiths–of our future or of professions beyond their ken. I consider myself fairly well educated and fairly aware; but though I would say I could make a reasonable choice of surgeons, I wouldn’t feel qualified to make a choice of experimental surgical techniques. I’m made further uneasy by your implied equation between distributing “content,” presumably with the help of some unspecified facilitator, and actual education as a shared and interactive process between real people (some of whom are experts) and involving both near- and long-term “outcomes” and “added value.”

5 05 2013
Weekend Reading | Backslash Scott Thoughts

[…] Dear Superprofessors, This is How a Labor Market Works. […]

6 05 2013
The “Down With MOOCs” World Tour, 2013-14. | More or Less Bunk

[…] grades are in, the post I promised on Friday is up at the Academe blog and now I have (different) work to do. I need to prepare to take my show […]

6 05 2013
Monday round-up: endless semester edition : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

[…] to Undine at Not of General Interest and Jonathan Rees at More or Less Bunk.  (Don’t miss Jonathan’s post about the letter from the San Jose State University Philosophy Department to a… explaining why they have refused to outsource their teaching to him, and the Superprofessor’s […]

25 06 2013
How do you get people to do what they don’t want to do? | More or Less Bunk

[…] Leddy of the now legendary San Jose State Philosophy department, in “Are MOOCs Good for Students?,” tackles this […]

9 07 2014
Even superprofessors deserve academic freedom. | The Academe Blog

[…] on the marquis that attracts tens of thousands of eyeballs to the course. While I am not a big fan of superprofessors in general, I am more than willing to defend their academic freedom in the […]

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