Dear Superprofessors: Your labor has value.

1 09 2013

Dear Superprofessors:

I know that I’ve been hard on y’all in the past, but to mark Labor Day today I wanted to give each and every one of you some useful info: Your labor has value. Now I know that many of you know this already (particularly you business proffies), but too many of you out there are charging MOOC providers and your own universities too little or even nothing for your services. Has the fame bug bit you that badly? I know you think you’re doing a public service, but you don’t teach face-to-face for free, do you? Why should running a MOOC be any different?

How many of you are selling yourselves short? That’s part of the problem because it’s impossible to say. I’m not going to dig out every link I’ve seen on this subject, but I know that Princeton’s Jeremy Adelman told readers of this blog (see the comments here) that he wasn’t charging anything to teach his Coursera World History MOOC. Duke’s Cathy Davidson told readers of her blog that she only got $10,000 for teaching her upcoming MOOC and that she was spending it all on the MOOC itself. Vanderbilt’s Derek Bruff has hinted (in a post that I can’t find now) that superprofessors there are getting paid, but he (quite rightly) didn’t want to tell how much. That would be the job of the superprofessors themselves.

Why you ask? Because asymmetric information about salaries, like hiding information about the true costs of MOOCs themselves, hurts your fellow superprofessors and it hurts us in the lumpenprofessoriate* too. Those of you who think of MOOC instruction as just a part of your regular duties are hurting the ability of other superprofs to be paid fairly for the countless hours of work that go into making any MOOC possible. Of course, the whole point of a MOOC is to build a machine that can go itself, but you don’t want other people to get rich off your labor do you? After all, without a professor out front your MOOC is just another computer program.

Come to think of it, do you even own the rights to your lectures? The copyright and intellectual property issues involved with MOOC creation must be enormous. Have you called a lawyer? Have you consulted the AAUP? I ask these questions because I’m afraid that some of you are setting a very bad precedent by giving your services away for free, a precedent that might make it much more difficult for the rest of us to make a living whether we teach MOOCs or not. So why don’t one of you just leak your contract to the Chronicle or IHE and get it over with? I bet they’ll be delighted to remove your name from the resulting story.

Then there’s what you’re doing to the value of teaching as a service. William Pannapacker (rightfully) points out how awful it is to teach solely out of love, but his context is always the adjunct problem. You folks at least have the economic and professional security so that you can afford to be magnanimous. However, if too many of you offer your services without proper compensation, then I’m afraid administrators everywhere are going to get used to thinking that teaching should be free – and if that happens then all the rest of us are even more screwed than we are already.

I do realize that this is something of a no-win situation for superprofessors everywhere. Stay silent or work for free and I hassle you. Make the size of your big payday known, and others will hassle you – probably harder than I am now. But here’s the thing: At some point you have to realize that you do not work in a vacuum. Teaching a MOOC or not teaching a MOOC, speaking out in favor of them or remaining silent – these things all have an effect on the rest of your profession. You can’t just declare that MOOCs are the future and let the chips fall where they may. You have the ability to influence what kind of future we’ll all face.

If you don’t know it, there’s more than one model of MOOCs out there. Unless your school has a noncompete agreement, you’re perfectly welcome to superprofess any way you want. So if the spirit moves you, you can help create not-for-profit collaborative MOOCs that will never cost any student a dime. Perhaps these efforts won’t make you famous, but at least you’ll have the solace of knowing that they’re a lot more benign than the for-profit model that you’re participating in now.



* Thanks to Marcus Fontaine for coining that term. Now I will proceed to beat it like a dead horse from now until the end of time in the hope that it catches on.



9 responses

1 09 2013
Chris Remple

Just for the sake of clarity, the lumpenproletariat is not a lower paid layer of the proletariat, but the layer so demoralized and beaten down that they prey on other layers of the working class – pimps, con men, Arizona waterfront property salesmen and so on. Are you really comparing the non-superprofessoriate to that layer?

1 09 2013
Jonathan Rees


Like Marcus said the analogy isn’t perfect since I don’t think we’re all awful, but have you ever heard of the adjunct problem? Also, Wikipedia tells me that it doesn’t have to be used as an insult. It can just mean members of the working class unlikely to achieve class consciousness, which is absolutely perfect.

3 09 2013

Oh, well done!

3 09 2013

Once upon a time, one of the times my AAUP chapter/CB agent was on strike at the University of Bridgeport, I ran into the president’s secretary, who lived near me. “You professors!” she scolded. “How dare you ask for a pay raise? You’re supposed to be dedicated to education!” “Wouldn’t you like a pay raise?” I asked her. “Of course, and I’d be entitled to it,” she said. “I don’t claim to love what I do!” So there you have it. Everybody else expects to get paid, and in a capitalistic society there’s nothing wrong with that. Why should the teaching profession be excluded?
Nowadays, as a contingent faculty member, I frequently find myself explaining why I’m refusing an invitation to work on some committee or other. “What’s the stipend?” I ask. This used to be greeted by merry in-on-the-joke laughter, until my full-time “colleagues” realized I wasn’t laughing. “What do you think the part of your salary that covers non-teaching responsibilities is for?” I ask. “YOU get paid to be on committees. If you allow part-time faculty to participate on (a few of) the same committees, evidently as a hobby, don’t you jeopardize your right to expect payment for your own participation?” A few people have actually gotten this point.
In fact, one of the hardships, for me, of being a part-timer is the loss of the advising, governance, and research components of my job. I actually love(d) governance and curriculum development work! Just like (some of) the teaching I do, I might actually do it for free, because I love it–if I didn’t need the money.
But my very excellent eye surgeon, who clearly loved his work, went right ahead and charged me (plenty) for the beautiful surgery he did on my broken eye socket. And I didn’t ask him how he dared.

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