Think of the children!

8 09 2011

It looks like I lied about not doing another post based on that seminar I attended last week. I wasn’t intending to write on it anymore, but I just saw something that I find interesting and particularly appropriate to the new theme of this blog. Upon my request, our facilitator sent me a bunch of links related to a Twitter history class experiment at UT-Dallas. I wasn’t going to post on it (since I did before), but one of those links was brand new to me and well worth reading, the professor’s notes explaining why she tried holding discussions through Twitter and what she learned:

Most educators would agree that large classes set in the auditorium-style classrooms limit teaching options to lecture, lecture, and more lecture. And most educators would also agree that this is not the most effective way to teach. I wanted to find a way to incorporate more student-centered learning techniques and involve the students more fully into the material. As the semester was starting, I considered how I might use the technology available through social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and others to create a more integrated classroom. I was primarily interested in finding a service that students could use IN the classroom in place of the standard classroom discussion (which would have been impossible with 90 students).

Of course, she’s right. It is better to have your discussions in 140 character snippets than to have no discussions at all. But, then again, why exactly has it come to this? The University of Texas at Dallas has a graduate history program. They even have teaching assistantships there (I checked), but apparently nobody they want to pay to run sections for a 90-student US History survey class.

Apparently, we need technology to make sure every student can get a college education. You say you think we should hire more faculty to teach them? That will cost students too much in tuition. Think of the children!* Think of the children! Won’t somebody please think of the children?!!!

There’s a piece in this week’s Economist about the advent of labor in brainwork. It’s well worth the read, but here’s the part that fits this discussion best:

David Autor, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), points out that the main effect of automation in the computer era is not that it destroys blue-collar jobs but that it destroys any job that can be reduced to a routine.

Any kind of teaching that can be reduced to a routine is, by definition, really bad teaching. Unfortunately, that’s not stopping most universities from trying to do this anyways. Put ninety students in a survey class, and the professor has to make compromises. Run an online discussion section with a hundred students, and professors will stop reading all the comments.

So yes, I am a certified “technoskpetic” because I support my own “full employment at a high wage with good benefits” (even though my wage isn’t really all that high in the great scheme of things). But I’m also a technoskeptic because I’m thinking of the children too. In fact, I bet I’m thinking about them a lot more than the administrators at the University of Texas at Dallas, and a whole lot more than the current Governor of that state.

I wonder if Rick Perry learned about Galileo at an online college.

* Who, of course, aren’t children at all in this case. But that’s a subject for a whole ‘nother post.


“Alright Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”

18 06 2013

“It’s time for teachers to rethink learning methods. I invite everyone along for the exhilarating ride.”

– Anant Agarwal of edX, “Online universities: it’s time for teachers to join the revolution,” The Observer, June 15, 2013.

Since I’m all for edtech, I’ve decided to take up Anant Agarwal’s call and become a star. Reversing myself on everything that I’ve ever written in this space on this subject, I’ve begun planning my own MOOC. The name of my MOOC?:

Class Consciousness for College Professors.

Can you think of a more underserved population than us with respect to this subject? As I wrote last year, the professoriate is the worst guild ever, so even impersonal learning on this vital subject is better than none at all. Besides that (at least in my experience) nobody starts (and then doesn’t finish) more MOOCs than college professors. But this MOOC will be different. Instead of learning for learning sake, my MOOC will be all about understanding your own self-interest, something that few of us outside of our business schools seem to understand.

Here’s a tentative outline of my syllabus:

Week 1: Introduction to Dialectical Materialism

I’m not a Marxist, but I can play one on stage, screen or computer screen. I did read The Marx-Engels Reader back when I was in college so I can teach this stuff, right? After all, dialectical materialism simply means that class is a relationship. When some get more, others get less. You’d think everyone in academia would know this since faculty have been getting much less for years now, right? Alas no, but college professors are smart enough to figure this out even if the pedagogy behind the system I teach it to them with has so much to be desired.

Everyone says we’re a bunch of leftists anyway. Let’s earn that reputation for once. If I had my druthers, this where I’d assign Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital. On page 94, he explains the urgency of my whole endeavor:

“The destruction of craftmanship during the period of the rise of scientific management did not go unnoticed by workers. Indeed, as a rule workers are far more conscious of such a loss while it is being effected than after after it has taken place and the new conditions of production have become generalized.”

Too bad this is a MOOC, which means that I can’t assign any reading at all unless it’s beyond copyright protection. Even then, there’d be no guarantee that anyone in the class would actually read it. With their research and their lecturing and their service and their so-called “professional development,” college professors are such slackers.

Have you heard? They even get summers off.

Week 2: You Are a Worker

Here’s a subject I know well! I have a job. I get a paycheck. A few weeks ago I (along with a lot of other people) was informed that even though my performance last year “exceeds expectations,” the State of Colorado hasn’t got enough money to give me a merit pay raise. In other words, I have little control of the terms and conditions of my employment, yet I continually read stuff like this (3rd comment):

Just as doctors are dedicated to their patients, professors should be dedicated to their students not job security, a hippocratic oath for professors if you will. As such, arguments against MOOCs should only be based on student benefits/disadvantages.

Sure, some of us have families or medical problems or the need to eat…anything…ever. Yet they tell us we have to think of the children (as well as the adults going back to college) so that they can get real jobs in the new global economy rather than our lame dying ones. Therefore, being a college professor means you can’t travel or accumulate goods like every other American consumer does. Did I mention those summers off?

Silly me, I thought the invisible hand meant that everyone should pursue their own self interest and everything would work out OK. Indeed, since my working conditions are student learning conditions, I figured that I actually was acting in the best interests of my students by sticking up for myself. Happy profs = better teaching.

That’s why I want to be a superprofessor, so that I can spread my message of professorial unity throughout the world, unemploying as many other professors as possible in its wake. Hmmmm, I think I detect a contradiction here. Perhaps I can create a MOOC with a self-destruct mechanism in it.

Week 3: “I’m Good Enough, I’m Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me!”

In 1996, I worked with another grad student who was far more radical than I, but who was going to vote for Bob Dole in order to “accelerate the revolution.” That hasn’t worked out too well yet, but there’s no reason not to try this line of attack with MOOCs. A recent Chronicle piece entitled “Why We Fear MOOCs” is my inspiration here:

What is not often acknowledged, however, is how our understanding of college has created and reinforced rigid social distinctions in American life. In previous generations, it was abundantly clear who had attended college and who had not. College graduates might speak differently, have different pursuits (theater versus television, for example), travel more, or read more books. Attending college served as a clear marker of social class…

Thus, being college-educated does not simply signify that one has completed a task; it is a facet of one’s identity.

My identity shouldn’t be tied into where I teach or how I teach because the imminent academic proletarian revolution will simply wipe those distinctions away. Down with hierarchies of all kinds (including the one that allows me to put food on my table)! Who ever heard of a well-fed radical?

But what if the revolution never comes? What if MOOCs are just a way for the oligarchs to hang onto power during the age of permanent austerity? That’s when I’ll explain to my new vassals all the wonderful opportunities for personal growth in our glorious all-online future. If you can’t be a trained professional, you can still be a personal trainer. Sure, it’s not like you went to grad school for seven years in order to do that, but you have to learn to think like an “edu-preneur.”

Besides, you can still make good money as a trainer. Certainly more than being an adjunct. Which is a nice segue into Week 4…

Week 4: Meet Your Adjuncts.

You may not be an adjunct, but you certainly could have been. No matter what your discipline or where you went to graduate school, quirks of supply, demand or timing might have led to your adjunctification. As the irreplaceable William Pannapacker writes:

I have known too many extraordinarily talented and productive long-term adjuncts to believe that academe is a meritocracy. And I have known too many long-suffering academic-labor activists to believe that such people are enemies of higher education. They are often the only friends that a demoralized job seeker can find, the only ones who acknowledge that the inability to land a tenure-track position is not entirely the fault of the individual alone, that it is a systemic problem.

This may explain why the vast majority of tenure track faculty couldn’t pick their own adjuncts out of a lineup. We wouldn’t want anybody challenging our assumptions, would we?

To be fair, knowing my adjuncts is easy for me as we invite them to the (catered) introductory department meeting every year. However, as they tend to get the worst class times, I’m never on campus at the same time of some of them again. The lesson here is that you have to make the effort to build a relationship. Your adjuncts are too busy.

I’ll definitely use guest lecturers this week because I have so many fine people from from which to choose. Of course, I’ll pay them nothing because they’ll willingly work just for the exposure. After all, aren’t they just doing this out of love? If that’s not enough, they can put it on their cvs for next year’s job market. Of course, that won’t make a difference anyways since too many people think they’re already damaged goods. I’ll correct that impression during my MOOC.

Obviously this week’s assignment will be for everyone to go introduce themselves to their adjuncts. After that, peers in the class will quiz you on their names. What’s that you say? You want to know what happens if an adjunct signs up for my MOOC? That won’t be an issue because they already know the material backwards and forwards as they live the need for class consciousness every day.

Extra credit for saying “Hello” to them in the hall later.

Week 5: We Are at War Already

Did you actually read that Agarwal essay? It’s a direct shot at the bow of professorial class consciousness:

Moocs make education borderless, gender-blind, race-blind, class-blind and bank account-blind. Up to now, quality education – and in some cases, any higher education at all – has been the privilege of the few. Moocs have changed that. Anyone with an internet connection can have access. We hear from thousands of students, many in under-served, developing countries, about how grateful they are for this education.

Race, class, gender and nationality all in the same paragraph! How can we let our petty concerns (like eating or retiring someday) get in the way of ending every social problem of our time? Of course, if we educate everybody everywhere and do nothing to change the structural injustices of the global economy, everybody but the luckiest few will remain in the exact same position before MOOCification began. My MOOC will fix that problem by teaching professors to teach students to help themselves. Of course, if they do it through MOOCs they’ll be cutting the throats of their fellow professors, at least until the real revolution comes. A good revolutionary doesn’t bother with internal consistency.

Then there’s Agarwal’s absolute enormous straw man argument about what MOOCs aim to replace:

Students have always been critical of large lecture halls where they are talked at, and declining lecture attendance is the result. But today we see that there is deep educational value in interactive learning, both online and in the classroom. Colleges and universities are beginning to use Moocs to make blended courses where online videos replace lectures, and class time is spent interacting with the professor, teaching staff and other students.

I’ll let Audrey Watters give him the history of edtech speech if she’s so inclined. What I’m interested in is the way that Agarwal conflates giant lecture halls with the entirety of higher education. He knows that’s wrong. We know that’s wrong. Even if we have 500 students in a class, we can still flip our classrooms anytime we want to without having to use somebody else’s content. If you won’t let somebody else pick your textbook for you, why on earth would you outsource your own content? What did you spend all those years in graduate school for then?

This piece is so out of touch with reality that it makes me think that the whole pitch isn’t really directed at professors or teachers at all. It’s pure public relations, designed to get angry torch-bearing mobs appearing outside university buildings demanding fresh non-superprofessors to satiate their lust for blood. Or maybe it’s a superprofessor recruiting pitch because as a pitch for victims suckers MOOC consumers it’s really weak tea.

Week 6: The Futility of MOOCs

You’ve heard of the MOOC to end all MOOCs?I’ve decided that the only way to match the tremendous reach of MOOCs is to use a MOOC to teach the futility of MOOCs. Don’t believe me? 90% dropout rates should be your first clue. To quote Rebecca Raphael:

“There is simply no way to mass-scale the real attention of another human being.”

Who cares if not everybody gets this lesson because it’s being mass-scaled. Professors are smart people. They can figure it out for themselves, right? And if they don’t, they’ll be going the way of the dodo soon anyway.

Too sum up then (à la Ian Bogost):

1. MOOCs are futile as teaching tools.
2. This is a MOOC.
3. Therefore, this MOOC is futile.

OK…nevermind. I guess I’ll just accept my upcoming obsolescence like a good cog in the machine. I wish I had a mansion and a crazy German butler to help assuage the disappointment, but I’ll have to make do with once having been big in Connecticut.

What if the cure is worse than the disease?

18 02 2013

On Friday, Aaron Bady (who I seem to get all my MOOC material from these days) was Twitter-fisking an absolutely appalling 2012 report (.pdf) on “disaggregating” higher education from the American Enterprise Institute.  It argues:

Entrepreneurs see a window of opportunity because higher education has become far too expensive for many students. Rather than embracing innovations that have swept over the rest of the economy, boosting productivity, lowering prices, and improving quality, most colleges and universities have chosen to batten down the hatches, raise tuition, and hope for the best.

This is a common position among edtech entrepreneurs.  Indeed, when they tell us to “Think of the children!,”  that’s why.  Cutting costs is supposedly all on behalf of the students and (unless you’re from the American Enterprise Institute) not for the people who’ll be at the receiving end of the redirected money stream at all.

Unfortunately, using distance learning and MOOCs to cut the cost of instruction is like cutting off an arm when the patient’s leg is infected with gangrene because that’s not the site of the problem.  Here’s a Times article from last year on the subject I found thanks to Frank Pasquale that explains the real problem:

It is this cumulative public divestment — and not extravagances like climbing walls or recreational centers advertised on a few elite campuses — that is primarily responsible for skyrocketing tuitions at state institutions, which enroll three out of every four college students.

Colleges have found ways to hold costs per student relatively steady. Since 1985, the average amount that public institutions spend on teaching each full-time student over the course of a year has barely budged, hovering around an inflation-adjusted $10,000, according to a State Higher Education Executive Officers report. But in the same period, the share of instruction costs paid for by actual tuition — not the sticker price, but the amount students actually pay after financial aid — has nearly doubled, to 40 percent from 23 percent.

In theory it’s possible that technologically-enabled cuts in the instruction budget could be passed on to students through lower tuition, but universities have too many other cost centers that technology can’t cure that will still be growing – the growing number of administrators, obscenely high administrative salaries, sports, climbing walls in the gym, energy costs, and let’s not forget debt servicing on all that unnecessary campus construction.

The other thing that MOOC enthusiasts tend to forget is that setting up the infrastructure to run their precious babies is expensive in and of itself.  Sure, Coursera and the large universities that are home for these MOOCs are eating the start-up costs, but they’re doing so in anticipation of future revenue later.  That revenue will likely come, at least in part, from licensing those courses to other schools who will charge MOOC participants for credit.  There goes part of the technology discount right there.  Then there’s the cost of the police state that all those schools  will have to set up in order to prevent their MOOC students from cheating.

Perhaps I’m overly cynical, but I think the real root of MOOC-mania is an edifice complex on the part of university presidents and trustees.  The last time I checked, the average university president in this country served for about four years before moving on to greener pastures.  It used to be that the easiest way to leave a legacy on campus would be to build something.  With bond financing nearly impossible to come by these days, the easiest (but not necessarily least expensive) way to build something is to create a virtual campus.

The really neat thing about taking this route is that you get to give lots of really clever speeches filled with buzzwords that make you sound like a dynamic leader.  Check out the President of MIT, for example:

President L. Rafael Reif has announced the creation of an Institute-Wide Task Force on the Future of MIT Education, saying that the stunning rise of online learning may “offer us the historic opportunity to reinvent the residential campus model and perhaps redefine education altogether.”

Of course, MIT isn’t going anywhere, but what happens to those schools that replace face-to-face classes with MOOCs as a cost-cutting device rather than as a brand extension strategy?  They won’t be able to shove the genie back in the bottle because disaggregation is forever.  Those faculty they’ll have to let go won’t be coming back.  What’s being pitched as inevitable is actually quite a gamble for most schools.

On the other hand, higher education reform could go down another path entirely.  “Imagine,” Adam Kotsko supposed last week:

if we actually invested money in improving instruction rather than actively degrading it for the hope of greater efficiency!

This gave me a scary thought:  What if the real point of disaggregating higher education is to kill the patient rather than to save it?  What kind of legacy would that leave?

“Teamsters in tweed?” I wish.

11 02 2013

Beating up on Clay Shirky is something of a sport amongst the people I follow on Twitter, and that sport was particularly popular last week when this article came out.  The line that got the most derision had nothing to do with MP3s or Napster or even MOOCs.  Instead it was this:

“But when someone threatens to lower the price [of education] then we start behaving like Teamsters in tweed.”

Now that sentence is freighted with an enormous number of assumptions (all of which are insulting to Teamsters), but Shirky’s real purpose here is to shame his fellow faculty members.  He seems to think that the proper response to MOOC-ification is for all of us to sit back and let “progress” run its course.  That’s easy for an Internet expert with a job at NYU to imply, but what’s a community college professor who’s about to become a glorified teaching assistant supposed to do when MOOCs threaten his or her ability to pay their bills?

I say they should behave more like Teamsters.

Perhaps Shirky picked the phrase “Teamsters in tweed” for alliterative purposes, but I think he deliberately wanted to invoke the violent reputation of that union as a means of creating enough guilt to stop faculty everywhere from sticking up for themselves.  Or maybe he’s arguing that resistance is simply futile.  Even if it is, that resistance is absolutely crucial if displaced faculty ever want to get anything in exchange for their displacement.  The only intelligent thing to do when someone wants to make your job obsolete is to organize.

Does this kind of talk make me sound like a Teamster?  Good.  If there’s anything I’ve learned in my fifteen-odd years of being a professor it’s that most administrators think that the class divide ends at the edge of campus.  It doesn’t.  [Go talk to an adjunct sometime if you don’t believe me.]  Yet the powers that be generally want to act as if every professor is part of a big, happy family even when they’re not.

Running a university during the age of permanent austerity means convincing faculty to put in the greatest amount of effort at the lowest possible cost.  Yelling “Think of the children!” every time people in power want to cut somebody’s salary (using technology to do so or not) is simply a business strategy.  What just kills me is how well this con works on most of my colleagues across academia.

As I’ve written over and over at this blog, the wonderful thing about the online education/MOOC debate is that by sticking up for ourselves we professors ARE thinking of the children since a lousy higher education for almost everyone is of no use to anyone, especially the students who pay for it.  That doesn’t mean my job is special.  It simply means that the quality of the service I provide is just as important as the price when determining its longterm value.

While this rant may seem a tad radical to some readers, all I’m really saying here is that labor and management need to sit down together and work out issues of mutual interest from a position of mutual respect and relative equality.  The Teamsters call this process “collective bargaining.”  In academia, unless we’re lucky enough to work in a union shop, we call it “shared governance.”

Shared governance?  Hasn’t the Internet made that obsolete?  Well, it will if we aren’t willing to fight for it.

“Suicide Squad…attack.”

29 05 2012

I hate to pick on Kate as she’s so nice. Besides, this post is smart and reasonable in its own way. It’s also so much better than the technological utopian day-dreaming that I often find myself reading. Still, her analogy is really useful for helping me make my point here:

A couple of miles away from the place where I grew up is this beautiful Iron Age hill fort…Within the inner circle are the remaining stone foundations of an original castle, and—critically—the well that stored water for the whole settlement. Soldiers controlled the resources in the middle, and the villagers and clergy lived in the outer circle, in wooden buildings of which nothing remains. In the early 12th century, exasperated by disputes with the castle guard over access to the well, the clergy took off with the community and restablished the city in a new location, where it still is today.

It’s a metaphorical stretch, but for me this decisive, strategic and disruptive move is a caution to those who are guarding the well of traditional higher education. For a long time, we’ve held the inner circle, letting prescribed numbers in across narrow bridges that we also control. We’ve enjoyed the security of higher ground, protected by an impressive moat. But here’s the tricky part: we only get to do this as long as the whole village accepts the way in which we manage their resources.

In other words, we’re not kept in business by market demand for the service we supply, but by taxpayer-voter consensus that a public higher education system is national infrastructure worth funding, even though the majority of the population don’t get to use it.

Perhaps I should have found a Holy Grail clip to respond to this one. Nevertheless, this kind of argument always reminds me of the suicide squad from Life of Brian because no army worth its salt would give up their fort or their village voluntarily. Maybe they’ll fight to the death. Maybe they’ll negotiate a surrender that will guarantee them their lives. Maybe the soldiers will open access to the well, but get some nice land to tend somewhere outside the castle walls in return. Only academics and the Judean People’s Front will up and kill themselves before the battle or even the process of negotiations ever starts.

The American financier Jay Gould once said famously that he could hire half the working class to kill the other half. Something similar might be said of professors. The super-professors work for Gould, but they aren’t going to constitute anywhere near half the professoriate that we have now. In this case though, I at least understand their motives. The rest of us are bringing a knife to a gun fight – or worse yet, no weapon at all.

For so many academics, all you have to do is say “Think of the children!” and rational self interest flies out the window. The founders of Udemy aren’t thinking about the children. The founders of Coursera aren’t thinking of the children. [And if I’m wrong, and students are somewhere down there on their list of concerns, they certainly aren’t thinking about what happens to the professors they want to displace.] I, however, am thinking of students, thank you very much, even if I’m also thinking about the fate of myself and others like me too.

American higher education doesn’t have an access problem because the face-to-face relationship between teachers and students has somehow failed. It has an access problem because the number of administrators has exploded, the pay of university presidents has become obscene, football programs at all levels are engaged in an eternal arms race with each other and directors of admissions insist that universities need to have not one but two climbing walls in the gym in order to attract the best students. Most importantly, American higher education has an access problem because state and federal revenues have dried up since the one percent don’t want to help anybody but themselves.

Fully funding public higher education not only benefits the mostly underpaid professors (adjunct and otherwise) who work in the current system. It creates better-educated students than you’d get if you just sit them in front of a computer screen and make them watch tapes of super-professors all day. Direct interaction isn’t just key to the educational process. It’s key to the social dynamics that make real learning possible.

Professors welcoming the advent of MOOCs are therefore, to my mind at least, worse than suicidal. They’re a distraction from fighting the battle that really matters, namely the fight for a quality education for everyone who can directly benefit from it. Offing yourself before that battle is even over isn’t going to help anyone.

Kindles are for suckers.

21 05 2011

I love I really do. I remember when I lived in Walla Walla, Washington where the only book store was about the size of my apartment. Their long tail stopped me from being bored out of my head all year. Look inside the book? Great. Competition for iTunes? Great. The Kindle? Not so much.

I’ve been kind of ambivalent about the Kindle previously. As a devoted reader, I had the typical electronics lust for it that most people like me probably had when it first came out. Then I read this article by Nicholson Baker in the New Yorker, which made me wonder whether it was all worth the trouble. As time has passed, I have become actively hostile.

It’s not as if I hate all e-books. They’re good for research purposes, and I’ve sold a few myself but when the Kindle edition of my book came out, the publisher set the price at $27.95. They also raised the price of the hardback by $5.05. It’s the difference between the electronic and physical copy of the book that matters, I figured, not the cost of the book itself.

What sent me over the edge is when I saw that is charging more for the Kindle version of David McCullough’s new book than they are for the hardback (at least as of the moment that I’m writing this). This tells me that the pricing for Kindle editions has become totally untethered from economic reality, and that can’t be good for consumers. Certainly, it costs more to produce the physical book than it does to deliver the e-version. All the savings from an electronic edition of McCullough’s book are therefore flowing to Amazon rather than readers. Readers should demand better.

Instead, believes that their Kindle customers are willing to pay more for this fleeting edition than they are for the thing which is permanent. Indeed, since Amazon can delete books from your Kindle for a whole host of reasons, they’re fleeting even if you never get to the capacity of the machine. You’re just renting the right to read them. If you use your Kindle for almost everything you read, it will fill up eventually. What are you going to do with your extra books? Buy a new Kindle?

Books are an excellent technology that have served mankind for hundreds of years. Kindles, among other problems, seem to freeze up on a lot of people. They’re also going to be obsolete pretty soon so I don’t understand is why anyone would pay more for an electronic version of something that works better in the real world. Megan McCardle offers one explanation:

But I doubt that many of the kids starting school now will build up the same kind of personal reference system around print books, any more than most children of the 1920s bothered to learn how to hitch up a team properly. To them, print books will seem ponderous and slow–what we find serene and undistracting, they will find as annoying as making your own Jello out of calve’s feet and eggshells.

That’s it! Think of the children!!! Yet college students overwhelmingly prefer physical textbooks to electronic versions. Apparently, Florida is mandating that all textbooks in schools there be e-books by 2016. Are they doing that for the kids? Of course not. They’re doing that to save money. Those savings come from the difference between the price of the physical book and the price concession that the state can extract out of publishers. Amazon customers can do no such thing because they can’t demand bulk pricing. Amazon can pocket all the cost savings from the e-book versus the physical version.

Amazon should be giving their machines away for free. Instead, people pay for the privilege of renting books from them. Buy a Kindle and you’re just encouraging them to rip you off more. Yes, I know that a lot of people are encouraging them these days. We’ll see how they feel when their Kindles become dinosaurs. Physical books, on the other hand, will last longer than any particular operating system (as long as you don’t abuse them).

So don’t be a sucker, buy paper. Then you can really stick it to the man by loaning your book out for a while after you’ve finished reading it.

Professors gotta eat too.

23 03 2011

Kudos to Stanley Fish for having the courage to change his mind:

In over 35 years of friendship and conversation, Walter Michaels and I have disagreed on only two things, and one of them was faculty and graduate student unionization. He has always been for and I had always been against. I say “had” because I recently flipped and what flipped me, pure and simple, was Wisconsin.

When I think about the reasons (too honorific a word) for my previous posture I become embarrassed. They are by and large the reasons rehearsed and apparently approved by Naomi Schaefer Riley in her recent op-ed piece “Why unions hurt higher education” (USA Today). The big reason was the feeling — hardly thought through sufficiently to be called a conviction — that someone with an advanced degree and scholarly publications should not be in the same category as factory workers with lunch boxes and hard hats.

That article mentioned in Fish’s piece is a real piece of work:

But the unions could in turn make the environment more left-leaning. As historian KC Johnson wrote in an article on the perils of academic unions, “Since few academics enter the profession to become labor activists, those who gravitate toward union service are more likely to fall on the fringes of a professoriate that already is ideologically one-sided.”

What kills me about that line of thinking is that it’s based upon results rather than actions. Professors might turn out radical if you deny them adequate compensation and a voice. The same thing would presumably happen to the Sarah Palin Fan Club if you put them in a similar position. If you expect smart people to act contrary to their own self interest, you are bound to be disappointed.

The same is true with this argument:

The rise of adjunct labor is also an important reason that faculty have been increasingly open to organizing. With the job market in academia so competitive and positions so unstable, many professors have decided that if they can’t have tenure, they’ll take the security of a union instead. Of course, plenty of faculty members have both. And with that sort of belt-and-suspenders security you can expect that even the laziest, most incompetent or radical professor won’t get fired.

So tenure is a reason why we shouldn’t have unions and unions are a reason why we shouldn’t have tenure. What if we just want to do whatever it takes to help ourselves? I certainly hope they have a better argument available than “associating with factory workers isn’t becoming.”

By the way, “Think of the children!” probably isn’t going to work either.

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