“[A]nd the number of the counting shall be three.”

16 04 2014

While I was making my way home from Atlanta on Sunday, a whole bunch of my virtual and actual friends were still at the Organization of American Historians annual meeting discussing whether blogging is scholarship. While I’m sorely tempted to weigh in on this question myself, I think I’d rather follow Mike O’Malley’s example and consider exactly what scholarship is. Or to put it a slightly different way, what and who is scholarship for? Or maybe just why scholarship?

What’s sent me down this path before I even saw O’Malley’s post is this rather amazing article from Smithsonian (which I found via Rebecca Schuman, who’s probably still laughing her ass off about this days after she first read it):

“There are a lot of scientific papers out there. One estimate puts the count at 1.8 million articles published each year, in about 28,000 journals. Who actually reads those papers? According to one 2007 study, not many people: half of academic papers are read only by their authors and journal editors, the study’s authors write.

But not all academics accept that they have an audience of three. There’s a heated dispute around academic readership and citation—enough that there have been studies about reading studies going back for more than two decades.

In the 2007 study, the authors introduce their topic by noting that “as many as 50% of papers are never read by anyone other than their authors, referees and journal editors.” They also claim that 90 percent of papers published are never cited.”

Of course, the flies in the ointment of this discussion are tenure and promotion standards. Early-career scholars with blogs want blogging to be scholarship because that will make tenure easier to attain. I know that sounds bad, but really what’s the use of running the normal academic peer review gauntlet if it’s likely that only three people will read the result?

Coincidentally, this discussion and this article happened at the same time that I have to worry about precisely this sort of thing once again. Yes, I’m a tenured full professor, but as anybody among the somewhat more than three people who read this blog regularly know our administration here at CSU-Pueblo is trying very hard to move the vast majority of professors at this institution from a 3-3 (or 9 credit) to a 4-4 (or 12 credit) teaching load. While I was once optimistic that there would be enough exceptions to that standard that most active scholars on campus would be able to avoid it and continue their research apace, I am not anymore.

Here’s why: A few weeks ago, our Provost published his new research standards at the back of a grant application form for a single semester of release time. To my knowledge, he did not consult our faculty senate or any faculty members whatsoever before doing so. Here is a selection from that document (no link because it was e-mail only, e-mail attachment only to be exact):

“At CSU-Pueblo, faculty are expected to teach 12 credit hours per semester (and engage in research/scholarly/creative activity, and perform service). I emphasize that regular scholarly activity is expected of faculty who teach a 12 cr hr teaching load per semester. Awarding equivalency time to conduct research/scholarly/creative activity, above and beyond the usual expectations that we have of faculty, requires careful justification – even moreso at a public institution, in an environment with significantly constrained resources.”

Here’s what it says about release time for scholarly activity in our faculty handbook:

“After consultation with the faculty and Chair of a department, the Dean shall recommend to the Provost all requests for release from teaching. Faculty members released from teaching assignments shall devote a minimum of three (3) clock hours per week for each semester hour of released time to tasks associated with such release….Release from teaching to engage in sponsored research, University supported scholarly or creative activity, University service or other approved activities may be authorized by the Provost dependent upon the availability of funds and program needs.”

In other words, we’re going from an environment in which the vast majority of faculty members received that one course release to an environment in which we all have to prove that we’re not ripping off the taxpayers of Colorado and we still might not get that course release anyway. Furthermore, there’s been no hint that the standards on our annual performance reviews will be amended at all to reflect this rather significant change in policy.

While I’m fortunate enough to have no need to submit this blog as proof of scholarship, other faculty members on campus might not be quite as productive as I’ve been lately. Here’s the gauntlet that we all have to run to get one of 20 or so release time “fellowships” to pay for our adjunct replacements (as described in that policy statement I referenced above):

“The Provost will not approve equivalency time for research/scholarly/creative activity for Fall 2014-Spring 2015 if there is not a demonstrable peer-reviewed work product within the previous 2 or 3 years, depending upon the amount of equivalency time requested.”

It so happens that I approve of the peer review process. In most cases it has significantly improved the work that I’ve published, but as anybody with actual experience in peer review knows this slows things down to an unimaginable degree. For example, I wrote on article to mark the centennial of the Ludlow Massacre for Labor during my sabbatical a year and a half ago in order to make the anniversary itself, which is this very week. It’s accepted, but won’t be published until the fall, months after the anniversary is over.

Will more than three people read that article? Labor is a very good journal so I think so. However, even before I read that Smithsonian article I had become increasingly convinced that most academic journals are utterly useless. The value of blogging (or God forbid practicing actual journalism) is that you’re almost instantly guaranteed a much wider audience than publication in even the most respected academic journals will ever give you. Shouldn’t the point of scholarship be to influence the way the world works? If so, how can anybody justify a narrow fixation on peer review if almost nobody reads the results?

What troubles me most, however, is my administration’s demand for a “demonstrable peer-reviewed work product” within a two to three year window. My last book took me (on and off) thirteen years. Nevertheless, I still want to write more books. Not only that, I want to write more books that people will actually read. I’m currently close to being under contract to write two more comparatively quick refrigeration related books using my surplus research. Both will be peer-reviewed (or at least extensively peer-edited). After that, however, my Harvey Wiley biography is going to take a huge amount of time for me to finish because his papers are all back East and that extra class I’ll be teaching starting this fall isn’t going to speed that process up any.

As you might imagine, this whole situation makes me incredibly sad. If the only solution to this problem is to write short, crappy, purely academic work that reads like the instructions for the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch and only three people ever read it, I don’t know if I want to play this game anymore.





“Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto.”

7 04 2014

Good news everybody!  Robots will only replace SOME us at our jobs by 2034, not all of us.  Who’ll be safe?  As the Huffington Post explains part of it:

Human social intelligence is critical for those professions that involve negotiation, persuasion, leadership or high touch care. Those positions demanding high social intelligence tasks might include public relations specialists, event planners, psychologists and CEOs.

Does that include university professors? You’d hope so, but that would force the people in control of universities to actually respect the quality of the education they produce and I’m not sure we can trust most of them to do that. The corporatization of higher education over the last forty years strongly suggests that most of them would rather treat education like any other manufactured product.

If education were a real factory problem this transition might actually be an improvement. It’s not just that robot arms never get tired or ask for a pay raise. They can work with greater precision than even the best skilled craftsmen. I’ve toured the steel mill on the south side of Pueblo, Colorado many times now. While 10,000 people used to work there during WWII, fourteen people can handle a shift in a building the size of several football fields rather easily now. [And even then, a few of them are just waiting around in case something goes wrong.] Foreign competition, pensions, environmental regulations aside – the payroll in that plant would have gone down over the last fifty years just because of automation. Furthermore, the steel they produce there might actually be better as a result.

Can you say the same thing with a MOOC? The New York Times Magazine makes an argument for the effects of automation on workers in general that reminds me a lot of the argument for MOOCs:

Man invents a machine to make life easier, and then that machine reduces the need for man’s work. Ultimately, it’s a virtuous cycle, because it frees humans up to work on higher-value tasks.

Flip your classroom with the latest MOOC, spend more time in class teaching one-on-one. Everybody wins, right? Only if you completely ignore the class politics that surround labor-saving machinery of all kinds. Nick Carr, explains this point here far better than I ever could:

The language that the purveyors of the endless-ladder myth use is fascinating. They attribute to technology a beneficent volition. The technology itself “frees us up for higher-value tasks” and “propels us into more fulfilling work” and “helps us to expand ourselves.” We just need to “allow” the technology to aid us. Much is obscured by such verbs. Technology doesn’t free us or propel us or help us. Technology doesn’t give a rat’s ass about us. It couldn’t care less whether we have a great job, a crappy job, or no job at all. It’s people who have volition. And the people who design and deploy technologies of production are rarely motivated by a desire to create jobs or make jobs more interesting or expand human potential. Jobs are a byproduct of the market’s invisible hand, not its aim.

If you think most administrators give a rat’s ass about whether there’s a human being or a robot at the front of the classroom then you haven’t been paying attention.





Reinventing the wheel.

27 03 2014

What’s old is new again in edtech land. While that’s always been true to some extent, what’s new now is that this constant effort at reinvention has begun to take MOOCs as the status quo to be contrasted against rather than what they once were, namely the bright, shiny new thing that will save us all.

You say you want evidence for this trend? The folks who produce one particular online program tweeted this at me last week, presumably because the author used my Slate article as a jumping off point:

As a social phenomenon, access to education in this way – that is available for everyone, for free – is unprecedented and changing the way we live, work and learn. No one wants to move away from that or undo the huge steps forward we have made. But, as we have seen, it is not a perfect system. Something needs to change to utilise this power to its best advantage, to take what we have learned and move it a step further. Students need interaction with their teachers and fellow students. They need support. What we have seen so far is that MOOCs fail to address the need for communication as a learning tool.

Their solution? “[A] combination of online learning and personal interaction.” Don’t get me wrong: That’s certainly an improvement over MOOCs, but something like that’s been available for about twenty years now. They’re called online classes. You know…the non-massive ones. Certainly online classes are not all the same, particularly since the more student/teacher interaction they foster the better. However, to claim that personal attention is somehow an exclusive selling point of this one provider requires a rather selective reading of edtech history.

Nevertheless, others have actually invented their own new acronym for doing what some people have been doing for ages now. My much-valued commenter and online friend Contingent Cassandra sent me this link:

Small Private Online Courses (SPOCs) on the other hand, are purposely focusing on class size as a sort of opposite of the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). A University Business article emphasizes that this isn’t a new model, but one that may be finding a broader audience as school and corporate partners offer specialized curricula to small groups of (17-20) learners. These numbers mean that the kinds of support often missing in MOOCs and other large classes – such as personalized feedback and coaching, and opportunities for real-world experience – are more readily available.

That sound you hear is a whole slew of dedicated online instructors hitting their heads against their desks over and over again. Certainly offering online students this kind of personal attention beats what they’d get in MOOCs, but when you get right down to it that’s not a very high standard, is it? The other important question is how long can these Small Private Online Courses can stay small. When will the profit motive that even public universities now express regularly get the best of any instructor’s best intentions?

Leaving the substantial minority of people who do really innovative teaching online aside, the question then becomes how should we judge online education as a whole. What does online education get right that we can’t do in face-to-face classes? What does it get wrong? More importantly, why does it get what it gets wrong wrong? New UC Chancellor Janet Napalitano (of all people) may have hit the nail on the head here:

“There’s a developing consensus that online learning is a tool for the toolbox, but it’s harder than it looks and if you do it right, it doesn’t save all that much money,” Napolitano told about 500 policy and education experts at a speaker series sponsored by the Public Policy Institute of California….

Online courses may indeed prove to be useful, she said, but more as a way to augment upper-division work for students who are already deeply engaged in their subject matter.

Let the people who have already learned how to learn learn online. Give all the students who don’t know how to learn yet the attention they deserve. More importantly, let them get all the attention that they can get in a classroom setting before you give them the option of entering the brave old world of online education. When online education at all levels of instruction becomes the only option for the vast majority of students, higher education will have failed us all.

Reinventing the wheel here is hardly a pedagogical imperative. It’s not even a financial imperative, since (as Napolitano points out) online education doesn’t really save universities all that much money. Just because you can teach students online doesn’t mean you should teach students online, especially in massive open online courses that offer no individual attention at all unless students win a lottery or beg for it.

When all is said and done it’s not the teacher/student relationship that’s broken. What’s broken is the political economy of higher education that has convinced some people to consider even the worst forms of online education an imperative in the first place.





Storytelling.

18 03 2014

I’ve been writing about stories lately. Certainly, MOOCs have stories, but so does online education in general. One of the virtues of reading the higher education coverage in Forbes is that you can read the stories that entrepreneurs tell each other rather than just cover stories that they tell the general public. I find this one particularly horrifying:

Academic Partnerships helps colleges move some of their degree programs–usually those with a professional or vocational slant–online. The company spends an average of $2 million per school (it currently has 40 U.S. campuses and 17 international ones) to acquire online students, digitize lessons, set up back-end administrative and technical support, and tutor professors in the ABCs of the virtual classroom.

In return it takes a 50% cut of the tuition, which at some schools can be as costly as a traditional degree. The company says it has so far recruited 82,000 students, with an 85% retention rate. When they graduate, those students are granted transcripts and diplomas that are indistinguishable from ones earned the old-fashioned way.

Faced with biting criticism from a professor at Arkansas State (one of the schools that outsourced its masters degree programs), Academic Partnerships Founder and CEO has a storyline for public consumption:

“The whole idea of exclusiveness, as if it’s some kind of virtue to turn down large numbers of students, seems like a moral dilemma for a public institution, doesn’t it?” he asks, eyebrows arched. “They do consider it a virtue. But turning students away, historically, was based on a limited number of seats. You wanted the best students for those seats. Today, thanks to the Internet, you have unlimited seats. Exclusiveness is going to lead some universities to extinction. Inclusiveness is the future.”

High volume. Low quality. While this may be a virtue for selling manufactured products, education is not a manufactured product. Writing for the Chronicle, David M. Perry of Dominican University explains why an education is different from ordinary consumer exchanges very well:

Tell faculty members that they are obligated to treat students like customers, and the instructors will either eschew rigor in favor of making satisfaction guaranteed or work defensively lest they be harangued by the irate customer. Tell students that they are consumers, and they will act like consumers but ultimately learn less and perhaps not even receive the credential that they think they are buying.

Of course he’s right, but we can tell this story until we’re blue in the face and the people who control university budgets will just pat us all on the head, say “That’s a nice story,” and then continue to outsource the classes we all teach to outfits like Academic Partnerships anyway. We need to have a better story than that in order for the vast majority of us to keep our jobs.

Cathy Davidson has a story. Having just finished her MOOC about higher education, and argues:

We at Hastac wanted to see if the 18,000-plus participants who ended up registering for the course could help galvanize a movement on behalf of educational changes that any professor, department, or school could begin to carry out today. The short answer (surprise, surprise!) is that it takes infrastructure, planning, and human labor to make real change. I believe parts of this could be replicated by anyone wishing to create a real-world movement from a MOOC.

The idea of a mass movement to change higher education is also a nice story. While I agree that such a thing is possible, what’s going to prevent the people who control university budgets from simply patting us all on the head, saying “That’s a nice story,” and then continue to outsource the classes we all teach to outfits like Academic Partnerships anyway? If everyone in search of change in higher ed is all telling a different story, it will be easier for the people in power to ignore us all.

While I have yet to develop the sublime version of a professor-centered, technologically-enhanced higher education system of the future, I know it involves some combination of professorial craft knowledge, faculty organization and student/faculty coalitions. Their story involves disruption. My story involves using technology to preserve the human interaction that’s essential for real learning while eliminating the threat of automation that will only benefit the edu-preneurs of the world while doing nothing for our students.





MOOC sublime.

15 03 2014

“The steamboat sublime took expropriation and extermination and renamed them ‘time’ and ‘technology.’ From the vista of the steamboat deck, Indians were consigned to prehistory, the dead-end time before history really began, represented by the monuments of ‘remote antiquity’ that lined the river’s bank.

The confrontation of steamboat and wilderness, of civilization and savagery, of relentless direction with boundless desolation, was called ‘Progress.’”

- Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013), 76-77.

Barbara Hahn of Texas Tech University is one of my very favorite people in all of Academia. We not only share similar interests and the same publisher, she is also a very, very good historian. As proof, I offer this from a new AHA Perspectives article intended to introduce other historians to the history of technology as a sub-field:

[A] difficult-to-shake belief in technological determinism—the idea that tools and inventions drive change, rather than humans—is widespread. When apps download on their own, or when cellphones appear to inspire texting over talking, it certainly feels as if technology changes and humans simply react. But most research into the history of technology undermines this widespread assumption. Technology itself has causes—human causes. If it didn’t, it would have no history. So the field by its very existence fights common misconceptions about technology.

Of course, the first thing I did after reading this article was to apply its lessons to MOOCs. Did MOOCs emerge fully grown out of Sebastian Thrun’s head? Of course not. They have both a history and a pre-history. While I’m not qualified to explore either of those subjects in any depth, I do want to explore the question of what a MOOC actually is from a technological standpoint so that others might have an easier time explaining that history.

Again, Barbara’s article can help. “What is technology?,” she asks:

Even experts struggle to fix its boundaries, but a modest definition will suffice to begin inquiry: technology is the systematic, purposeful, human manipulation of the physical world by means of some machine or tool. In this definition, technology becomes a process, rather than the artifact that process employs.

MOOCs, of course, employ a variety of technologies to achieve their goals, and since no MOOC is exactly alike (see Rule #2), the kinds of technology they use will be different. Video recording is one MOOC technology. A forum is another one. Some MOOCs use Google Hangouts. Others don’t. What they all have in common is the Internet as their base infrastructure, but since so many other things depend upon the Internet for their existence these days, I’d argue that that similarity obscures more than it illuminates.

As a student of the history of technology myself, I’d argue that what every MOOC has in common is a story to hold the diverse technologies that it employs together. Daphne Koller’s story involves bringing education to the undeveloped areas of the world. The story that all those nice Canadians tell involves students helping other students learn. The best I can tell, the story behind DS106 involves barely controlled anarchy (which might explain why it’s my favorite MOOC out there by far).

Listen to enough of these stories and you begin to detect patterns. What their proponents emphasize tell you what they think is important, but the opposite of that thought is true as well. What their proponents leave out tell you what narratives of MOOC progress discount or ignore altogether. Here’s a summary of a paper called, “Do professors matter?: using an a/b test to evaluate the impact of instructor involvement on MOOC student outcomes,” which I’m pulling from the blog Virtual Canuck:

The study concluded that teacher presence had no significant relation to course completion, most badges awarded, intent to register in subsequent MOOCs or course satisfaction. This is of course bad news for teacher’s unions and those convinced that a live teacher must be present in order for significant learning to occur.

Well let’s kill all the teachers then!!! What’s that you say? Probably not a good idea? I happen to agree, but if all you’re measuring is badges, course completion and MOOC satisfaction then this kind of conclusion makes perfect sense. Learning, or at the very least the learning process, has been obliterated by the structural sacrifices that MOOC creation entails.

Another part of the learning process that disappears in the xMOOC story is the direct interaction between the professor and the student. You just knew I was going to get to this particular MOOC news nugget eventually, didn’t you?:

An English professor at Harvard University turned heads last month when she instructed students in her poetry class to refrain from asking questions during lectures so as not to disrupt recordings being made for the MOOC version of the course.

Elisa New, a professor of American literature, instituted the policy at the behest of technicians from HarvardX, the university’s online arm, according to The Harvard Crimson, which first reported the news. The video technicians reportedly told her they wanted to record a continuous lecture, with no back-and-forth with students.

Of course, professors play an oversized role in the xMOOC story, but what this wonderfully symbolic anecdote shows us is that the process of teaching doesn’t. If anybody fails to understand this superprofessor’s lectures, in class or in the MOOC, they are just S.O.L. This shows that what we used to think of as teaching is being replaced by mere content provision in this new narrative, which I think I’m going to start calling the MOOC sublime.

In Walter Johnson’s version of steamboat sublime, “Progress” rendered Native Americans invisible. In the MOOC sublime, the people who disappear are the faculty members who choose to cling to the outmoded, inefficient mode of instruction that so many MOOCs aim to replace. Who cares if we use actual technology ourselves? As long as we fail to board the MOOC train before it leaves the station we are expendable.

How do you fight this kind of passive/aggressive, often self-interested narrative attack? I think we alleged Luddites need to come up with a story of our own in order to help us resist the fate that the edtech entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley have in store for us. I guess this post is my shot at doing so. Any additional details in the comments below would be much appreciated. After all, so many of our jobs may depend upon how well we can all tell it.





Nothing is inevitable.

11 03 2014

One of the great things about blogging is that you literally have no idea who might stop by in the comments. When I first assumed my role as “Self-appointed Scourge of All MOOCs Everywhere,” somebody famous in MOOC circles might stop by and I wouldn’t have the foggiest clue who they are. Thanks to the famous Bady/Shirky debate of 2012, I know exactly who Clay Shirky is. While I’m still on Team @zunguzungu, I must say it’s quite an honor to have somebody with 301,000+ Twitter followers stop by the comments of this post and write enough material to merit a post of his own.

Another great thing about blogging is that you can move long conversations in the comments into a new post if you’re so inclined. I am so, here it is. Before I start getting into details though, let me just start by noting that I wasn’t trying to somehow summon Clay Shirky by writing, “Your Historical Analogies Are Bullshit.” If you notice, he wasn’t even first on my list of examples later in that paragraph. In fact, that point wasn’t even relevant to the news article that originally set me off.

What happened was that I had just been teaching Tom Sugrue’s classic Origins of the Urban Crisis for the first time, and rereading this passage (p. 11) reminded me that nothing is inevitable:

“The shape of the postwar city, I contend, is the result of political and economic decisions, of choices made and not made by various institutions, groups, and individuals. Industrial location policy is not solely the result of technological imperatives; it is the result of corporate policies to minimize union strength, to avoid taxes, and to exploit new markets.”

You don’t even have to change that many words in order to make that caution relevant to higher education. Nevertheless, MOOC-ology thrives because it assumes that we are already well down the path of progress to a techno-utopian future that nobody can ever stop.

Unlike most edtech reporters, Clay Shirky at least gives us a lot of analysis to go with this narrative. Here’s a big chunk of his first comment (please do go back and read the whole thing though if you are so inclined):

The point of the comparison is not that MOOCs are Teh Future — indeed, in my original post on the subject, I specifically assumed that MOOCs, as constituted, could fail outright, as Napster did.

Instead, I made the analogy in order to suggest that what happened to us in 2011 is like what happened to the recording industry in 2000, which is the collapse of the incumbents to convince the public that there is no alternative to the current way of doing business. So let me make a prediction based on that analogy: there will be more movement in state legislatures in the next 5 years on creation of the $10K BA than on the raising of state subsidy.

Even though faculty are all but unanimous on the idea that university costs and revenues need to be aligned through more generous revenues rather than by reduction in costs, I believe that The Year of the MOOC, already receding, has robbed us of our key asset in making that claim, which was the lack of a credible alternative.

This is, I believe, remarkably similar to the music industry, who achieved a rapid and total victory over Napster and nevertheless lost control of even legal distribution of music, because the public no longer operated in an environment of assumed consensus about how music distribution should work.

To me, this line of reasoning is what we used to call in high school debate “non-unique.” Much of the public is hostile to higher education for both cultural and economic reasons already. Had those nice Canadian people never conceived of MOOCs, we would right now be having a different debate in order to save higher education. You can’t claim that technology has conquered the savage beast when the savage beast is already taken several more-than-glancing blows from many different directions.

Here’s some of Clay’s response to my point (and this one is edited for brevity, so please do check the full comment here to see his ideas in their full context):

The core technology [of the MOOC] is the video lecture, already in its precursor forms with TED and Khan Academy videos; the innovation was to place enough structure around them that they came to feel to citizens like they should count in the same way that other kinds of classes (including online classes) count. The form of the famous 2011 MOOCs — a simplistic beads-on-a-string model of lectures and quizzes, with no social contact folded into the system — was wrong in many of the ways people have noted, but it was right in one big way: it sketched in a model of higher education where more people could complete a single class than attend most colleges, and they could do it for free….

To put it in its most reductionist terms, the 2011 MOOCs changed the world because they offered a compelling enough story for John Markoff to write about. That’s not the same as being the core innovation of any future educational landscape, but as with Napster, sometimes 2 years of counter-example is sometimes enough to destabilize a system.

As I’m sure regular readers are sick to death of refrigeration analogies, let me at least go into a different industry. While I’m not sure I ever footnoted it in my book, Richard John’s Network Nation is to me the model analysis of a dead industry. By all rights, the Post Office should have been dead for over a century now. First the telegraph, then the telephone (and certainly now e-mail), have provided easier, cheap (if not cheaper) and more convenient communication for just about any message you want to convey. Yet the American public has seen fit to subsidize this endeavor to keep the letters coming. Yes, my mail is mostly down to just junk mail these days, but even that serves a purpose that people who tell a long narrative of steady progress refuse to recognize.

While this too may just be an alternative bullshit historical analogy, I make it to highlight the importance of contingency. Clay Shirky offers us an extremely compelling narrative of progress, but progress is based on countless contingencies. Yes, all of the points in a historical analogy do not have to match, but they really should point to the same abstract processes. The only abstract process I see in the Napster analogy is inevitable defeat, which I refuse to believe is inevitable. In the end, the point of this analogy is to tell faculty like me to let the warm water wash over everybody, even if those waters are high enough that most of us will drown.

Call me naive, but I can see a different future. My future is still technologically-oriented but in my future it’s faculty, not administrators or private companies, that control the technology of higher education. How do we achieve my particular techno-utopian future? By asserting our pedagogical expertise rather than by farming out to untrained amateurs.





“You deserve a break today.”

10 03 2014

When I was in graduate school, I was both a member and a board member of the oldest graduate student union in the country, the good old TAA. The vast majority of TAA leaders came from three departments: History, English and Sociology. Some of that was an artifact of the size of those departments. My first-year graduate school cohort at Wisconsin had ninety people in it. [Thanks again for that, Bill Bowen.] Yet the flip side of that situation was in some ways more telling: You couldn’t find a scientist in our union if you had put one on the Most Wanted List and offered a $100,000 reward. We always figured it had to do with the quality of their aid packages. Well-paid workers seldom join unions.

Want to know how bad things have gotten at CSU-Pueblo? The scientists here are at the forefront of the faculty’s fight to save the university from whatever the administration has in store for us. I think a lot of this has to do with the unilateral imposition of a 4-4 load. While I teach both undergraduate and graduate research methods courses, a lot of our science professors actually do their research with their students. Doing this, as I understand from what I’ve been told lately, is an absolutely vital part of what it means to be an advanced chemistry or biology major.* It’s as if our administration has told the scientists here to either work twice as hard or stop doing an absolutely vital part of their teaching duties entirely. I certainly understand why neither option is particularly appealing.

While I’ve already shown you the amazing letter that David Dillon sent our campus, I still think that nobody has done more for our cause than Bill Brown from Physics. I’m going to offer up a long quote from a letter to the editor that our local paper published yesterday because I think this applies (at least in the abstract) to so many of us everywhere:

Professors only work 10 or 12 hours per week in front of classes — so thought and said by many. Therefore, the reasoning goes that they are slackers who are highly paid and who work much less than others who have “real” jobs. When financial ills arise, then they must be made to work more to fix problems they had no fault in creating.

I would like to dispel some of these faulty ideas and to suggest what the results likely will be if this scenario is implemented with the entire faculty forced to work 4-4 teaching loads at Colorado State University-Pueblo.

I must confess that I suffered under the misconception that teaching required only a few hours. I spent the majority of my career as an engineer in the aerospace business. I was excited to come to academia and believed that my new teaching career would be almost like semi-retirement.

Little did I know what realities lay ahead. I was quickly awakened to the fact that teaching in front of classes is only a tiny part of being a professor. Here are just a few of the other things I learned that I must do.

Unlike many universities, we do not have teaching assistants at CSU-Pueblo and must do all of our own grading of homework and exams in classes sometimes as large as 85 students. I must prepare exams and homework assignments. I spend a huge amount of time preparing for classes. This entails writing notes to be used and then making them available to students.

There is a lot of bookkeeping when it comes to recording and correcting student grades for all assignments and classes.

I serve on and prepare for many committees that meet regularly that better the university and student welfare. I was a faculty senator for four years. I answer many emails sent by students and other faculty members. At the request of students, I have written many letters of recommendation for admission to medical, pharmaceutical and graduate schools.

Every year, we must submit to the College of Science and Mathematics a long, detailed report for our annual performance reviews.

I advise students about careers and what to expect when they graduate. I supervise the research of senior students and prepare them for their presentations before they graduate. I serve on master’s degree committees for students in the engineering department. I manage the CSU-Pueblo observatory that I built from the ground up after receiving a $200,000 grant. This entails scheduling, repairs, maintenance and public viewings.

I spend time preparing for department reviews that come every five years. As part of my outreach to the community, I am the vice president of the Southern [Colorado] Astronomical Society, which also requires many meetings and events. There are many phone calls and text messages I field from the public.

Another thing I do for outreach to the community is to prepare and deliver lectures of interest. I have done this at the Southern Colorado Astronomical Society, service clubs in the Pueblo area, other schools such as Otero Community College and the Coalition of Professional Engineers of Pueblo.

I offer six hours per week of office hours for students to come for help. I have written many proposals for in-house grants to update our computer lab, to provide tools for our astronomy program and to update the observatory. Then I spend whatever time is left to continue my research on cosmic rays and lightning.

But wait! The State of Colorado pays him to work, doesn’t it? What makes his job different from any other job? Bill has a very good answer to those questions:

In the aerospace business, I worked 40 hours per week and had weekends off. Now that is not the case. I used to receive regular raises and used to make two to three times my current salary.

Perhaps you still have no sympathy for us “spoiled” professorial types, but let’s talk about a basic rule of industrial relations, shall we? If you work anyone too hard for low pay, they will no longer sing and dance for you on cue. Now will they perform nearly as well at their jobs as they might have done otherwise. Perhaps the floors of your McDonald’s will not be so clean. Perhaps the cashiers will have a harder time greeting customers with a smile. Perhaps the quality of the food will suffer too. If you simply tell your forlorn workers to do more with less, this might actually make this situation worse. If that happens, your customers might just flee as fast as their feet can carry them.

As good as Bill’s letter is, I would add that professors – like all other workers – also deserve time for leisure and to spend with their families. The old slogan of the eight hour day movement in the United States was, “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will.” Jesus, I’d settle for half that last one on most days.

Hey Academia! You deserve a break today. I’d argue that you’ll actually work more productively the rest of the time as a result.

* If any scientists out there reading this are slapping their foreheads right now and saying something like, “Welcome to the party, pal!,” cut me some slack, OK? I filled my science requirements as an undergrad with nothing but Psychology and Anthropology courses.





“I walk the line.”

4 03 2014

Here’s a little-known fact about me: I used to be a Walmart blogger. That blog is still updated occasionally by my friend Jeff in Cleveland, but a few years back I came to the decision that I could do more to help my own profession through blogging than I could the Walmart workers of the world (although they all still have my general support). Yet that experience was hardly a total bust. For one thing, it explains why I’m a vegetarian. It also explains why I once talked on the phone with the British journalist Simon Head.

I don’t remember exactly why he contacted me. I think I had written something about Walmart that implied that I knew more than I really did. What he ended up doing is schooling me on the evils of Walmart’s computerized scheduling system. The long and short of it is that Walmart schedules its workers on the basis of when its computer system predicts that customers will be in the store. If there aren’t enough people there to justify paying you, then you stay home. To make matters worse, Walmart demands that its employees be on call for work at any shift, any time, thereby making other jobs (or even going to school) that much more difficult. Since Head first wrote about that system, it’s become absolutely commonplace in workplaces of all kinds. It’s one very important reason why so many cheap employers today can employ all part-time workers and not be understaffed.

Head has a new book out now, Mindless: Why Smarter Machines Are Making Humans Dumber. You may have seen an excerpt from it about Amazon in Salon last month. I’ve read the whole thing now, and I can tell you it’s almost certainly going to be the most important book I’ll read all year. In essence, it is an update on Head’s earlier work on Walmart. Rather than just use the computer to dictate when your employer needs you to work, technology is now powerful enough for management to use it to dictate exactly how workers do their jobs. For example, here’s a bit from that excerpt about what Amazon warehouse workers do all day:

Amazon’s system of employee monitoring is the most oppressive I have ever come across and combines state-of-the-art surveillance technology with the system of “functional foreman,” introduced by Taylor in the workshops of the Pennsylvania machine-tool industry in the 1890s. In a fine piece of investigative reporting for the London Financial Times, economics correspondent Sarah O’Connor describes how, at Amazon’s center at Rugeley, England, Amazon tags its employees with personal sat-nav (satellite navigation) computers that tell them the route they must travel to shelve consignments of goods, but also set target times for their warehouse journeys and then measure whether targets are met.

All this information is available to management in real time, and if an employee is behind schedule she will receive a text message pointing this out and telling her to reach her targets or suffer the consequences. At Amazon’s depot in Allentown, Pennsylvania (of which more later), Kate Salasky worked shifts of up to eleven hours a day, mostly spent walking the length and breadth of the warehouse. In March 2011 she received a warning message from her manager, saying that she had been found unproductive during several minutes of her shift, and she was eventually fired. This employee tagging is now in operation at Amazon centers worldwide.

If you read Head’s entire book, you’ll see that these same principles are now being applied to white-collar jobs of all kinds. Work with a computer, you may be subject to this kind of Taylorism no matter what your particular income level happens to be.

In the book, Head notes the effect of this kind of management system on British universities. Unfortunately, he does not go the extra step of reporting (or even just predicting) the effect that these kinds of programs might have upon teachers involved in online education. Nevertheless, the implications should be obvious. Teach online and your every interaction – heck your every keystroke – is subject to scrutiny if you use a system that your employer controls. I’m not saying this is happening now everywhere, but it is easy to imagine that this will be happening somewhere soon. Even the best online educators will be subject to this kind of scrutiny if their employers care more about efficiency than they do about education.

Can this really happen? Well, look at MOOCs. Here’s Jim Groom, reviewing some recent history in that area:

MOOCs, as Siemens and Downes imagined them, are one of the few sources of true innovation you can point to in educational technology in recent history, and it was born from a higher ed/government relationship. Yet, within a couple of years the MOOC movement had become increasingly denatured and over-run by corporate boosterism that was redirecting the logic of experimentation and possibility to a rhetoric of how broken higher education is, and how Silicon Valley (poaching superstar faculty from Stanford with the allure of million of dollars) has come to its rescue. What was remarkable to me as I watched the MOOC experiment transform into a corporate takeover was how quickly and completely the alien pods took over the experimentation before it could breath. before it could even develop it was already a fully formed disruptive solution to a moribund institution. Innovation lost.

As I know I once read Marc Bousquet write somewhere, many universities admire the for-profit online approach and have rushed into it not to improve education, but to improve their own bottom lines. You may be convinced your online class is the best online class that can be given online (and it might very well be better than a lot of in-person lecture-only classes at giant state universities), but how long will your employer let you keep teaching it in the inefficient way that you’re teaching it now? I’m not saying this disaster is going to befall every online instructor, but it will certainly befall some of them as budgets grow tighter in higher education worldwide. The question then becomes, “Where will the line between the lucky and the unlucky get drawn?”

I’ve started to feel as if I walk that line every day. Our recent troubles here with our research downloads has reminded me that nothing lasts forever. This is particularly true for those of us who work at universities with administrations that do not value what skilled faculty bring to the educational table. If I am not swept up in a wave of digitization that will allow my job to be Taylorized, the CSU-System could still simply invest its resources in creating new campuses where a surveillance state can be constructed at birth.

As longtime readers know, I keep a close watch on this job of mine. I keep my eyes wide open all the time. But what happens if this kind of vigilance makes no difference?





What’s going on at CSU-Pueblo?, Part 9.

1 03 2014

“Staff and faculty members continued to question if CSU System Chancellor Michael Martin has respect for the institution.

They told [Colorado State University Board of Governors chairwoman Dorothy] Horrell that Martin has insulted students and demonstrated contempt for the community and the university, an accusation Martin has denied several times.”

- Anthony A. Mestas, “CSU-Pueblo System chair talks budget,” Pueblo Chieftain, March 1, 2014.

***





“I see dead people.”

26 02 2014

“When I speak with [Al] Filreis [of the University of Pennsylvania], a charismatic bearded professor, he complains that people criticize MOOCs without differentiating between those that are done well and those that are not. He is sitting at a computer and clicks between discussion boards, Facebook posts, and live “office hour” chats led by teaching assistants who discuss poems in the video lectures (the TAs have become ModPo celebrities, too).”

- Laura Pappano, “How colleges are finding tomorrow’s prodigies,” Christian Science Monitor, February 23, 2014.

No Al, you’ve got it all wrong. People who criticize MOOCs are perfectly capable of differentiating between MOOCs that are done well from those that aren’t. The problem is that even the best MOOC in the world is nowhere near as good as the average community college course. The reason is obvious: access to the professor.

I’ve gone the rounds with Al (and many other MOOC enthusiasts) on Twitter a few times so I can easily predict the response to this point: People who want to find me can find me in the forums, or in a Google Hangout or through whatever technological doo-dad they’ve invented to stimulate simulated interaction. Unfortunately, for the average student – rather than the prodigies that the Christian Science Monitor (like so many other gullible media outlets) prefers to discuss – they either won’t or can’t make use of that access. In fact, if most students actually did try to make use of that access the technological infrastructure behind the MOOC platform would collapse.

It’s simple math, really. Even superprofessors only have so much time in their days. This way, they can interact with only the brightest, most dedicated students from around the planet. What teacher wouldn’t love this arrangement? All the other students who are left waiting by the wayside. The ones who need lots of help that isn’t available or who need the kind of help that is simply too awkward to be made available over the Internet. Sadly, the Masters of MOOC Creation don’t care because real education is not profitable. Giving people certificates for watching videos and answering multiple choice questions about them (supposedly) is.

While the average community college instructor may not be a superprofessor, at least they’re accessible. That’s why MOOC enthusiasts are continually waging a deliberate campaign to belittle the contributions of non-superprofessors everywhere. This particular example is from the Economist:

Caroline Hoxby, an economist at Stanford University, argues that MOOCs threaten different universities in different ways. Less selective institutions are close substitutes for MOOCs. Course content is often standardised and interaction with professors is limited in order to keep costs down.

Really? I know there are large intro classes in many institutions, but even those professors have TAs and office hours and writing centers and early warning systems if you’re failing the course. And, of course, practically the whole point of the non-vocational aspects of community colleges is to prevent those situations from happening, to make sure that students get a user-friendly introduction to academic life and be a success when they transfer elsewhere. It’s as if all the dedicated teachers who help make that happen are dead to her.

Then there’s this (Thank you, Vanessa), “A Colorado Software Firm Is Programming Your Next Professor:”

“MOOCs and online schools have not fully thrown the student-teacher ratio out the window, but they seem to be heading in that direction. As education costs increase, it’s not unreasonable to think that professors, teachers, adjuncts, and tutors could at least be partially replaced by a $7,000 programmable character who never sleeps or unionizes, or emotionally overreacts to student behavior.”

Jesus, and I get called paranoid and delusional for suggesting that anyone is even contemplating such a thing. Never underestimate how little college administrators don’t know about education. Any university that replaces their professors with a dancing paper clip deserves the fate that awaits it. It’s not that we can’t be replaced by a dancing paper clip. We obviously can. It’s whether or not we SHOULD be replaced by $7000 avatars that is the question. If we’re all dead to them, then this process becomes much easier as students are left with essentially no other choice.

Well, I see dead people. So do students. I only hope that we all don’t end up like Bruce Willis and discover that we’re all dead already.*

* So I spoiled the end of a fifteen year-old movie. Well, I think it’s your fault if you haven’t seen “The Sixth Sense” yet, not mine.








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