Jonathan Rees Becomes Conference Co-President

8 07 2013

Here’s another reason the frequency of posts around here is going to stay comparatively low, even when summer ends. The conference in question is the Colorado AAUP (American Association of University Professors).

Rees.portraitEffective July 1, 2013 Jonathan Rees became Co-President of the Colorado Conference. He joins Steve Mumme as Co-President for a two-year term, and replaces Dean Saitta. Dean served as Co-President for 4 years and will continue as Conference webmaster.

Jonathan Rees is in the History Department at Colorado State University, Pueblo.  He writes an excellent blog called More or Less Bunk, which includes many essays on the phenomenon of Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs. Jonathan is a tireless champion of academic freedom, shared governance, and budgetary transparency.  Given the state of higher education at the moment, the Conference is fortunate to have both Jonathan and Steve at the helm.

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The “Down With MOOCs” World Tour, 2013-14.

6 05 2013


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

Cheap Trick is big in Japan. I’m told that I’m big in Connecticut. This would explain why the Connecticut AAUP invited me to be the speaker at their annual spring meeting on May 17th in New Haven. Looking at the registration form, it appears that today is the last day for that. Therefore, if you’re in that area and want to come by you should let them know immediately.

Stop #2 will be on Thursday, June 13th at 2PM at the national AAUP’s annual conference in DC. My topic for both presentations will be the same, “Should Professors Be Afraid of MOOCs?” In the interests of drama, I will not reveal my answer to that question. You’ll have to come by and hear it from me directly.

Following a longstanding principle, I promise I will not read my speech/conference paper like a script. I do, however, need to write something, so if you don’t see as many missives as usual in this space during the next few weeks you’ll know why. Indeed, since I might actually want to write some history this summer, I’m hoping the number of posts here goes way down for the length of the season.

Nonetheless, I’ve gone and gotten myself a cause so I’d like to help by more than just blogging about it. If you represent an impoverished academic organization that wants to help me add dates to my “Down With MOOCs” World Tour, I’ll go just about anywhere in exchange for expenses. If your worthy organization isn’t impoverished, I’ll still work cheap as I’m in the humanities (so very little money looks like a lot to me). Just e-mail me at the address in the right column of this page. I’ll announce more dates here as they come by (and I’m hoping to hear about a very interesting one very soon).

Image courtesy of the Connecticut AAUP.

“When danger reared its ugly head, he bravely turned his tail and fled.”

2 10 2012

Why yes, I do take requests. I’m particularly glad to when they remind me of scenes from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” that I haven’t used on this blog yet. Whose brave deeds do I wish to sing about here? Glenn A. Hartz of Ohio State, who used to be opposed to online classes, but thanks to the inevitable forward progress of technology has now changed his mind. He writes in the Chronicle:

So, do I like online courses? My answer is that it doesn’t matter. The students like them, and we have to adjust to their demands.

I hear that students all like getting “A”s, so I assume we must adjust that way too. While we’re at it, we can give up on homework since that might offend their delicate sensibilities. Hey! Why don’t we just give up getting paid entirely and become volunteers? After all, the idea of professors fighting for their own interests (which might actually coincide with the interests of their students) is simply unseemly.

I’m not going to fisk the whole essay because I’ve covered Hartz’s points a million times before on this blog. What I will do, however, is note how ludicrous it is to think that there are only two possible positions on the subject of learning online: for or against. Anybody who really understands this subject knows that the right tools can be used in the wrong ways (or vice versa for that matter). If fewer administrators used online learning as a club to bash the concept of shared governance, perhaps I’d be a lot more positive about it.

Let me cite a better essay from the Huffington Post to illustrate my position better:

Distance learning technologies should be seen as one more tool at an educator’s disposal. Some educators have an almost ideological reaction to distance learning. They hate it and think its evil, or they love it and think it is the solution to all of our educational problems. The specific tool used should be the one best matched to the educational objective. Just because you have a tool and you know how it works, doesn’t mean you have to use it. Form should follow function.

As I’ve explained before, I’m not anti-edtech. I’m pro-professor. In a professor-centered edtech world, faculty could pick and choose the tools we want, making sure that education not profits remains the primary goal of universities everywhere.

This is not some utopian dream. My friend Jonathan Poritz’s essay about open source technology (now available in Academe) can serve as a road map for creating that kind of world. On the other hand, ceding edtech decisions entirely to administrators and profit-seeking private companies almost guarantees that the future will be a nightmare.

For this vision to become a reality, we professors need to stick to our principles. We can’t just mindlessly accept the free market ideology that our critics are so desperate to impose upon higher education everywhere. We need to be willing to have our eyes gouged out and our elbows broken.

Seriously, isn’t control of the future worth fighting for? Isn’t control of YOUR future worth fighting for?

An instant classic.

25 08 2012

My friend CSU-Pueblo math professor Jonathan Poritz has made appearances on this blog before. You just didn’t know it was him because he was untenured and therefore wanted me to keep his name out of my posts. However, I can tell you he’s been an incredibly important influence on my thinking about technology issues of all kinds.

Now that he’s tenured, he’s speaking for himself in the pages of Academe, the journal of the American Association of University Professors. His subject is technology and academic freedom. Specifically, he’s arguing that professors should embrace open source software not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it will improve pedagogy, increase efficiency, cut costs and support academic freedom.

And here’s the part that just kills me: Jonathan convinced Academe to publish the article under a Creative Commons license so I can link to it in .pdf format on his web site before it even appears in the journal.

I’ll have more to say about all this stuff at the Academe blog once it actually appears in that journal, but for now you should just read a piece which I’m certain will become an instant classic and think hard about how to bring more open source software to your campus.

Workers’ control in academia.

15 06 2012

I’m sure new readers will be shocked to learn that my original field was American labor history. I still teach it once every two years at which time I always get exactly enough students to keep the class from being canceled. Like a lot of labor historians I know, I’ve developed other interests. Still, what I’ve learned can be very useful for understanding the situation currently faced by everyone in my profession.

I’ve written about Harry Braverman in this space before. The title of this post is a variation of a book title by the late David Montgomery. However, my favorite labor historian has always been Herbert Gutman. To my mind, Gutman’s first collection of essays, Work, Culture and Society in Industrializing America, is the best labor history book ever published because it’s all so accessible.

Since I don’t want to set foot in my office any more than absolutely necessary this summer, I’m going by memory here: Throughout the book Gutman explains how nineteenth century industrial workers had different priorities than their bosses. Since many were immigrants, they came to America with a pre-industrial mindset. They were perfectly willing to demand a barrel of beer to drink at work because work was alienating and producing non-stop for ten or twelve hours at a time was generally not an appealing prospect. Over the course of the 19th century, their employers broke the power of these workers through mechanization and the division of labor.

Skilled workers could once set the pace of production or even drink on the job because they had control of the shop floor. Once managers broke that control, more of the profits from industrialization inevitably flowed toward capital.

I’m not suggesting that professors start drinking on the job. However, I am suggesting that online education is a threat to our control of the shop floor. In fact, it entirely eliminates the shop floor we once controlled. Online educators can hardly even interact with their students at all without negotiating a space controlled almost entirely by their employers.

Yet unlike in nineteenth century America, there is no guarantee that increased production serves the best interests of society. Is teaching more students a good thing if the education they get is superficial and impersonal? I say “no,” but even if you say “yes” don’t you think actual educators should have a major role in answering that question? After all, public education is not supposed to be a private profit center.

Ever heard of shared governance? It’s a principle that has guided American higher education for decades now. It means that faculty should play an important role in the way their universities operate. After all, without them there would be no university at all. Shared governance also suggests that faculty maintain at least some of their prerogatives as the terms and conditions of their employment are determined to everyone’s satisfaction. That’s why when non-profit university administrators insist on acting like Robber Barons, the cause of education isn’t served.

What can faculty do in response to John D. Rockefeller-like behavior? First, wake up and smell the coffee. Your job is being redefined right under your nose and most of you don’t even realize it. Second, insist on participating in the conversations about what your job will become. Third, if you aren’t treated with the respect you deserve, then organize. It doesn’t have to be into a trade union. Even the simple act of joining the AAUP will do wonders for your understanding of how the university works. The more people who understand what’s happening, the more people will be willing to do something about it.

In any event, you have to do something. History suggests that once you lose control of your shop floor, it’s darn near impossible to get it back.

Hey Washington Post! May we get a correction, please? Or even a source?

25 03 2012

I’ve been away for a few days, so although I skimmed this incredibly dishonest Washington Post op-ed by David C. Levy when it came out, I didn’t quite take in the enormous magnitude of its dishonesty until I got a chance to read it on a computer screen rather than my phone. Luckily, Robert Farley lays a well-deserved smackdown here, which is well worth your reading time.

Yet he is only refuting the premise of the piece, that faculty don’t work hard enough. I want to take on the assumption which that premise is built upon:

Happily, senior faculty at most state universities and colleges now earn $80,000 to $150,000, roughly in line with the average incomes of others with advanced degrees.

If ever there was a figure in a newspaper article crying out for a footnote, this is it.

I happen to be senior faculty at a state university and I don’t make anywhere near the bottom of that spread. I also happen to know that most professors at my university in other fields (with the exception of business) make nowhere near the bottom of that spread because I had to survey those salaries in order to get an equity adjustment that brought me a little closer. As a matter of fact, I had to study salary data at all of our so-called “peer institutions” and nobody in history at any of those institutions make anywhere near that spread either. Indeed, our institution pays history professors right in the middle of the range of our peer institutions. The only reason I actually got an equity adjustment was that I was being out-earned by colleagues in my own department at a lower rank.*

So yes, I think the conclusion that we don’t work hard enough is absurd. [In fact, I think I’m going address that as part of a three-part series that’s currently bubbling around my brain for publication at this blog next week.] However, Levy’s argument isn’t just that we’re underworked. It’s that we’re underworked and overpaid, which is actually two lies in one.

Unlike hours tabulation, which is very hard to compute [If I’m reading a history book I happen to enjoy is it leisure or professional development?], there are collective salary figures out there arranged by discipline generated by the AAUP and other sources. Rather than cite any of those numbers, Levy gives us a single example Maryland’s Montgomery College, where the average full professor apparently makes $88,000/year. So where did the $150,000 come from? Yale? And what does the average instructor (faculty and adjuncts together) make at Montgomery College? Are the adjuncts there not working hard enough too?

If you read his piece closely, you’ll notice that like so many other people writing about higher education, Levy doesn’t acknowledge that adjunct faculty even exist because such an admission undercuts his so-called “argument.” Since they’ve been around as a class for four decades now, there actually are such people as “senior adjuncts.” Are they not faculty? Don’t they deserve to be paid as well as other trained professionals too?

In the end, this is all just another reason why we’re all in this together, since in an age of permanent austerity everyone’s salary and working conditions will ultimately converge.

* You’ve heard of salary compression? This is what they call salary inversion.

The academic freedom crisis of the 21st century.

21 03 2012

Somebody call the AUUP! I think I’ve found the academic freedom crisis of the 21st century. From IHE:

[Lasell College] wants 100 percent of faculty to be actively using the college’s Moodle-based learning management system (LMS). And it wants comprehensive LMS usage — every course, all sections — before the end of this year. That means at a minimum, an instructor will have to use the online platform to take attendance, post assignments, and post grades.

“We’re basically mandating it,” says Michael B. Alexander, Lasell’s president.

I’m surprised this hasn’t happened before. After all, LMSs (even the open source ones like Moodle) are expensive to operate and universities want to make the most of their investments. Moreover, it’s easy to track students (and faculty) when you use them, thereby satisfying the urges of administrative control freaks everywhere. That article even introduced me to a new term: “LMS usage deficit.” I think any administrator who uses that term is basically showing their hand. They want all faculty to use the LMS whether they want to or not.

Why might some faculty resist using a particular LMS? Leave aside the fact that they might be philosophically opposed to the concept of online learning. What if the system itself…cough…Blackboard…cough…stinks? After all, how many institutions actually have enough shared governance to give faculty a significant say in educational technology decisions? I recently approached a faculty member on our IT Board top ask about getting the university to run WordPress on our servers and he started laughing hysterically. Apparently, I’ll be lucky if that happens before I retire.

Despite such rather obvious concerns, the faculty at Lasell haven’t quite digested the implications of all this:

The plan does not appear to have run up against much resistance from Lasell faculty. But while the usage thresholds proposed by Alexander are slight, the president might be treading a fine line when it comes to requiring that faculty use particular features in Moodle. “If you’re going to see faculty resistance, it’s going to be if they are told what tools they have to use,” says Cristina Haverty, chair of the department of athletic training and exercise science.

I guarantee you that the situation she describes is coming somewhere, sometime soon. If it’s not done in the name of cost-cutting, it will be done in the name of “customer service.” At that point, the AAUP and every other defender of academic freedom is going to have to make the case that how educational content is being delivered is just as important as what educational content is being delivered. Otherwise, academic freedom is going to go the way of the face-to-face class in the all-online higher education utopia that is apparently just over the edge of the horizon.

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