I am no longer anti-MOOC.

6 06 2014

You may have noticed my general failure to avoid discussing MOOCs lately. “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” Actually, that’s not an entirely accurate assessment. There’s my latest for Chronicle Vitae, which is entirely MOOC-free. And sometimes instead of writing exclusively about MOOCs these days, I find myself writing about things that are MOOC-ish (MOCs, POCs, XOCs, etc.) or, like that Academe article of mine, I write about MOOCs in a wider context of technological threats to faculty prerogatives.

The more I think about it, the more I think that this last subject is where the real battle for the future of higher education will occur. While Coursera might love to stuff MOOCs down our throats, administrators of ill will are much more likely to use a wide range of technological tools to change higher education for the worse by making most faculty irrelevant. After all, the vast majority of us are too busy or too old school to follow every little twist and turn in education technology. That’s why it should be easy to slip something by us.

Which is why I’m making this announcement: I am no longer anti-MOOC (and not just because I like DS106). Anti-MOOC is so 2013. I am now anti- “the misuse of technology to destroy higher education by usurping faculty prerogatives.” Of course, that INCLUDES the vast majority of MOOCs, but really the threat we face is so much bigger than MOOCs and their ilk.

In order to spread the word about what’s going on, I’ve decided to get my act together and take it on the road. Yes, I’ve just started working up a presentation for interested faculty everywhere (and am teaching myself Keynote in order to do it) which I’m tentatively calling, “Educational Technology, Budgetary Priorities and Academic Freedom.” Anybody interested in booking me to present this analysis for their event need only contact me at the e-mail address here on the right.

Does this mean I’m selling out? The answer to that question is, “Sort of.” If you happen to have money to pay for my services, I will accept it. However, if you are an impoverished faculty group (and of course I know the vast majority of faculty groups are very impoverished), I’ll go anywhere and speak just for expenses, just like all the speakers I know through AAUP do all the time.

PS If you need a reference, contact the nice people at the Connecticut AAUP. I had more fun speaking there last year than I ever thought possible, and all they gave me was a personalized poster (which I will treasure for the rest of my life or until I get replaced by a robot, whichever comes first).





Welcome to my nightmare.

3 06 2014

So I’ve been reading Piketty. For an economist, he writes really well. While some of the math is a little over my head, it’s still pretty easy to find lots of points with which I agree. While I’m not done with the book yet, I can already tell that David Graeber is right when he explains that the overall argument in Piketty’s Capital is a lot tamer than Marx’s:

Piketty…begins his book by denouncing “the lazy rhetoric of anti-capitalism”. He has nothing against capitalism itself – or even, for that matter, inequality. He just wishes to provide a check on capitalism’s tendency to create a useless class of parasitical rentiers.

“Parasitical rentiers?” Hmmm……What industry does that remind me of? Give me a minute! I have it at the tip of my tongue…

I. “How American Universities Turned Into Corporations”

There was a TIME Magazine article a little ways back by the guy who did that “Ivory Tower” documentary that tries to explain how American universities turned into corporations. There’s not really anything in it with which I disagree, but it nonetheless makes me uncomfortable.

No, I do not feel tacitly responsible for ripping off my students: Exactly the opposite. The article treats colleges and universities as if they’re monolithic entities when, in fact, they’re filled with factions: Administrators, faculty, staff, students. Focusing simply on the faculty administrative divide: Everybody’s administration does plenty of things that they absolutely hate. Did the faculty request that new climbing wall in the gym? No. Did the faculty suggest the last thirty deanlets that the administration hired? Of course not. Did the faculty request that the university start hiring adjuncts? The vast majority of us weren’t even around when that started, but we get blamed for it anyways.

Want to know how universities turned into corporations? Corporations decided they wanted to stop paying taxes. In response, governments cut back on funding universities and administrators started behaving like corporate executives in order to make up for the shortfalls. Of course, corporate executives expect everyone to take the fall for their bad decisions so that they can go merrily along, falling upwards into their next high-paying job.

Here’s a cautionary tale out of my university that explains how this principle plays out in real life. Last December, the system decided that our budget needed a three million dollar haircut. The President announced that fifty faculty positions, including tenure-track positions, would be cut. A bunch of my friends in our campus AAUP chapter went into long meetings with the President to see if those cuts could be directed elsewhere. The cuts went down to twenty-one non-tenure track people, but the President then raised the teaching load of most of the faculty (except those with “administrative duties”) to a four-four. Of course, my friends supported no such thing, but the President claimed that the AAUP had supported her plan. What they did was accept the assumption that the three million haircut was inevitable, and since a university is not a democracy, this was the result.

That’s how academic capitalism works. Administrators may consult with a wide range of people on campus, but the decision is always theirs. Yet in the press, everybody on campus gets the blame. Blaming the faculty for the corporate university is like blaming gas station attendants for Exxon’s record on global warming. The culpability is not shared equally.

II. Academic capitalism is not very good at academics or capitalism.

Staying in the Colorado State University System, the edtech-obsessed among you may have seen some really interesting news over at e-Literate that my friends Phil Hill and Michael Feldstein have broken. Apparently, a whole bunch of public universities are developing their own online education consortium. I was kind of surprised to see that Colorado State University in Fort Collins is involved because we kind of have our own online education arm already, but who am I to argue with “progress?”

This all goes back to that really glib e-mail that Historiann posted a few weeks back. As Michael explains it language only slightly less obscure:

Indiana University has been the driving force behind the creation of a new organization to develop a “learning ecosystem”. At least ten schools are being quietly asked to contribute $1 million each over a three-year period to join the consortium. The details of what that $1 million buys are unclear at this point. The centerpiece for the short-term appears to be a contract with Instructure for use of the Canvas LMS. But there are also hints of ambitious plans regarding learning object repositories and learning analytics.

Frankly, I have no idea what a learning object repository is, but I do know that $1 million is a lot of money, particularly when my own school, CSU-Pueblo, was just asked to cut $3 million from its budget. Not only that, the folks up north also want to build a new football stadium in downtown Fort Collins and the system wants to build a new campus in South Denver. Is this really a good time to start a giant online endeavor WHEN YOUR SYSTEM ALREADY HAS ONE? If universities are businesses and students are our customers, shouldn’t we do something more to help our existing customers first? That’s not exactly good capitalism.

It’s not good academics either. As Michael explained in another part of that first post I quoted:

At the recorded CSU meeting, one of the presenters—it’s impossible to tell which is the speaker from the recording we have—acknowledges that the meetings were largely conducted in secret when challenged by a faculty member on the lack of faculty involvement. He cited sensitive negotiations among the ten universities and Instructure as the reason.

Similarly, here’s Phil explaining the risks to shared governance inherent in this project, which is called “Unizin”:

In the Unizin content repository case, what would be more natural is for the provosts to first help define what learning content should be shared – learning objects, courseware, courses, textbooks – and under what conditions. After defining goals it would be appropriate to describe how a software platform would facilitate this content sharing, with CIOs taking a more active role in determining whether certain scenarios are feasible and which platforms are the best fit. Throughout the process faculty would ideally have the opportunity to give input on needs, to give feedback on proposed solutions, and to have visibility in the decision process.

Whether this type of open, collaborative decision process is happening behind closed doors is not known, but the apparent need to keep the process quiet raises the risk of pushback on the consortium decision.

Fearless executives don’t ask permission of their faculty or their students. Unfortunately, it’s the faculty that are supposed to provide a check on the excesses of academic capitalism, yet the vast majority of us have been effectively silenced because we’re either too scared or too compromised to say what we really think about what’s going on around us. Of course, I think that stinks, but it’s also a really terrible strategy for surviving into the long run.

III. Welcome to my nightmare.

So why would the universities involved in Unizin feel the need to keep things quiet from their own faculty? I would suggest that the answer to this question is because they know how faculty feel about a really important part of this project and they want to keep that information from them – namely MOOCs. Yes, it appears that I will soon be working in the same system as a MOOC provider, or at least a provider of something that looks awfully MOOC-ish to me.

While this argument is not featured in any of Phil or Michael’s Unizin’s posts, I wrote Phil and asked him to lay out his case that this thing at CSU-Fort Collins will look MOOC-ish for me. Here’s how he responded:

1. Fort Collins already has one MOOC. They seem quite proud of it.

2. Phil wrote me that:

“For Unizin in general, we have heard from several sources that heard pitches to CIC schools that MOOCs were core part of mission,” then he noted that MOOCs are listed on this slide as part of Unizin’s core mission, alongside flipped classes and badges. In other words, everything I love is available in one place!

3. He also noted that a white paper from the provosts involved has statement about MOOCs.

While I haven’t cleared this analysis through either Phil and Michael, it looks to me that once you open up a learning management system to admit more people and close off a MOOC to restrict it to paying people, you have something that looks like the average Provost’s wet dream: Scores of paying students with very few of those nasty faculty there to muck up the revenue stream by demanding nasty things like a living wage and health benefits.

Is any of this a direct assault on my job? No, but it is an indirect assault on my university. As I suggested in my Academe article, when administrations get deeply involved in edtech decisions it becomes really easy for them to direct resources from the jobs of living breathing professors to technology designed to scale up the education process beyond recognition. While tenured people like me might not be on the cut list anytime soon, if every school demands its own MOOC (or MOOC-ish) endeavor we may not have any students left to teach before too long.

To those of you who suggest that this is a good thing because it will save students money, I’d urge you to spend some time with a typical corporate-minded college administrator to realize that you’re barking up the wrong tree. As Piketty understands, corporate capitalists do not check themselves. It’s up to the political system to check them on everybody’s behalf. Since we don’t get to vote for our college presidents, shared governance is all we have left. If that’s too inconvenient, then my ultimate nightmare will likely ensue sooner rather than later.





Teaching at Harvard means never having to say you’re sorry.

20 05 2014

I’m afraid that this is going to destroy grad students,” one professor told me. “Not because of what it will do to elite universities, but other places. Why should a community college hire a new PhD when they can pipe in Stephen Greenblatt?”

That quote comes from the Harvard alumni magazine via a post I wrote last year. I titled that post “Stephen Greenblatt will not take questions,” which happens to be the answer to the question in that quote. This was particularly true at that time because Stephen Greenblatt did not have a MOOC. In the future, Stephen Greenblatt will still not take questions even though he’s now making a MOOC of his own.

Should the English grad students of the world be worried? On Sunday, the Boston Globe offered a behind-the-scenes look at the making of his MOOC (along with another one being developed by the Harvard historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich). Toward the end we find out that Greenblatt shares precisely these concerns about MOOCs:

Yet Greenblatt also counts himself among the many Harvard faculty worried about the potential downsides of Harvard’s foray into online courses. He and Ulrich were among several dozen professors who wrote a letter to the administration last year seeking more discussion about the “costs and consequences” of HarvardX.

Among his worries: Will cash-strapped colleges park their students in front of MOOCs and cut back on hiring professors? What will that do to the careers of up-and-coming scholars, and what will it mean for students’ access to faculty mentoring?

“There are serious, completely unresolved questions all over the place here,” Greenblatt said.

One of the concerns in that letter Greenblatt signed was “the impact online courses will have on the higher education system as a whole.” His quote in that story strongly suggests that Harvard has yet to address that concern (or in fact any concerns at all), but Greenblatt is becoming a superprofessor anyway.

To be fair to both Greenblatt and Ulrich, there seem to be concerns about the misuse of MOOCs all over Harvard amongst the people working on them. This is from HarvardX’s Justin Reich:

The faculty who teach MOOCs and see potential are among the same faculty who are concerned with cost, value, and ethics. The HarvardX team has the same combination of idealism and caution; we had a staff retreat on the Friday before the article came out, where we talked very explicitly about the ways in which MOOCs could exacerbate educational inequalities. Of course, on balance, the team leans towards optimism, and so they are there under the sewing machines, trying to make them work. But nearly everyone on this project is looking carefully at the consequences.

Of course, they’re still all doing MOOCs too. There’s lots of introspection at Harvard apparently, but absolutely no restraint. MOOC first, answer questions later.

What makes this attitude doubly infuriating is that future problems are readily apparent just from the information in that Boston Globe article. Here’s the key part:

As for the cost question, Harvard officials insist HarvardX must and will find a way to support itself and not detract from campus needs. The goal is a mix of funding sources, including philanthropy and licensing software and courses to other institutions. A donation, for example, paid for the deluxe studio in Widener Library.

And Harvard is beginning to experiment with ways to charge MOOC learners for extras, like a verified certificate or even course credit.

Peter K. Bol is one of the professors who taught the MOOC on China and is a vice provost overseeing HarvardX. He thinks every MOOC should have an automated version available for free. But for virtual office hours and other interactions with professors and teaching assistants, he imagines a small fee. A modest $10 or $20 from thousands of students could cover the cost, he said.

“As we go forward we have to always ask the question, how can we afford this?” he said.

Leave aside the obvious problem associated with asking students to pay up in order to “make magic happen.” People paying edX for course credit will not be paying local community colleges or public regional comprehensive universities for the same thing. And of course the fastest way to raise money is to convince colleges to award credit for MOOCs with ordinary faculty serving as the people who students can see for help.

To me, this suggests that the future of MOOCs will not be determined on the production side. Coursera, edX and the rest of them are going to keep on chugging MOOCs out until the money disappears. The future of MOOCs will be determined on the consumption side. MOOC producers will not be satisfied with revenue that comes from certificates or from charging bored people who already have college degrees to do Google hangouts with their superprofessors. MOOCs for credit is where the money is.

How will faculty at community colleges and public regional comprehensive universities respond when their administrations sign secret deals with edX or Coursera and then try to shove MOOCs down their throats? I’ve seen many hints that this is already happening and the faculty at such schools have already responded badly. It’s time for education and edtech journalists to stop focusing on the Stephen Greenblatts and the Harvards of the world and start doing stories on what happens out in flyover country when the MOOC rubber meets the less-selective university road.





“[T]he low end always wins.”

16 05 2014

You were just dying to know what I think of that video from the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education, weren’t you? George Siemens has already called it a “flailing rage walrus response to MOOCs,” and the campaign itself the “Thrun of anti-MOOC.” Well, in my effort to be the George Siemens of the anti-MOOC crowd, I want to try to look at the video rationally.

First, let’s talk about the good stuff. Oh my God, where did they get those xMOOC promotional films???!!! They look like the https://moreorlessbunk.wordpress.com/wp-admin/edit-comments.phpworst daytime TV ads for online for-profit schools x 3. You know what I mean, “You can go to school in your pajamas.” [Or is that one just a Rocky Mountain thing? Maybe TressieMC can help me there.] I also appreciate all Alice in Wonderland references wherever they may surface. On the other hand, the cartoon figures of the actual people involved just seem gratuitously nasty.

Similarly, the subtitle, “Teaching Millions or Making Millions?” gives away the video’s basic argument, which to me is also its biggest flaw. The campaign is upset that the Lords of MOOC Creation act as if they’re saving in the world when they’re really trying to make money, and so am I. But that’s a pretty lazy argument upon which to rest an entire video. People like me, those of us whose class politics resemble the CIO c. 1937, will probably be swayed by an argument like that, but not the vast middle ground who haven’t really formed an opinion on the subject of MOOCs yet. That’s why I’ve spent so much time on this blog trying to explain why MOOCs – to be specific, commercially-sponsored xMOOCs – are bad pedagogy compared to their traditional alternatives.

Which goes to the other obvious counterargument to this particular attack: All MOOCs are not the same. It sounds as if this is the line of attack that Stephen Downes would spring upon the campaign if they actually accepted his invitation to debate MOOCs with him, and of course he’s right. As I’ve written before, getting crowdsourced out of your job is no different than being replaced by an xMOOC. Nevertheless, I think everybody should have the opportunity to take a cMOOC in something, during college or afterwards, so that they can take advantage of the collective wisdom that these groups offer and learn the kinds of skills that they can’t get in a traditional college class. I’ll even go so far as to suggest that every college student today should take at least one online class just so that they can have that kind of experience under their belt.

The problem comes with the possibility that MOOCs, cMOOCs or xMOOCs, may sweep everything else away in its wake. Clayton Christensen, who really deserves just as much flack from the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education as the MOOC purveyors are getting, has repeatedly suggested, “[T]he low end always wins.” Like with Walmart, he’s arguing, the bad will drive out the good because everybody cares about price and nobody really cares about quality.

Honestly, I constantly go back and forth over whether Christensen is right about that or not. After reading Sarah Kendzior on the state of college with respect to the broader economy these days, I’m on the “Christensen is right” bandwagon this week. Who knows where I’ll be next week? I think I could live with this proposal to treat MOOCs as health clubs rather than as hospitals (it’ll make sense if you read it), but I simply don’t trust the average administrator to exercise any particular online educational option wisely without substantial faculty input.

So in this environment, who can blame the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education for flailing around like a rage walrus? After all, when discussing the future of higher education, we faculty have so much to be angry about.





The MOOC/Online Education Industrial Complex.

14 05 2014

“This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.”

– Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Farewell Address,” 1961.

The other night, Audrey Watters and Kate Bowles were picking apart a new Sebastian Thrun interview on Twitter. While such activities are indeed highly amusing, I’ve been busy writing about refrigerators these last few days so I figured I would just let it go. But then Audrey linked to the job description of a Udacity Course Manager. Here’s my favorite part:

“A Course Manager is a teacher, mentor, and technical reviewer in one. You should take pride in ensuring that your students receive the best possible learning experience by motivating and working with them 1-on-1, mentoring them as they develop their portfolio, reviewing course materials, and giving insightful feedback to the Course Development Team.”

“Where I come from,” I tweeted, “they call course managers “professors.” But when I went back and looked at the ad again I noticed that no specific content knowledge is required to be a Udacity course manager at all.

Does anybody else see a problem with this?

Udacity, Post-Pivot:

If you’ve been paying attention to MOOCs for some length of time, you undoubtedly remember the infamous Sebastian Thrun Fast Company interview in which he basically called all of his company’s courses crap. It even gave birth to its own hashtag, #thrunpivot. In this new interview, he doubles down on that proposition:

The MOOC that we created at Udacity was our first attempt to democratize education and we learned from it. Like everyone, we made mistakes. We learned we can drastically boost learning outcomes by adding a service layer around MOOCs. It has a huge impact on completion rates and learning outcomes. Many people in the industry would say, ‘We told you so.’

What, pray tell, is a “service layer?” Living breathing human beings who will help guide students through the corridors of knowledge:

At the very beginning you do a Google Hangout and someone from Udacity talks to you. It’s our internal fleet of mentors [who provide coaching through the class]. When we make a class, we have a very different model from a classic MOOC. The team trains mentors specifically for the one class.

I was so troubled by our [former] completion rates. When I called a MOOC a lousy product I wasn’t kidding. [With this new model] we have literally gotten a [course] completion rate of 60 percent.

It would be interesting to know what the difference is between a course manager and a mentor. I’m guessing the course manager serves as the mentors’ boss. Yet some of those course managers are actually part time. Either way, if “the team trains specifically for one class,” who teaches the team? Certainly it can’t be the superprofessor, right? They’re too busy preparing the lectures and otherwise serving humanity. Do they just watch the same videos that everybody else does before they get released to the class?

No matter what, this whole set up is most decidedly not automated education. It’s cheap. It’s online. But it’s not automated. People who need to be trained require money for their labor and the source of that money has to be the students. That’s why Thrun says:

If you’re affluent, we can do a much better job with you, we can make magic happen.

Pardon me while I go vomit.

The New Profitable Non-Profit Model:

While it would be really interesting to contrast Thrun’s new model with a new Boston Globe article in which Clayton Christensen (and a co-author) restate his now very old ideas, I’d rather compare it to another article you may have seen, this one about the University of Southern New Hampshire because I think there’s very little daylight between this and the new Udacity. And Jesus, if this story doesn’t give the average college professor the chills, I don’t know what will:

Delilah Caldwell, a philosophy instructor at Southern New Hampshire University, may well represent the future of higher education’s teaching force.

As one of the first full-time faculty members at Southern New Hampshire’s online college, Ms. Caldwell taught 20 online courses last year: four at a time for five terms, each eight weeks long. The textbooks and syllabi were provided by the university; Ms. Caldwell’s job was to teach. She was told to grade and give feedback on all student work in 72 hours or less.

First of all, this:

Second of all, the 72 hours or less is my favorite part. Suppose you actually want to have a life AND write half-decent comments on your students’ papers. What do you do then? Stupid me, who’s actually going to be dumb enough to assign papers if they’re facing a 72 hour turnaround time on all student-submitted work?

Yes, the academic assembly line workers at the University of Southern New Hampshire get paid relatively well (compared to adjuncts), but I bet the course managers at Udacity do too. The problems here go well beyond that in both cases. No academic freedom. No research. Very little control over your own class. [In the case of MOOCs that goes for both the mentors and to some extent the superprofessor too.] These things aren’t just important to the faculty involved. They’re vitally important to the quality of the course. Happy, knowledgable teachers teach better than peons on an academic assembly line.

Technological enthusiasts may be asking me right now, “Where’s your study on this?” I don’t have one. Neither do the MOOC people. As a recent study I saw via George Siemens has suggested:

To date, there has been little evidence collected that would allow an assessment of whether MOOCs do indeed provide a cost-effective mechanism for producing desirable educational outcomes at scale.

Gee, you’d think somebody would actually bother to study that BEFORE they decided to disrupt higher education. So why do such courses exist then? Are faculty so desperate to be superprofessors that they’re willing to act now and ask questions later? Are students simply pining for them? What if disrupting higher education isn’t such a hot idea after all? I think the reason that both these online facsimiles of real college college courses exist is, to paraphrase Eisenhower, the MOOC/online education – administrative industrial complex.

“Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved”:

The beauty of the Military-Industrial Complex (if such a word is even appropriate for use with such an awful thing) was that all that defense spending offered the economic benefits of being on a permanent wartime footing, but only occasionally did anybody have to go out and kill anybody. After the Manhattan Project, all those incredibly expensive nuclear weapons were never used at all.

What made Eisenhower’s warning about the Military-Industrial Complex so powerful was that here was a guy who knew. The great regret of his presidency was that he hadn’t done enough to stop this reckless spending, and his warning was supposed to help prevent that spending from continuing too far into the future. But the forces that stood to gain the most from that spending, generals and defense contractors, thrust it upon a willing America anyway because it was in their interests, if not the interests of America at large.

I’m beginning to think that administrators and edtech providers of all stripes, MOOCs or otherwise, have an evil tacit bargain all their own. Move college online, the deal goes, not because it will do anything in particular for education, but because it will help backfill all the government funding you’ve been losing over the last few decades. As an added benefit, it will certainly help you cut labor costs as your formally highly-paid, influential teachers can be replaced by an online army of the under-employed, or worse yet, robots.

Meanwhile this revolution is being sold to students for reasons of cost and convenience. As an added benefit, administrators and their private sector clients can make it seem as if such courses will help make college more effective at solving the structural inequalities inherent in our modern economy than they really are. Here’s Christensen and co-author on precisely that point:

Education technology companies and alternative learning providers — not just MOOCs — are finding disruptive footholds by targeting these non-consumers. They note that graduates from even well regarded colleges are struggling to launch their careers, make it into the workforce, or transition between jobs. Innovators are, therefore, beginning to address this widening gap by identifying what employers need and building those skill sets into their curricula.

Why not just sell the college to Subway so that they can turn it into a sandwich university and just get it over with?

Yet if the MOOC you’re taking sucks, why would it make a difference if you’re learning the exact skills that employers want or not? After all, you wouldn’t be learning them particularly well. Even if the MOOC you’re taking didn’t suck, the fact that so many people can learn those skills at the same time will only drive down the wages that graduates would earn for having them. If those skills are best practiced online, our students would then be facing the same kind of job market that new Ph.D.s are, and that’s not good news for anybody.

In short, why would anybody pay to have “magic happen” if they’re never going to get a chance to make a decent living using the skills they learn? If there aren’t any journalists willing to ask Thrun that question, maybe his investors should.





“How could you have dignity in labor if you secretly believe your job shouldn’t exist?”

12 05 2014

The first post I wrote about on this blog after leaving my previous all-MOOCs-all-the-time format was about David Graeber’s short masterpiece on bullshit jobs. My focus then was about bullshit academic jobs. Graeber’s back talking to PBS’ NewsHour about precisely the same thing so I want to revisit the subject too.* This time I’ll consider the non-bullshit jobs of academia, better known as faculty positions.

I remember when I was younger and I was considering going to law school. I finally decided not to because I wanted to be able to look at myself in the mirror every morning. I think Graeber would conclude that I wanted to keep my dignity:

“How could you have dignity in labor if you secretly believe your job shouldn’t exist? But, of course, you’re not going to tell your boss that. So I thought, you know, there must be enormous moral and spiritual damage done to our society. And then I thought, well, maybe that explains some other things, like why is it there’s this deep, popular resentment against people who have real jobs? They can get people so angry at auto-workers, just because they make 30 bucks an hour, which is like nowhere near what corporate lawyers make, but nobody seems to resent them. They get angry at the auto-workers; they get angry at teachers. They don’t get angry at school administrators, who actually make more money. Most of the problems people blame on teachers, and I think on some level, that’s resentment: all these people with meaningless jobs are saying, but, you guys get to teach kids, you get to make cars; that’s real work. We don’t get to do real work; you want benefits, too? That’s not reasonable.”

In other words, we professors pay a premium to do work that doesn’t make us question our overall purpose in the world. Maintaining our dignity has real value. Without that dignity, I don’t see how any adjunct could do what they do for so little. Yet despite our comparatively poor salaries, we still drive ourselves to work harder even as what we do is valued less and less. Soon our dignity may be all we have left.

Using Graeber’s logic, this situation is the result of constant attacks from economic parasites who have nothing better to do with their time. These parasites are the people, Graeber suggests, who are paid:

“to sit in an office, and basically valorize the idea that everybody should look busy all the time, that work is valuable in itself.”

It’s summer now. Does that mean we professors stop working entirely? Of course not, it just means we work differently. Indeed, if I didn’t work during the summer I’m not sure I could afford to stay in my comparatively poor-paying job. The opportunity costs of not being a lawyer would have been too great.

What really makes my blood boil though is the way that the psychic benefits of being a professor are getting priced out of existence. Here, for example, is Historiann describing a situation common to many of us:

“Here’s my thinking: at least 50% of my pique comes from the fact that faculty at my university are dramatically underpaid compared to our “peers” at our own “peer institutions.” I also didn’t get a dime’s worth of a raise between 2008 and 2012, and when I finally got a raise in 2012, it was a measly $1,860! Seriously. Another 25% of the rest of my irritation stems from all of the unpaid labor I do that the university doesn’t even recognize (like donating time to the university archives, one of the causes I was asked to support tonight on the telephone!), and the remaining 25% or so comes from the fact that my research agenda has largely been self-funded. Yes, that’s right: humanities faculty end up paying for the privilege of doing more work, because we end up without any meaningful research or travel funds to help us move our projects forward.”

To make matters worse, administrative pay (to say nothing about the sheer number of administrators) is being driven up to an incredible degree. I don’t begrudge college presidents the first couple of hundred thousands dollars they make each year (after all, I don’t want to spend most of my day begging people for money), but anything above that is basically an obscenity.

So what can be done about this situation? I propose two responses – not solutions, just responses. The first is to rub your dignity in the faces of the undignified every chance you get. Don’t forward your administrators a link to Graeber’s work. This doesn’t have to be cruel. Next time you see your friendly neighborhood Associate Dean, just ask them exactly what they’ve been doing lately. Request that they describe their work life to you in some detail and ask them whether it has achieved any tangible results. If nothing else, this will make you more happy with the choices that you’ve made.

My second response is to value your own time more. I was recently making a fundraising pitch to a big local donor to my university.** Much to my shock, in the middle of a conversation about our university’s troubles, he asked me what I really wanted out of life. Answering that question took some time because the answer wasn’t money. Yes, an extra $20,000/year would be nice, but I’m more interested in time. I’m not talking about living to be a hundred years old here. I’m talking about having the time to do the things I want to do because they make me happy, rather than the things I have to do because somebody with a bullshit job tells me that I have to do them. As one recent study concluded:

“30 percent of faculty time “was spent on activities that are not traditionally thought of as part of the life of an academic.””

That’s meetings and e-mail, people. Not always the worst things in the world, of course, but how many of them really demand your immediate attention? Think how much better your life would be if you can pick and choose from them to a greater extent than you do now. Well, guess what? You can.

Assuming you have the power to determine your own schedule (and most of you professors out there reading this probably do), then do more of what you enjoy and less of what you don’t. This is hardly the same thing as going on strike, but if more of us assert the prerogatives that we’re supposedly paying for through the opportunity costs of doing meaningful work, it may have the same effect.

* For some reason, I’ve been having trouble getting to that PBS link on Chrome since I tweeted it on Saturday. It does, however, work when I switch to Firefox. I have no idea why.

** No, I haven’t sold out completely. This donor is a pro-labor Democrat who I’ve known for over a decade now. The fact that it was for a labor history function explains why I got an invite to the meeting.





“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.








%d bloggers like this: