The first professor I ever TAed for was the urban historian Stan Schultz. Before he retired a few years ago, Stan taught the 500-person US History II survey at UW-Madison, and he was a local legend. Administrative assistants from the department office used to slip into the back of the classroom when he did his impersonation of Billy Sunday during his 1920s lecture because it was just that good.
Shortly after I worked for him, Stan began to offer a version of the course on local public access television. At different times during the day you could watch taped Schultz lectures filmed in a special studio. I heard later that people would stop Stan in the grocery store to tell them how much they enjoyed seeing him on TV (even though they weren’t taking the course), but this still wasn’t the same as the in person experience. He couldn’t impersonate Billy Sunday on television for fear of offending someone. He didn’t quote Harry Truman saying “fuck” twice like he did during another one of his in person lectures.
While I’m tempted to take this post down a well-worn path (and you can read an earlier Schultz-inspired post along those lines here), an article from the Boston Globe I read over the weekend made me think of Schultz for a different reason. It’s called “For online professors, a celebrity side effect.” The subheading reads: “Wardrobe worries and groupies, too.” Much of the text consists of various current or future superprofessors offering quirky stories about the somewhat dark side of Internet fame. To borrow and slightly augment a point that Noel Jackson made on Twitter, the movement of MOOC stories from the business pages to the front page to the Living Section is all the evidence you’ll ever need to argue that MOOCs have jumped the shark (if they hadn’t done so months ago already). However, I’d rather make a different point in the rest of this post.
The great argument in favor of xMOOCs has always been that the best professors now become accessible to anyone, whether they can pay tuition or not. Yet the majority of the superprofessors quoted in that article are assistant professors. No disrespect to the assistant professors of the world, but they have less teaching experience than higher-ranked professors do almost by definition. Equally importantly, by definition, they do not have tenure. [Tenure, of course, being the only reliable guarantee of academic freedom and academic freedom being the best available guarantee that the material being taught is true in both the literal and spiritual senses of that word.]
My understanding was that Stan taught the 500-person history survey because he was the only professor in the department willing to do it. Because he was the only professor willing to do it, he got very good at it over time. Because he was very good at it, they let him try to teach it over public access television. Stan could do a spellbinding 50-minute lecture from nothing but a 3×5 index card. That is a standard I have only recently reached (although I use 25-odd historical pictures on PowerPoint instead). I often think of Stan when I hear or read that all lectures are inherently boring. He’s living proof that they’re not.
Why then are so many assistant professors teaching MOOCs instead of more people like Stan? Well, of course, these assistant professors might all be just as excellent, but anybody who’s taught online for a community college for any length of time is more qualified to bring college learning to the general public through the Internet than anybody teaching just face-to-face at an elite institution, experienced or not. In truth, rank doesn’t matter to commercial MOOC providers. Their entire reason for being depends upon the name identification of their partners: Harvard, MIT, Wellesley, whatever. The superprofessors are merely the embodiment of that brand.
That’s why scholarship or teaching skills don’t matter to Coursera or edX anywhere near as much as the places where their superprofessors teach. It doesn’t matter then that the “best of the best” may be someone who’s actual teaching experience is rather slim. Indeed, as my friend Kate reminded me this morning, even if your superprofessor is an experienced educator, their inevitable huge team of underpaid grad students likely perform most of the functions that we used to associate with actual teaching.
Perhaps so many assistant professors are quoted in that article because most of us who’ve been around for a while know that the proper academic response when the papers want to know whose shirts you wear is, “Buzz off!!! It’s not about me. It’s about the material.” Anything else is an invitation to create a cult of personality.
We academics are a funny bunch. Most of the ones I’ve known (my own father included) would go to great lengths to avoid drawing attention to themselves. Think of the number of academics you follow on Twitter whose avatars aren’t pictures of themselves and you’ll get an idea of what I mean. This blog, my Twitter account, the fact that I actively want to write for popular media outlets – all of these things might be construed as my trying to call attention to myself, but I would draw a distinction between calling attention to yourself and calling attention to your ideas. I mentioned my twin causes last week. I also want to sell books full of my ideas. While none of these goals are particularly noble, at least they don’t require my telling you about my wardrobe or my nonexistent groupies.
They say that all publicity is good publicity, but the fact that Niall Ferguson periodically shows up in the gossip pages does nothing to improve the quality of his teaching or his scholarship. All publicity may be good publicity if you want to be Niall Ferguson when you make it in academia, but if you want to be Niall Ferguson when you make it in academia then I think your priorities need some serious readjustment.