“And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear.”

4 11 2013

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.

Dear MOOC Messiah Squad: You are expendable.

3 10 2013

Well, I’m not sure I can actually answer Evgeny Morozov’s really excellent question, but I can tell you this: When everybody learns to code, there will be a lot of downward pressure on wages and benefits for coding jobs. It’s a simple function of supply and demand. When skills become more common, they earn less compensation.

You can already see something like this happening in the digital humanities. While I’m hardly an expert on this sort of thing, I do feel safe quoting Richard Grusin’s epic MLA paper from earlier this year on the “Dark Side of the Digital Humanities” to help me make one narrow point:

The category of “digital humanities” covers a diverse and heterogeneous range of projects, including but in no means limited to publishing, pedagogy, editorial, creative, and critical work, ranging from close individual attention to single texts to the creation of games and other interactive formats to the mining of big data for patterns imperceptible to the individual scholar). Taken as a whole, however, digital humanities reproduces structurally both within itself and among the humanities writ large the proliferation of temporary, precarious labor that has marked late 20th and 21st century global capitalism. Substantive digital project often entail collaborations among tenured and tenure-track faculty, students, and more precarious technical and non-technical staff. To avoid becoming obsolete such projects will inevitably need ongoing or renewed support if they are to be updated or redone as new technologies continue to replace the technologies with which DH projects were initially created.

To put it bluntly, only one class of the participants that Grusin notes in these projects are tenured. As Wendy Hui Kyong Chun noted in that same session:

DH allows us to tread water: to survive, if not thrive (***think here of the ways in which so many DH projects and jobs depend on soft money and the ways in which DH projects are often—and very unfairly—not counted towards tenure or promotion***). It allows us to sustain ourselves and to justify our existence in an academy that is increasingly a sinking ship.

In other words, the digital humanities employment infrastructure is a new one, and in some ways it’s even more precarious than the regular academic employment structure that it supplements. As a result, administrators controlling the cash have a greater sway over its development than any other kind of scholarship inside a university. Don’t get me wrong: I think the digital humanities are extremely cool. The people doing it should be encouraged to do more, but to ignore the politics of this technological transformation would lead to disaster down the road for everyone involved.

The same is true for MOOCs. While the superprofessors get all the attention, MOOCs are a jobs program for a whole bunch of people who are technologically inclined. Let me quote Karen Head (again) to suggest the extent of this employment surge:

The preparation of a MOOC, unlike that of a traditional course, requires working with videographers, instructional designers, IT specialists, and platform specialists. For many MOOCs this means that an instructor and a teaching assistant must fill most of those support roles. In fact, one of my colleagues who taught a MOOC actually built a recording studio in the basement of his home. Even with our team of 19, we still needed several other people to provide support. We now also have an internal project manager to coordinate our videography needs.

Has somebody started tenuring instructional designers and IT specialists and nobody told me? I doubt it. yet in my experience it is precisely these people in IT or IT-related positions who are the most enthusiastic about MOOCs, even more so than the superprofessors that run them. Yet ironically, once any particular MOOC has been perfected (assuming such a thing is even possible), it is these jobs that will be the most unnecessary, even more so than those of the professors whose jobs those MOOCs might replace. After all, if the university has to keep shooting retakes, the MOOC won’t save anybody any money. “What about MOOC maintenance?,” you ask? That kind of routine IT work is the reason we have electronic outsourcing.

This is a common problem in the tech industry. Indeed, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, engineers in India can seamlessly replace engineers in America in just about any IT project. This is from p. 287 of Hedrick Smith’s recent book, Who Stole the American Dream? (which is very, very good):

“Even so, losses of solid middle-class jobs now ripple throughout the knowledge economy. Banks, airlines, hotels, retailers, investment banks, law firms, and even hospitals and American states have been shipping work offshore. In Madras, India, a Los Angeles Times reporter came across an offshore operation where ‘task by task, function by function, the American office is being hollowed out and reconstituted in places like this…’ He described a local shopping arcade where researchers, librarians, claims processors, proofreaders, accountants, and graphic designers were churning out work for U.S. tax accountants, insurance companies and law firms.”

What’s to stop these folks from doing IT design for Coursera, Udacity or any college with MOOCish aspirations? For all I know they already are.*

Regular face-to-face professorial positions, like traditional service jobs, are more connected to particular places, namely university campuses, unless we let the MOOC Messiah Squad convince administrators and the public otherwise. This doesn’t mean that MOOCs can’t be cool under some circumstances AS LONG AS THEY REMAIN UNDER FACULTY CONTROL. That requires preventing privatization and the inevitable race to the bottom that goes with it. This is important not just for employment purposes, but for quality control of the final result as a lousy online education is of no use to anybody. To ignore the politics of MOOCs in favor of some misguided technological solutionist agenda will just lead to all of us, including our students, meeting each other on the unemployment line.

* I want to make one thing abundantly clear: My problem here is not with the people of India, Ireland or anywhere else with a rising class of knowledge professionals. My problem is with the parasitic companies that create a global race to the bottom solely to expand their already fat profit margins. This hurts workers everywhere in the long run. Global solidarity is the only solution to this problem, but that explanation is for another blog at another time.

Duty now for the future.

15 01 2013

I had no plans to post anything today until I ran into @Zunguzungu’s thorough Twitter fisking of this depressing NYT article about Udacity’s deal with San Jose State to create MOOCs for their remedial classes. Like Aaron, I am appalled by the idea of Democratic Governor Jerry Brown cold-calling Sebastian Thrun to whip their higher education problem rather than talking to anyone who actually works in California’s university system. However, I have two related points about all this which, if I remember all of Aaron’s tweets right, he didn’t make.

1. They’re not just outsourcing education, they’re outsourcing professors. From the article:

“The Udacity deal could blunt some faculty opposition, because the effort will continue to involve professors — but it will also use online course assistants, or “mentors,” hired and trained by Udacity.”

[emphasis added]

Raise your hands if you think Udacity’s “mentors” will have tenure. The privatizers are simply following in the footsteps of the exploitive labor system that public higher education has already pioneered.

By the way, in traditional higher education, course design usually involves nobody but professors. The glass isn’t half full, it’s half empty.

2. This news is a disaster for higher education of all kinds, especially non-MOOC online education. From the article again:

The cost of each three-unit course will be $150, significantly less than regular San Jose State tuition.

Now Aaron was right to remind everyone:

But I think the more interesting comparison is in the other direction – between the price of this MOOC deal and other online courses. Until the year of the MOOC, I spent months and months bitching about the faults of regular old online courses in this space. One of the things I kept wondering is why online courses aren’t cheaper than regular face-to-face courses. Apparently, now they are – in this instance at least.

If you can get the same credit from a $150 MOOC that you can in an online course which costs much more because it has a living, breathing professor at the other end of the computer screen, which one are you going to take? In the regular online course versus face-to-face course, at least those of us on campus have the advantage of direct contact with students and football games to occupy their Saturday afternoons during the fall. If you’ve already compromised your education by moving it online, the only thing left to haggle about is price and universities with online arms that cost as much as on campus classes are going to find themselves in a terrible bargaining position.

If both these points have a theme it’s that we have a duty now for the future to prevent MOOCs from destroying a higher education system that has taken years to build up. Sure it may look like we’re whipping today’s problems good, but we’re really only whipping ourselves.

PS The Devo theme of this post is no accident. As Jeff Cowie explains in his magnificent Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (p. 343):

“[Devo’s] Dadaesque anti-agitprop, as frontman Mark Mothersbaugh put it, was a sort of “guerrilla behavioralist experiment,” and the band’s music, as they repeatedly said, was “the important sound of things falling apart.””

“Oh dear, how I wish I had wings.”

16 07 2012

I may be the only person around who finds it ironic that Chumbawamba broke up while I’m deep into re-reading E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class because I never owned that “Tubthumping” album. I did, however, buy their “English Rebel Songs 1381-1984” from the discount rack the last time I was in London and have been using it in my Labor History class ever since.

“Poverty Knock” as well as the early part of Thompson’s mammoth book are mostly about what English workers lost when they went into the factories. Before industrialization, spinning thread was supplementary to agricultural labor. You and your kids could do it at home when you weren’t farming. You weren’t rich, but you were together. You also controlled your own time and were probably at least marginally happy about that.

Industrialization introduced what Thorstein Veblen referred to as the “discipline of the machine.” You show up at the bell. You do your job all day. If you don’t, your bosses will see you and you won’t work at all. They wanted not just your body, but your mind in the work because they thought they owned you.

I think you can see this online education analogy coming from a mile away, but it’s actually worse than just what you expect. There is something weirdly retrograde about turning people’s homes into education factories, and that’s exactly what online education does. They can give you online office hours, monitor your keystrokes, read every word you write to your students – all while you’re in the friendly confines of your own home because they’re too cheap to find you a proper office.

Everybody wonders what students are going to do when they can’t go to keggers at frats anymore. What are professors going to do when they can’t meet and talk at the office? Seriously, you think meetings are bad now? Wait until they’re all online. Separating us into our own homes also makes it harder for professors to cause trouble on campus. After all, we might demand crazy inefficient things like shared governance and other lost relics of a bygone age like tenure, health insurance and a work/life balance.

To put it another way, when traditional teaching gets destroyed all we’ll have left is the work. If higher education becomes entirely about production, then the workers aren’t going to be allowed to do anything but produce. Here’s a quote in Thompson from a Manchester silk weaver (p. 297) that I marked for future reference:

“Labour is always carried to market by those who have nothing else to keep or to sell, and who, therefore, must part with it immediately….The labour which I…might perform this week, if I, in imitation of the capitalist, refuse to part with it…because an inadequate price is offered me for it, can I bottle it? [C]an I lay it up in salt?”

No you can’t, and your administration knows this too. They also know that the vast majority of us (especially the adjuncts) are already working ourselves to death as it is, so the only way to make us more efficient is to tie us to our machines 24/7.* You’ll wish you had wings because that’s the only way you’ll ever get out at that point. It won’t stop when you get home because you’ll be home already.

Move your work entirely onto the machine and you’ll have to sell your labor all night and all day because that will become the new normal when our time is all that we have left to sell. The pathetic thing about we professors is that so many of us are willing to ruin our lives voluntarily by helping to make this transition happen.

* I’m not kidding about that 24/7 thing. Do you know how many people sleep with their phones on near their bedsides these days?

“I’ve got to get my feet back on the ground.”

9 07 2012

Looks like I have a newer, new hero now: Leslie M-B from the Clutter Museum, who just kills it in an epic post that you should read in its entirety right here.* Like she says, she’s untenured and she’s taking on the President of her own university, blogging under her real name. One of those presidential links about the need to change the concept of shared governance today in our ever-changing world is my starting point here:

Historically, the faculty have control of the curriculum, but it is becoming increasingly clear that new mechanisms of shared governance must be invented to assure that decisions are made in a timely fashion that respond to changing student demands and needs. Apparently, the University of Virginia President spent too much time justifying the status quo decision-making apparatus of the University and the Board sought new leadership with an urgency about how the University responds to its environment. Makes sense to me.

Wait a second! I thought universities have survived for centuries without responding to outside demands in a constantly changing environment. Here’s Sebastian Thrun again (via Historiann):

“[T]he world’s first university appeared in Bologna in 1088. “At the time, 350 years before Gutenberg, the lecture was the most effective way to convey information.” Then came the printing press, industrialisation, celluloid, the web. “And miraculously, professors today teach exactly the same way they taught a thousand years ago! The university has been, surprisingly, the least innovative of all places in society.”

Really? The oldest (which are often the best) universities must have been doing something right in order to have survived for so long. Otherwise, our ever-turning world would have swept them away. No, I’m not a conservative. I’m an historian and I think a little historical perspective actually helps here.

Successful universities are designed for the long run. They don’t get distracted by all the latest educational fads because they have a core mission that they’re trying fulfill – Remember education? – and fad following distracts from that core mission. Shared governance exists in part so that faculty can remind administrations and adminstrators about what really matters.

The average tenure of university presidents these days is eight and a half years. Tenured faculty, on the other hand, tend to stay put for much longer. As a result, we’re the ones with the greatest interest in keeping the university’s feet firmly planted on the ground. Thanks to tenure (since we aren’t all as brave as Leslie), we’re the ones who are most likely to actually tell the emperor that they have no clothes.

Yet if lack of clothes were the only problem involved, the emperor could always put a new suit on and the problem would be solved. However, once you drive off the faculty (and perhaps students) by nickel and diming the physical campus to death and turning your institution into an eminently flexible cyber clown college, there’s no going back. The status quo decision making apparatus is designed to prevent that sort of thing from happening, like it seems to have done at the University of Virginia after it got bypassed initially.

The world may be turning, but there’s no reason that higher ed necessarily has to follow every little turn with it. Instability may par for the course in the business world, but I certainly hope that most universities will last a little longer than the latest Internet bubble.

* Yes, she’s very nice to me too, but come on! Read the whole thing and you’ll see why I would recommend it even if I didn’t get mentioned at all.

Are college professors working class?

5 07 2012

Audrey Watters is my new hero. Considering the general subject of this blog of late, she should probably be my old hero. Nonetheless, considering her position as an ed tech journalist it took some guts to come out and write this about the controversy over those Mystery Science Theatre 3000-style Khan Academy parodies circulating out there on the Internet:

[T]his isn’t just a matter of highlighting pedagogical problems in the Khan Academy videos or with their usage in the classroom. This is about power: “arrogance” connotes superiority and power; “disparagement” seeks to displace or depreciate power. Who has the authority to speak about or dismiss pedagogy? Who gets to speak about math and science? These aren’t simply matters of education or expertise but rather of political power as it’s wielded within our current education reform narrative. And that is a narrative that’s painted Khan as a revolutionary hero, while painting teachers as reactionary villains.

[Emphasis in original]

What do most of the edtech startups of the world, the people who fund them and the university administrations that contract their services want to do with that power? Push teachers of all kinds off the shop floor so that they have to accept any terms of employment that they are offered if they want to teach again in the new tech-centered world of education that they are all trying to create. It reminds me of what happened to iron workers in America during the 1870s when the Bessemer steel process finally took off.

But college professors, you say, aren’t exactly blue collar. They don’t have to accept the same crap that “ordinary” workers do, as described brilliantly (with tons of links in the original post at Crooked Timber) by Chris Bertram, Corey Robin and Alex Gourevitch:

On pain of being fired, workers in most parts of the United States can be commanded to pee or forbidden to pee. They can be watched on camera by their boss while they pee. They can be forbidden to wear what they want, say what they want (and at what decibel), and associate with whom they want. They can be punished for doing or not doing any of these things—punished legally or illegally (as many as 1 in 17 workers who try to join a union is illegally fired or suspended). But what’s remarkable is just how many of these punishments are legal, and even when they’re illegal, how toothless the law can be. Outside the usual protections (against race and gender discrimination, for example), employees can be fired for good reasons, bad reasons, or no reason at all. They can be fired for donating a kidney to their boss (fired by the same boss, that is), refusing to have their person and effects searched, calling the boss a “cheapskate” in a personal letter, and more. They have few rights on the job—certainly none of the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Amendment liberties that constitute the bare minimum of a free society; thus, no free speech or assembly, no due process, no right to a fair hearing before a panel of their peers—and what rights they do have employers will fight tooth and nail to make sure aren’t made known to them or will simply require them to waive as a condition of employment. Outside the prison or the military—which actually provide, at least on paper, some guarantee of due process—it’s difficult to conceive of a less free institution for adults than the average workplace.

Do you really think higher education is any different? Do I have to remind you that three quarters of college professors in the United States are part-time or under limited term contracts? For them, often in need of reappointment semester after semester, the situation might actually be worse in some ways. Adjuncts have little choice but to endure a constant assault on their rights and prerogatives if they want to keep their job, just like other working class people do. The restructuring of power relationships in employment and in the classroom brought on by online education is just one aspect of this ongoing struggle.

What separates tenured and tenure-track professors from other working people is, of course, tenure itself. Even though anyone with tenure will be the first one to tell you that the idea that they can’t be fired is a joke, tenure is a lot more job protection than most workers get. That’s precisely why tenure has been under attack for years.

But the war on professors has a lot more fronts than just the battle over tenure. Like the math teachers who are told to show Khan Academy videos rather than actually teach math themselves, the very existence of teachers of any kind is being called into question by people who claim to serve the cause of education. As my intended audience for this blog is other college professors, I tend to stress the importance of self preservation in light of these kinds of attacks. However, teachers, students and the public at large that depends on both those groups should be concerned about the ways in which the very definition of learning itself is being changed.

If I watch videos about engineering, am I qualified to build a bridge in your town? If I watch videos about brain surgery am I qualified to probe around inside your skull? If I watch the History Channel a lot, does that make me an historian?

Like so many other occupations, college professors at all ranks are being de-professionalized because the forces of austerity have targeted labor costs of all kinds, whether the workers drawing the salary they want to cut provide essential value or not. Call me old-fashioned, but I think that learning from a real live teacher is worth the expense (and I’d say that even if I weren’t a teacher myself). If our now constant struggle against those forces of austerity doesn’t make people like me working class, then I don’t know what would.

There’s a class war going on out there, my dear colleagues, and you’re all in the thick of it. Whether academics are willing to recognize that fact, however, is another matter entirely. For the sake of education everywhere, I sincerely hope they are.

History: We’re only in it for the money.

12 06 2012

While I was grading AP exams in Louisville last week, one of the question leaders wore a t-shirt one day with the title of this post on it. Everybody at my table desperately wanted one of their own because they thought it was hilarious. I was the only TT faculty member at the table. The vast majority of people at the table and in the gigantic room were high school history teachers whose sacrifices for the sake of education make mine look puny by comparison.

Then Scott Walker survived recall and I read this (at TPM of all places) and that t- shirt didn’t seem all that funny anymore:

I don’t want to demonize School teachers, and I am sure it must be a tougher job than I think. But over the last 10 years, I have taken a full 1 week off for vacation a grand total of 4 times. I take a day here and a day there, but if I am lucky it will work out to 2 weeks per year, usually less. Then there is the ever present e-mail, texts and phone calls that intrude into my evenings and weekends.

Teachers get that much time off around Christmas time.

You should have heard the string of expletives I was mumbling after reading this. Forget prep time and professional development. I was literally surrounded by hundreds of high school history teachers working their hearts out during their summer break in large part because their salaries stink.

The obvious lesson here is that nobody understands what teachers do. Therefore, it’s imperative that we all tell them. I think adjuncts have taken the lead here nicely on the higher ed level, but I suspect professors at state institutions like mine really need to follow the same course before the majority of the public starts treating us like the teachers and other public employees of Wisconsin.

I have a close friend in the Badger State who works at a community college. His school doesn’t have tenure, but they have a union. “The union is better than tenure,” they told him back in the day. Now the whole history department will have a target on its back since it’s technically in a vocational school already. Justifying your employment is not an exercise you want to have to do at all, but it will likely go over better if you lay the groundwork long in advance.

Which means don’t let technology make you lazy. Just because your job can be automated doesn’t mean it should be automated and it certainly doesn’t mean that you should be happy to let that happen. After all, software doesn’t need health insurance. Autograders don’t need retirement. That’s why the powers that be will drop you in a heartbeat if you make yourself expendable.

I write a lot about the importance of personal interaction with respect to teaching on this blog. That’s not just a good idea for justifying your employment. It’s the right thing to do pedagoically too.

After all, you’re not really in this for the money are you?

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