Surprise refrigeration post!!!

10 04 2014

I’m here in Atlanta for the Organization of American Historians convention. Instead of attending panels, I spent about three hours in the library of the American Society of Heating, Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Engineers taking pictures of old refrigerator ads. Honestly, I’m not sure it was worth the pressure of driving in Atlanta (and that’s only because driving in Atlanta really is THAT bad), but as this was the first time I ever walked into a library or an archive with a camera and a tripod, I thought I’d share.

First, you’ll notice that most of these pictures aren’t that good. When you need them for text rather than pictures I guess this doesn’t matter, but since I wanted these for a potential refrigeration roadshow I was hoping for better. After a little while I ditched the tripod entirely just so that they all wouldn’t look like I was photographing them from the side (which I had to do while the camera was on the tripod). Second, the content of all these ads really is wonderful. I think there is something about refrigerators that leads their manufacturers to project society’s anxieties upon them. This is particularly true of gender.

As advertisements aren’t protected by copyright, let me do at least a little show and tell here, with pictures that are hopefully big enough for you to read the wonderful fine print. None of these were dated unless the magazine’s date was on the reverse:

My Time Is My Own

This is one of what I’ve come to call “Refrigerator as Liberation” ads. Yes, it’s for a whole kitchen, but the refrigerator is the biggest part. I think it’s interesting that the appliance is marketed directly at women. In earlier days when these things were more expensive, that wasn’t always the case.

DSC00801

This one reminds me of those old Listerine ads: “Suspect yourself first.” Selling refrigerators through anxiety is possible only because the controls on the appliances were so bad that they needed constant maintenance. Kelvinator may have been “fully automatic” but it still needed defrosting and cleaning. This is also, of course, another ad aimed at women. [Men, of course, don't get anxious about their kitchens in this era of American History.]

DSC00797

Here’s one of my earlier bad shots with the tripod. It’s for refrigerators in general rather than one brand in particular, but it beautifully illustrates the gender marketing of refrigerators in the early Thirties (which is when it came out). I also like it because the talking baby kind of creeps me out, like in those E-Trade commercials.

Sorry if you can’t read all the fine print in these, but thank goodness I can in iPhoto. Maybe I’ll have to pull out quotes for the slides in my traveling refrigerator roadshow. It will even include iceboxes!





“You never give me your money.”

25 03 2014

When is a business not a business? When it’s in the edtech business! How do I know? This quote from the new Coursera CEO, former Yale President Richard Levin talking to the Chronicle is typical of a whole genre of similar sentiments:

The company has disbursed some payments to its university partners from revenue generated by its Signature Track program, which offers “verified” certificates to MOOC students in exchange for fees. But so far, the returns for Coursera’s partners have been largely intangible.

Mr. Levin said he was not too worried about that. “Intangible returns are, in fact, the kinds of returns that we, at universities, are in the business to provide,” he told The Chronicle.

[Emphasis added]

Yet if you read all the business-oriented coverage of Levin’s hiring, you’d see them discuss very little else besides the possibility of Coursera’s tangible returns. Here’s Anya Kamenetz (of all people) hassling them because students never give them their money:

The money problem is a big one. Coursera’s growth so far has been funded by investment. They have been experimenting with different ways to attract revenue. Advertising, the most obvious choice, would likely be off-putting to students and university partners. At the end of 2012, Coursera announced a recruitment service, where employers would pay for access to users. But this didn’t get much traction.

A little over a year ago, they introduced a ”Signature Track,” which provides learners verification of their identity and course completion for a fee. Nine months later they announced $1 million in revenue from Signature Track. But that compares to $85 million in investment that the company has already taken on, from venture capitalists who expect large returns. It also translates into a 4/10 of one percent adoption rate, with just 25,000 of 7 million users opting to pay. Successful “freemium” companies, which offer some services for free and others for pay, typically have 2 to 4 percent paying users–five to ten times more than Coursera is reporting. In order to be sustainable, Coursera needs a lot more paying customers.

But wait!!! I thought Coursera’s mission was to bring education to the people who couldn’t afford it? Remember all those geniuses in lesser-developed countries? That argument is for TED talks and the New York Times. Can you imagine if Coursera’s VCs complained that the company never gave them its money and Richard Levin told them that they should be satisfied with “intangible returns?” Since the Chronicle told us that he’s being compensated with an ownership stake in the company, I think that scenario is by definition impossible.

Then there’s the question of paying students in developed countries. Here’s Ray Schroeder in the WSJ talking about other potential revenue streams:

“Coursera has huge potential,” Mr. Schroeder said. “The roadblock has always been accreditation.”

He estimates that with accreditation the company could charge in the neighborhood of $300 for a course and still undercut the cost of most other accredited courses by several hundred or even several thousand dollars.

I hate to point out the obvious, but charge $300 a course and Coursera’s initial sign up numbers are going to plummet. Their MOOCs would also cease to be actual MOOCs. Take out the massive and take out the open and you’re left with online courses, or OCs. If they’re automated, they won’t be particularly good online courses either.

While I’ve been picking on the stupidity of the phrase “intangible returns,” I should also note how stupid it is to suggest that universities are simply in the business of providing them too. It’s the determination of the modern university administrator to run their institutions like businesses that have already made so many online courses unrelentingly awful. In other words, Levin isn’t just fibbing on behalf of his new company. He’s fibbing on behalf of his new company’s clients too.

When all is said and done then, ed tech businesses are in fact businesses. It’s just that edtech businesses are less honest about it than those in other industries.





“Andy Warhol, silver screen. Can’t tell them apart at all.”

8 01 2014

Andy Warhol was a practical joker. I’m not sure anyone ever saw him laughing, but I like to think of his work as a giant parody of industrialization and mass production. Consider the famous paintings of all those Campbell’s soup cans. They’re different, but they all look the same. More importantly, Warhol has decided that this is art. It is, but only in the sense that Warhol wants you to find beauty in sameness and uniformity. There may be some there, but this kind of shock only works for a limited amount of time. If you don’t believe me, just try to watch his eight-hour movie of the top of the Empire State Building (and nothing else).

Do the same in the realm of education and the results will be deadly. Is a MOOC a class or the image of a class? Do MOOC purveyors understand the difference? Do administrators? Does the MOOC Messiah Squad even care?

I thought of this when I read Anne Corner’s comment from my first post on the MOOC session at AHA 2014:

I also particularly liked Ann Little’s comments about not being controversial. That, of course, is half the fun of history and explains why Coursera seems a little bland.

Being a little bland might not be a problem if you’re teaching math. After all, the process is the same wherever you are and whoever you happen to be. This is most decidedly not true with respect to history.

Perhaps I saw the great Tressie MC make this point about MOOCs somewhere at some point, but I know I haven’t made it before. That’s why I was so glad to hear Ann argue the difficulty of teaching controversial material in MOOCs because it reminded me of something. Education isn’t education if the “customer” is always right. Education is supposed to be challenging in every sense of the word. If you’re signed up for seven MOOCs and you have to decide which one you want to invest your time in, are you going to pick the one that makes you feel uncomfortable? Of course not. And where does that leave diversity requirements or distribution requirements or even foreign language requirements?

MOOCs that don’t bring in the eyeballs will have to cater to the lowest common denominator or end up on the dustbin of history. I’m not just talking about required reading or writing assignments here. I’m talking about the material covered in the course overall. As Ann Little implied during our session, if the students want nothing but Whiggish history, then Coursera has every incentive to pressure their superprofessors to give it to them.

So what’s a superprofessor to do? Problem #1 is to make sure that the superprofessor is even involved in the course in the first place after all their lectures have been taped. Assuming they are there, what incentives are they getting to be as challenging in every sense of that word? If success in MOOCs means completion or even engagement, then not much at all. Will they still be adored by their worldwide audience if the superprofessor make them feel uncomfortable? Somehow I doubt it.

Sometimes I get the feeling that superprofessors are like Andy Warhol in the way that they both understand fame. Unfortunately, unlike Andy, most superprofessors do not produce art and do not appear to be joking. No disrespect intended to the two I just shared a podium with. They’re both nothing if not humble in the face of their new teaching-induced celebrity, and I’m sure it’s that celebrity that helped us pack the session last week. But, as Marshall McLuhan suggested, perhaps the medium has become their message.

When you get a chance to watch the tape of our session, you’ll notice how happy I was when Jeremy Adelman walked into the room. When you meet somebody you’ve been watching on the screen for a really long time you want to like them, and are disappointed when you find out that you disagree with them on some issue that’s important to you. This is why I know longer want to investigate the politics of quarterbacks.* When you listen to Jeremy’s and my comments, you’ll see that his and my attitudes towards MOOCs aren’t all that far apart anymore. That’s why I like him now more than ever. But the relationship between students and they’re professors is supposed to be different from this.

One of the side trips I made during the AHA convention was to see Robert Brugger, my editor at the Johns Hopkins University Press. Now that it’s out, I wanted to thank him for putting me through hell during the editing process for Refrigeration Nation because the result is a much, much better book. I think I learned more about writing from him than I did from my dissertation advisor. There were times when I wanted to throw in the towel, but I had skin in the game (so to speak). He invested his time in me because I invested my time in what he (and their excellent outside reviewers) had to say.

Students will never get that treatment in the world where their professor is nothing but a presence on the silver screen. Students will never get that in the world where their education is stamped out of an assembly line, like so many soup cans or Brillo boxes. But you say that this nightmare scenario will never happen? Are you sure? Once you say that an industrialized higher education is acceptable for some people under some circumstances, it will be very hard to draw a line where MOOCs are not acceptable to anybody who can’t pay for the best that academia has to offer.

* I have this persistent horrible sinking feeling that Peyton Manning is not a Democrat. John Elway certainly isn’t.





Just another boring old refrigeration history post.

12 12 2013

Over at the blog of the Historical Society.





“Have fun storming the castle!”

14 11 2013

Sebastian Thrun has given up on MOOCs???!!! Say it isn’t so. Actually, it isn’t. He’s just given up on disrupting higher education, where they have all these crazy ideas about most students actually learning stuff in the courses they take:

But for Thrun, who had been wrestling over who Udacity’s ideal students should be, the results were not a failure; they were clarifying. “We were initially torn between collaborating with universities and working outside the world of college,” Thrun tells me. The San Jose State pilot offered the answer. “These were students from difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in their lives,” he says. “It’s a group for which this medium is not a good fit.”

So put your cauldrons of boiling oil away. Instead, Thrun is going to disrupt industrial education, where the standards aren’t quite so high for people actually learning anything when they go through job retraining:

Thrun, ever a master of academic branding, terms this sponsored-course model the Open Education Alliance and says it is both the future of Udacity and, more generally, college education. “At the end of the day, the true value proposition of education is employment,” Thrun says, sounding more CEO than professor. “If you focus on the single question of who knows best what students need in the workforce, it’s the people already in the workforce. Why not give industry a voice?”

“Think it’ll work?”

“It would take a miracle.”





“I’m not a real professor. I just play one on the Internet.”

6 11 2013

In Frank Capra’s 1941 classic “Meet John Doe,” Barbara Stanwyck plays a newspaper reporter who’s about to get fired. For her final column, she makes up a letter by John Doe, a fictional unemployed person, threatening suicide on Christmas Eve. When the letter attracts intense public interest, Stanwyck and her editor hire a bum played by Gary Cooper to assume the role of John Doe. Cooper, playing John Doe, becomes famous enough to give radio speeches at $100 a pop, all penned by Stanwyck.

Joining Cooper in his odyssey is another bum played by Walter Brennan. At one point, in a fancy hotel suite, he unleashes one of the key speeches of the movie, the kind of speech that makes you wonder whether Frank Capra was actually a closet leftist:

“Then you get a hold of some doe and what happens? All those nice, sweet lovable people become heelots. A lot of heels! They begin creeping up on you, trying to sell you something. They get long claws and they get a stranglehold on you. And you squirm and you duck and you holler and you try to push ‘em away but you haven’t got a chance. They got you. First thing you know, you own things. The car, for instance. Now your life is messed up with a lot more stuff. You get license fees and number plates and gas and oil and taxes and insurance and identification cards and letters and bills and flat tires and dents and traffic tickets and motorcycle cops and court rooms and lawyers and fines and a million and one other things. And what happens. You’re not the free and happy guy you used to be. You gotta have money to pay for all those things.”

When Cooper tries to go back to his free and happy life, his editor tracks him down and forces him to continue giving Stanwyck’s cheery speeches in support of his aspiring Huey Long-like political career. At the end of the movie, Cooper himself contemplates actually committing suicide.*

I wouldn’t be surprised if more than a few superprofessors don’t feel the same way after reading this article in Slate. Commercial MOOC providers, being heelots of the first order, are already considering replacing their superprofessors with Hollywood actors:

“From what I hear, really good actors can actually teach really well,” said Anant Agarwal, CEO of EdX, who was until recently a computer-science professor at MIT. “So just imagine, maybe we get Matt Damon to teach Thévenin’s theorem,” he added, referring to a concept that Agarwal covers in a MOOC he teaches on circuits and electronics. “I think students would enjoy that more than taking it from Agarwal.”

Assuming Matt Damon is too expensive, the Lords of MOOC Creation can always replace their superprofessors with cheaper-but-more-telegenic lecturers, grad students or even adjuncts. Something like that is already happening, as the same Slate article describes:

One for-profit MOOC producer, Udacity, already brings in camera-friendly staff members to appear with professors in lecture videos. One example is an introduction to psychology course developed earlier this year in partnership with San Jose State University. It had three instructors: Gregory J. Feist, an associate professor of psychology at San Jose State University, who has been teaching for more than 25 years and who wrote a popular textbook on the subject; Susan Snycerski, a lecturer at the university who has taught for 15 years; and Lauren Castellano, a Udacity employee who recently finished a master’s in psychology from the university, advised by Feist.

In the course’s opening lecture, the three stand together and go over the ground rules, but after that, Castellano takes the lead on camera. Feist and Snycerski make regular appearances throughout the 16 lessons, but often only briefly, to explain a concept or two, or to be part of a demonstration or skit with Castellano.

Does it bother the more-experienced professors that they get less screen time than their younger colleague? “That’s a Udacity decision,” said Feist. “They’ve discovered that it works well if you have these younger people doing most of the instruction, but in fact the content is coming from professors. They wanted someone who students can identify with.”

[Emphasis added]

Commercial MOOC providers like Udacity are primarily interested in attracting eyeballs that they can eventually monetize. Unfortunately, education isn’t sexy unless it has a sexy spokesperson. If you don’t want to turn off students with all that nasty reading, why would you want to turn them off by having an old, unattractive person take over their computer screen for huge chunks of time?

While the “I’m not a real professor. I just play one on the Internet.” jokes practically write themselves, there’s still a serious point to be made here. Educational goals will inevitably fall by the wayside when heelots have cars to pay for and mortgages to service. More importantly, the resources that pay for their cars and mortgages could be going to students or, God forbid, professors. This includes adjunct professors who currently live lives comparable to Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan in “Meet John Doe.”

Yet I still pity the poor superprofessor. While many of them may have wanted to be rock stars with followings like John Doe, what the heelots giveth, the heelots can taketh away. Those responsible for getting you groupies, can always turn the spotlight on someone else whether that person happens to be qualified to do your job or not. Indeed, one might argue that this is the natural outcome of separating content delivery from actual teaching. I simply expected that it would be the academic lumpenproletariate who would feel the effects of that decision first, long before the superprofessors did.

One might also argue that this is the natural outcome of introducing commercial values into higher education. I actually wouldn’t go that far. It’s more like the natural outcome of allowing commercial values to dominate higher education above all other things. While we can never go back to a non-existent free and happy time when professors were only in it for the sake of education, at least we can go back to a free and happy time before administrators and the people who want to sell them expensive edtech treated disruption like a positive good, no matter how many people it hurts in the process.

In other words, it’s not the MOOCs that are the problem here. It’s the heelots who are running them.

* As my memory of Frank Capra films other than “It’s a Wonderful Life” is far from perfect, I used both the IMDb and Wikipedia entries for “Meet John Doe” to help write this summary. The quote is my (probably bad) transcription of the video at top.





The now obligatory post about writing for free.

31 10 2013

Last summer, I got an e-mail from Jeff Selingo of the Chronicle. They had started organizing this new project called Chronicle Vitae and they wanted to know if I would be one of the contributors. While I was pleasantly surprised that the Chronicle was interested in featuring the writing of somebody with my politics, I didn’t exactly jump at the chance. You see, I know some people of my political persuasion who’ve had bad experiences writing regularly for the Chronicle. Besides that, I wanted to know exactly what I was committing to and what exactly I’d be getting in return.

Yes, I was rude enough to ask the Chronicle about money. I did this well before getting paid for writing became all the rage because I don’t really want to write for free anymore. Yet I do anyway. Does this make me a bad person? Am I putting professional journalists out of work? Am I contributing to a system of naked exploitation?

I agree with what Derek Thompson wrote at the Atlantic: “It’s complicated.” While I’m not sure this is at all original, here’s my explanation of how I sort it out in my own mind:

Perhaps the greatest thing about having tenure is that I can write what I want for whomever I want to now. I can’t tell you how disheartening it is to spend seven years on a dissertation, five years on revision and have the final product sell a whopping total of 400 copies worldwide. This is not writing for a living or even the pittance of a living. It’s writing for tenure, and there are plenty of worthy presses out there who are more than willing to help you achieve that end – even if you have to buy 25% of those 400 copies yourself so that the press can at least break even.

Honestly, I’m beginning to feel the same way about academic journals. I’ve done my fair share of articles in my time, but I’ve never gotten even one ounce of feedback or encouragement from anybody who has ever read them after publication. Perhaps that’s because none of my articles have been any good, but I can’t shake the sneaking suspicion that it’s actually because almost nobody has ever read them. I spent five years [FIVE YEARS!!!] going back and forth with Technology and Culture to get this article published. While I love the result dearly, I have no idea why I bothered anymore. And, of course, I never made a dime off of it. But then again I didn’t expect to either.

Blogging has the decided advantage of being a lot more fun than writing for purely academic audiences. When nobody read this blog, I told myself that I was doing it for therapy. Now that people do read this blog, I tell myself that I’m doing it for my twin causes: faculty rights and faculty prerogatives for faculty at all levels of employment. To turn down the chance to bring those causes to an audience of professors and graduate students of all kinds would have been idiocy on my part.

Besides, as Jeff explained it to me, I actually like the idea. Chronicle Vitae is kind of like the academic LinkedIn, except academics won’t be all confused about why they joined up in the first place. It’s free to access and there’s even a place where grad students and young scholars can sign up for mentoring. What’s not to like? Besides, since I’ll eventually get around to plugging my book there it’s not exactly “free” labor in the Gary Becker sense of that word.

My first post for Chronicle Vitae is up now. You can find links to my future contributions in this space or just join up yourself and follow me once you’ve registered. Either way, I hope to see you there.





MOOCs are in Joan Rivers, but they’re trying to get out.

22 10 2013

During the 1840s and early-1850s, American ice harvesters tried to sell their product in Great Britain for the first time. It was the technological marvel of its day – clear ice cut from lakes and ponds in New England shipped intact across the ocean. When you think about it, it’s still an impressive technological feat. Cut ice in regular blocks and pack it in a ship, the blocks separated with sawdust like mortar in a brick wall and 50-75% of the ice will still be intact when you take it to the other side of the world.

London had never seen anything like it. One supplier displayed a block in their window on the Strand. People would stop and gawk on it (not realizing that they would replace the block as it melted). That same supplier convinced Queen Victoria to endorse their product. Another brought over American bartenders to make “American” iced drinks. Unfortunately, the hype couldn’t sell enough of this novel product to keep the market afloat.

While natural ice was a sensation with the upper crust for a few seasons, the product never penetrated the middle or lower classes. Cost explains that result to some extent, but so does culture. The British just didn’t much care for iced drinks. For decades, the only place you could buy ice in England was at the fishmonger, where they used it to display their catch. It’s been seven years since the last time I was in England, but I remember it was next to impossible to get ice cubes there even then. Because I didn’t want to be an Ugly American i just stopped asking.

Why am I writing about ice cubes in what’s clearly a MOOC post? Well, there’s the fact that I’d much rather be promoting my book than going to this well yet again, but this piece really did make me think of the longstanding British distaste for ice cubes:

How do critics expect a MOOC to simply come in and present itself as a viable and legitimate replacement as a signal of student competence against some of our most revered and trusted institutions? Harvard, Yale, and Princeton opened their gates in 1636, 1701 and 1746. I daresay that it is asking a tad much of this nascent experiment to eclipse the prestige of these institutions after a meagre few years.

Harvard, Yale and Princeton, bless their hearts had paying students right from the beginning. MOOCs, alas for the techno-utopians among us, have no business model to speak of at all. American ice providers would have loved a few extra years in order to convince British people to consume cold drinks, but Mean Mr. Market didn’t give any to them. I think the same thing will be true for MOOCs, no matter how successful their experiment happens to be.

While I think we have enough evidence to pronounce MOOCs a pedagogical failure (if not a business one), the author of this piece has a much rosier view of education technology. If you’re stomach is strong enough to click this link, you’ll see that it’s response to Sarah Kendzior’s recent Aljazeera piece on MOOCs, “When MOOCs Profit, Who Pays?” Luckily for me, Sarah Kendzior is more than capable of taking care of herself so I have no need to violate my pledge not to rehash arguments from the “Year of the MOOC” that I’ve been over 1,000 times before in this space.

Nevertheless, there is something new and different here. The faith-based manner in which the author accepts arguments of the Masters of MOOC Creation is almost touching in its naiveté. That’s why a long excerpt is in order:

The very notion that MOOC providers are wedging income groups further and further apart is laughable after just a cursory read of the quixotic and lofty aims that their founders propagate. To say that MOOCs are an accomplice to the hardships suffered by students because of the tortured state of higher education is to fail to understand what one actually is and why the mode came into being.

Their founders talk of goals such as bringing the highest quality education to the remotest parts of the world, to offer students the same level and depth of instruction, irrespective of their financial or ethnic background. How can a concept so fundamentally egalitarian and open be accused of creating educational inequalities? MOOC providers can boast stories of their courses giving new leases on life to Syrians suffering the tolls of war and giving humanitarians new tools to inform their field work. Is this not the exact opposite of increasing inequality? And given that MOOC providers have not the ambition nor aspiration for their platforms replace the institutions of university, there is no immediately conceivable possibility of a two-tiered education system arising as a result of their existence.

This is pure faith-based education reform if I’ve ever seen it. The author sees the potential for helping suffering Syrians and therefore assumes that all of us must accept one and only version of the potential future so that those Syrians can get their MOOCs. If the people being helped can’t actually pay for their MOOCs, then American college students have a duty to propel this experiment forward.

If I see Elvis everywhere, does that mean we need to go to Graceland and dig up his body just to make sure he’s really dead? It reminds me of one of those charities that’s all smiles in their infomercials, but 95% of the donations go to the founder’s bank accounts. We’re helping because we say so. Period. End of story. Don’t follow the money or you’ll hurt the people we’re helping.

MOOCs, in short, have become all things to all people. For the naive techies of the world, they will end inequality. To investors in Udacity and Coursera, they will hopefully make enough to aggravate it. To superprofessors, they will bring quality learning to the masses. To the retired physics professors of the world who take every MOOC in sight, they’re more of an opportunity for entertainment that beats whatever is on television. All of this is a product of the fact that MOOC providers have absolutely no idea what their market even is. Unfortunately for them, they’ll have better luck bringing Elvis back from the dead than they will satisfying all these constituencies at once.





Why do Americans have such big refrigerators?

4 10 2013

So I got published in the Atlantic this morning. Ironically, while looking for it I found a piece that shows just how outdated my household refrigerator size numbers are. Our refrigerators no longer average 17.5 cubic feet in volume. They’re now up to 22.5 cubic feet.

Luckily, my stated reasoning still applies.





What is to be done?

29 08 2013

“The workers were losing their age-long faith in the permanence of the system which oppressed them.”

- Lenin, “What Is To Be Done?”, 1905.

I’ve been a Thomas Frank fan since the olden days of The Baffler. I realize that the guy is sort of a one trick pony with endless variations of the “culture tops class and that’s really horrible” argument, but that certainly is an extremely versatile pony. Therefore, when he brings that argument to the state of modern higher education, you should certainly read the results:*

[T]he big universities expanded in their heyday to keep up with industry demand, not to build the middle class. Instead, what everyone agrees on is this: higher education is the industry that sells tickets to the affluent life. In fact, they are the only ones licensed to do this. Yes, there are many colleges one can choose from—public, private, and for-profit—but collectively they control the one credential that we believe to be of value. Everything about them advertises it. The armorial logos, the Gothic towers, even the names of the great colleges, so redolent of money and privilege and aristocracy: Duke and Princeton and Vanderbilt. If you want to succeed, you must go to them; they are the ones controlling the gate.

What they sell, in other words, is something we believe to be so valuable it is almost impossible to measure. Anyone in her right mind would pay an enormous price for it.

Another fact: This same industry, despite its legal status as a public charity, is today driven by motives indistinguishable from the profit-maximizing entities traded on the New York Stock Exchange.

The whole essay is beautifully written. What I’m most interested in, though, is the conclusion:

What actually will happen to higher ed, when the breaking point comes, will be an extension of what has already happened, what money wants to see happen. Another market-driven disaster will be understood as a disaster of socialism, requiring an ever deeper penetration of the university by market rationality. Trustees and presidents will redouble their efforts to achieve some ineffable “excellence” they associate with tech and architecture and corporate sponsorships. There will be more standardized tests, and more desperate test-prep. The curriculum will be brought into a tighter orbit around the needs of business, just like Thomas Friedman wants it to be. Professors will continue to plummet in status and power, replaced by adjuncts in more and more situations. An all-celebrity system, made possible by online courses or some other scheme, will finally bring about a mass faculty extinction—a cataclysm that will miraculously spare university administrations. And a quality education in the humanities will once again become a rich kid’s prerogative.

To stop this from happening, Frank recommends attending German or Argentinian universities, a free speech movement or a nationwide student strike. To put it bluntly: Ain’t. Gonna. Happen. Does that mean that all is lost? Is it already game, set, match and the good guys lost? What is to be done?

I’m actually a tad more optimistic than Frank is. I almost started an argument with my department chair the other day about the future of American universities. She was suggesting in our department meeting that enrollment goes up and enrollment goes down and things may be bad now, but they’ll inevitably get better again at some point. I’m afraid this time is different: student loans are expensive, jobs are scarce and tuition is, as the economists say, sticky. [Seriously, when's the last time you ever heard of a university lowering its tuition?** ] But that doesn’t mean that higher education is going to disappear anytime soon. It simply means that after a huge increase in scope after World War II, it’s inevitable that higher education is going to get smaller in the future, and I think this presents a wonderful opportunity.

I haven’t really touched the Obama Higher Education Plan on this blog yet because…well…I haven’t really thought of anything interesting to say about it. Of course, I’ve been pondering its relation to MOOCs, but the President didn’t actually say all that much about MOOCs in his speeches. In the plan itself they’re more of a component of a laundry list of potential reforms than a centerpiece. It’s like Obama wants to throw every bad higher education idea at the wall and see what sticks. MOOCs won’t stick. Nevertheless, the President would rather burn money on dumb ideas, enriching a few undeserving people and accelerating the coming crack-up either way, than focus on the crucial issue of educational quality or whether enough students can actually get a decent paying job when they graduate.

Perhaps a better higher ed plan would be to do nothing. Sure, some colleges are going to close and that will be a tragedy, but that’s going to happen even if we do everything that Barack Obama wants and more. As Erik Loomis explains in his comments on Frank’s article:

whatever happens, whenever the bubble bursts, whenever students revolt, the inevitable answer will be MORE market, more capitalism, more of the same that puts the tuition dollars in the hands of the administrators and takes it away from teachers or doesn’t take it away from students at all. It’s incredibly depressing.

But maybe the fight will be different when the battlefield is smaller. You can’t have a race to the bottom when the bottom is gone. Maybe, just maybe, with fewer colleges in the mix, schools will start to differentiate themselves on the quality of their instruction rather than simply on the basis of their price (both higher and lower). Maybe we could focus on making the higher education system that survives more sustainable rather than privatizing what we have now so that people can sell a watered-down product to students who’ve already bought a bill of goods that structural changes in the economy will make it difficult for them to afford.

At this stage in the history of higher education, I’m actually glad to be working at a public institution that anchors my community because the State of Colorado and the people in my region have said repeatedly, in so many words, “We want a university in Pueblo.” Where I wouldn’t want to work now is at an expensive private college or university of any kind with little name recognition outside its region. Who’s gonna want to pay a top-dollar sticker price for a spin of a roulette wheel? On the other hand, the same kind of discounting that makes MOOCs appealing could make a quality face-to-face education at a comparatively low price appealing too, assuming the people running institutions like mine do more than just follow passing fads.

No, I don’t have much faith that that’s going to happen, but at least we can still do our best, with carrot and with stick, to steer them in that direction. After all, not all revolutions are violent or necessarily even all that revolutionary.

* And, if you don’t know, he’s got a Ph.D. in American history from the University of Chicago. His dissertation is well worth reading in its published form.

** No Phil Hill, slashing tuition and financial aid in the name of sticker price transparency doesn’t count. I’m talking about cutting the cost for students in real terms.








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