Disruption disrupted.

17 06 2014

I never took a course in the history of technology. My dissertation (and very poorly read first book) were about labor relations in the American steel industry. While overdosing on industry trade journals, I quickly realized that how steelworkers labored depended upon how steel was made and that the best way to distinguish what I was writing from the many studies that had come before was to get the technological details right.

This proved to be a terrible strategy. While I’m quite sure that I did indeed get the technological details right, the people who read my manuscript never recognized this since they had all read or written books that got them wrong or never covered them at all. The worst comment I ever got (which, of course, I remember to this day) was “Rees knows nothing about the technology of the steel industry.” I begged to differ, but what could I do about it? Nothing.

I wrote Refrigeration Nation because I enjoyed reading old trade journals to get the details right and because I wanted to examine the technology of an industry that nobody else had written about. Surprisingly, when I picked my second book project that description included the refrigeration industry. Actually, refrigeration is not one technology, but many: ice harvesting equipment, large scale industrial refrigerating machines, electric household refrigerators and others. If you read the book (and I certainly hope you do), you’ll see I spill the most ink writing about the transitions between one technology and another.

These transitions can be painfully slow. Ice harvesting didn’t die until around World War I. The ice man still delivered machine-made ice door-to-door in New York City during the 1950s. Even today, you can still buy what is generally known as “artisan ice” for people who really want their drinks to be special. Perhaps this explains why I’ve always been so suspicious of Clayton Christensen’s theory of “disruptive innovation.” Everything I’ve ever studied that you’d expect to disappear in the blink of an eye when in competition with better technology always managed to hold on for decades.

By now, you’ve probably already read Jill Lepore’s absolutely devastating takedown of disruptive innovation in what I presume is this week’s New Yorker. [It appears rather late in my neck of Colorado. Thank goodness this one is outside the paywall!] If you still haven’t let’s just say that Lepore is unimpressed by the work of her Harvard colleague:

Disruptive innovation as a theory of change is meant to serve both as a chronicle of the past (this has happened) and as a model for the future (it will keep happening). The strength of a prediction made from a model depends on the quality of the historical evidence and on the reliability of the methods used to gather and interpret it. Historical analysis proceeds from certain conditions regarding proof. None of these conditions have been met.

And remember, there’s plenty of excellent evidence for the pace of technological change in countless American industries. You’ve never read an Alfred Chandler takedown because Chandler actually consulted this stuff. Christensen apparently not so much.

Since I don’t have a team of fact checkers at my disposal, I’m just going to concentrate here on the industry Lepore covers that I know best: steel. Here’s Lepore:

In his discussion of the steel industry, in which he argues that established companies were disrupted by the technology of minimilling (melting down scrap metal to make cheaper, lower-quality sheet metal), Christensen writes that U.S. Steel, founded in 1901, lowered the cost of steel production from “nine labor-hours per ton of steel produced in 1980 to just under three hours per ton in 1991,” which he attributes to the company’s “ferociously attacking the size of its workforce, paring it from more than 93,000 in 1980 to fewer than 23,000 in 1991,” in order to point out that even this accomplishment could not stop the coming disruption. Christensen tends to ignore factors that don’t support his theory. Factors having effects on both production and profitability that Christensen does not mention are that, between 1986 and 1987, twenty-two thousand workers at U.S. Steel did not go to work, as part of a labor action, and that U.S. Steel’s workers are unionized and have been for generations, while minimill manufacturers, with their newer workforces, are generally non-union. Christensen’s logic here seems to be that the industry’s labor arrangements can have played no role in U.S. Steel’s struggles—and are not even worth mentioning—because U.S. Steel’s struggles must be a function of its having failed to build minimills. U.S. Steel’s struggles have been and remain grave, but its failure is by no means a matter of historical record. Today, the largest U.S. producer of steel is—U.S. Steel.

Two other factors that Lepore doesn’t mention (which makes me think that Christensen didn’t either) are environmental regulation and foreign competition – the second being the more important of those two to the overall fate of the industry. The success of minimills also required a huge decrease in the price of scrap steel. What these other factors suggest is that any hard and fast rule of technological change will inevitably fall victim to the unpredictability of people. My old advisor used to call this the social system of production, and practically the entire subfield of the history of technology is predicated on this notion rather than Christensen’s brand of technological determinism

For example, if I remember right, Chandler’s last book (I get the titles mixed up) is about the various quirks in the path of industrialization across international borders. In my work, the most important factor determining the speed at which one refrigerating technology transitions to another is its reception by consumers and amazingly enough lots of refrigeration consumers just hate “progress.” Just to namecheck a great book that I happen to be reading right now, in Seeing Underground, Eric Nystrom describes the effect of political factors – especially lawsuits – on the quality of mine maps. In Butte, Montana, at least, the more lawsuits there were the more precious metals they eventually found.

Of course, my interest in Christensen comes from his pronouncements about higher education. Lepore does very little with them in her article, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from applying the same logic that I just did here. There is no scientific law of the jungle that fates universities to go entirely online or die off. If people value direct human contact and the educational advantages it brings, they should be willing to pay – or force their governments to pay – for universities to teach in face-to-face settings. Like I wrote in Inside Higher Education a really long time ago now, all this talk about inevitability is just a way to shut down discussion so that the educational traits that we once valued will be abandoned more easily.

The great service that Lepore has performed is to metaphorically take the fight over those values to the source of the attacks against them. Like MacArthur at Inchon, she has landed behind enemy lines and will hopefully force the enemy to pull back and defend ideological territory that they thought they had already conquered. Those of us currently at risk of becoming victims of creative destruction can only hope she succeeds.


A second chance to do the right thing.

3 06 2013

“In the long run we are all dead.”

– John Maynard Keynes, A Tract on Monetary Reform (1923).

I went to visit my brother the economist last week. As he is simultaneously to the left and right of me, we usually get into arguments, either over either economic policy (with me on the left) or social policy (with me on the right side of the left part of that very broad spectrum). When things get tough, I usually just throw the above Keynes quote at him or simply say, “Assume a can opener.” That drives economists crazy.

I found out last week that talking education policy confuses our usual relationship a great deal. I hate standardized tests, and while Daniel doesn’t exactly like them, he does believe that those tests are excellent predictors of future success – enough that you should pick your child’s school mostly on the basis of other kid’s results.

I probably should have demurred, but as economists in general (and my brother in particular) often drive me into apoplexy, I went directly for the jugular and questioned his assumptions. What happens if a kid doesn’t test well? What happens if the teacher didn’t teach the questions on the test? What happens if (God forbid) the problem in the school is really just poverty? The response was inevitable: “Do you really want to do social experiments on your own child?”

Luckily, I have a pretty good out. No schools at all in Pueblo test particularly well so my wife and I have no choice but to employ my educational survival strategy (close parental attention and support at home and in school) no matter what. What I should have said though is, “Do you really want to experiment on all of American society?,” but then again, George W. Bush and Ted Kennedy already have and American society is a lot worse off as a result. What the whole discussion reminded me of though is how important it is to question popular assumptions. This is particularly true with respect to educational policy as lots of people who haven’t the faintest idea how education works seem to think they’re experts in it. Unfortunately, not enough people spoke out during the 90s when No Child Left Behind was still on the drawing board.

Happily, the future of higher education still hasn’t arrived yet. That gives us plenty of time to stop MOOCification, and perhaps undo some old damage while we’re at it. Let’s start by considering that old damage as I think it’s intricately related to our allegedly glorious online future.

I. Who Is Responsible for the Adjunct Problem?

As I understand it, adjunctification began during the early 1970s and has only picked up enormous amounts of steam in the last two decades or so. [The last big study I saw suggested that 76% of US faculty are now contingent.] Oddly enough, college costs have grown steeply during the exact same time. Imagine how expensive college would be without all those adjuncts!!! But that’s the wrong way to look at the problem. The question that correlation should raise is, “How did college get so expensive despite all those adjuncts?” The answer to that question is easy: since adjuncts seldom participate in shared governance, their rise (or, more importantly, with relative fall of tenure track faculty with respect to total employment at American universities) has made it increasingly possible for administrators to spend university budget money without real faculty input.

Yet one response I often see from contingent faculty to the direness of their situation is to blame tenure-track people like me. For example, there’s this comment at an old post over at the Adjunct Project:

From my experience “adjuncting” at two colleges, I believe that the majority of tenured faculty members don’t care about the exploitation of adjuncts. There are exceptions of course comprised mostly of tenured faculty members who started their teaching careers as adjuncts and have first hand experience with the hellish working conditions that adjuncts experience on a year round, 24 hours, and 7 days a week basis. Save those FEW exceptions, the majority of tenured faculty members are all too happy or indifferent to partake in the exploitation. I hate to say it but I must cynically say that engaging tenured faculty will not work for the reason that tenured faculty members benefit from having exploitable adjuncts at their disposal…

Read the rest of you want to see the reasoning. While I usually argue that adjunctification was hardly the idea of tenure track faculty, the notion that we benefit from its continuation is indisputable. In a climate of permanent austerity, adjuncts make our sabbaticals possible. If they didn’t teach more, the rest of us would never have time for research. But who says the current austerity necessarily has to be permanent? Working together we can grow the pie.

That’s why picking on tenure-track faculty is unhelpful, to say the least. They might, however, still need a little moral suasion. Eugene Debs, in the Canton, Ohio speech that got him arrested, argued :

I would be ashamed to admit that I had risen from the ranks. When I rise it will be with the ranks, and not from the ranks.

What do we do though if we’ve already risen? Quitting is not an option for most of us. Jennifer Ruth has some excellent suggestions over at Remaking the University, all of which I heartily endorse. What they all amount to is fighting like Hell to bring the people at the bottom up as far as the university will lift them. Conveniently, this will allow them to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with you against an even more menacing foe.

II. Coursera Is in the Austerity Services Business.

If most tenure track faculty really don’t care about adjuncts, I think that attitude derives more from a narrow worldview rather than malice. It’s sort of like my brother and test scores. As long as my kid is doing OK, why should I care about anybody else’s children? I wouldn’t expect anything less from an economist, but other faculty I know actually have a sense of civic duty. Besides that, protecting adjuncts actually serves everyone else’s naked self interest. Forget the test scores. Would you want to send your kid to a school where almost every professor is being exploited? Happy professors make better teachers and having better teachers helps everybody at your university.

Unfortunately, the salaries of contingent faculty a permanent reminder of how much universities value teaching – which, unfortunately, isn’t very much at all. Perhaps more importantly, tenure track faculty don’t really benefit from adjunctification anymore in the age of permanent austerity. And thanks to technology, the future may be arriving sooner than we think.

My friend Kate has a particular stunning explanation of how and why this is already happening. [Hint: The answer involves MOOCs.]:

Once content is created to be infinitely reusable, once the work of learning is managed by learners, and once assessment can be automated or outsourced to other learners, then normal service labour costs can be stripped back aggressively. Without these shackles, the opportunities for profit-taking in higher education are suddenly formidable again, which is why traditional textbook publishers and content retailers have perked up.

Why have higher education institutions allowed themselves to be so boxed in, that we end up auditioning to be let back in to our own field?

The amazing Tressie MC refers to this same process as a hustle and she’s got a point. Still, I see it more like David Montgomery or Harry Braverman’s worst nightmare come true. Instead of sitting down like Flint GM strikers of 1937, we’ve let administrators and MOOC providers define our factories right out from under us.

The horrible irony here is that it’s the adjuncts and others who aren’t protected by tenure who’ll be adversely affected first. For obvious reasons, this is my favorite part of Kate’s post:

Jonathan Rees has been right all along that this is about academic labour—just not that it’s primarily a threat to the tenured. What should really concern us is the astonishing prospect that things can get worse for our local adjunct colleagues, who now face being priced out of work by superprofessors with quizzes.

On Twitter, I once described Coursera as a “data-mining company masquerading as an educational concern”, but Kate has now convinced me that they’re actually in the austerity services business. After all, their students aren’t clients and the elite universities they contract with aren’t making a cent off the data their MOOCs generate, at least not yet. What the non-elite universities that are just beginning to contract with them can bank on, however, is a huge cut in labor costs as their courses become MOOCified.

The first victims of that process will be the professors who are the easiest to remove. Most of the rest of of us will likely just be grandfathered out. If people like me choose not to MOOCify, they’ll simply replace us with more vulnerable people who will. Even then, there’s the possibility that the students in our classes will simply slip away before we go out to pasture. Don’t get me wrong, I still think MOOCs will collapse from their failure to earn back their start-up costs by giving their product away. Nevertheless, MOOCs can still do an awful lot of damage during their long death throes.

Yet I still think there’s reason for hope.

III. Kind of Like the Plot of “Independence Day” (but with MOOCs instead of aliens).

Here’s your fake SAT-style analogy for the day: Adjunct is to tenure-track professor as non-superprofessor is to superprofessor. I wish it followed that superprofessor is to non-superprofessor is to administrator as administrator is to superprofesser, but that’s not true. Superprofessors are members of the rentier class. MOOCs are their capital. Higher education is their product. We need to de-commodify education again the same way we have to stop measuring it like widgets.

How can we do this? Making a persuasive argument is a start, but we also have to recruit allies outside of the usual suspects who denounce MOOCs on Twitter and in the blogosphere. Ivan Evans writing at Remaking the University (again), suggests:

Absent a UC faculty union with real teeth, I cannot see faculty mounting anything close to meaningful opposition to the gutting of UC. What would make a difference is an alliance of faculty, regardless of rank, at all three levels of the Master Plan. (Yes, there are other two other levels). But that will not happen, mostly because UC faculty are aghast at the idea of rubbing shoulders with the Untouchables both amongst them and those who labor in recondite places without darkening the views from Sather Gate or scenic La Jolla.

I now feel that we shall deserve what we get.

Does that mean we’re too late? How would I know? I’ll tell you what Mother Jones would do, though: Fight like Hell for the living. That’s why it’s time for a cross-class anti-MOOC coalition, people. And while we’re at it, let’s bring in as many students as possible. As Richard Hall writes:

[T]he forces of production across capitalist society, which are increasingly restructuring higher education as means of production, are also increasingly ranged asymmetrically against the everyday experiences of young people. The question for academics is how to support both critique and the development/nurturing of alternative forms of society that in-turn push-back against the neoliberal agenda that commodifies humanity.

Karl Marx wrote about capital “converting the workman into a living appendage of the machine.” What is an unbundled professor (tenure-track or contingent) without the MOOC? Most likely unemployed – dead in the economic sense. Unbundling is an agressive act which should be about as welcome as wedgie, except that too many of us seem unwilling to admit that our underwear is already showing.

Once our employers reduce teachers to merely human capital, we all face a choice: join the producing class or gradually get squeezed out by the people who do. Being about as accessible as Thomas Pynchon or the pope is a disaster for teaching, but it’s great capitalism. If we join together to fight MOOCification, perhaps we can build the coalition that Hall seeks. If that happens, then maybe higher education can go back and right some past wrongs rather than simply committing a whole bunch of technologically-enabled new ones. The kind of class warfare they’re raging against faculty and students alike can never be won unless all the likely losers from the MOOCification process recognize that we are in this together.

In the long run we are indeed all dead. Emphasis on all. We tenure-track people missed our chance to fight adjunctification. Maybe with MOOCification we can start to make up for that mistake.

Harvard hates you (and Coursera isn’t all that fond of you either).

20 05 2013

Anybody familiar with my fondness for labor history, 19th century American folklore and sarcasm will understand why this is now my favorite tweet ever:

If you don’t know who “John Henry” was, The Boss will be delighted to sing you one version of the story. Or better yet, read the book by Scott Reynolds Nelson and learn a little bit about all of them. The key point here for understanding that tweet is that the steam hammer killed John Henry, leaving him no time to do other things at all. While MOOC enthusiasts like to claim that their babies will allow professors to get back to the way teaching is supposed to be, anybody who’s paying the least bit of attention to academic politics in this day and age knows that the bean counters will never let that happen. Economically, non-superprofessors will all be as dead as John Henry because killing our jobs is the primary reason that MOOCs exist in the first place.

My response to that tweet was so pathetic in its attempt at similar humor that I just deleted it before writing this. However, when breaking my brain in a failed attempt to be witty, I realized that the joke here actually understates the direness of our situation. John Henry was competing against the steam drill in a fair fight when his heart exploded. In our case, the steam drill is coming down directly upon our chests. What I mean by that is that MOOCs won’t be displacing us by accident. They’ll be replacing us by design.

You think I’m kidding? Here’s a paragraph from that New Yorker article on MOOCs that I didn’t quote last week:

[William] Bowen spent much of the seventies and eighties as the president of Princeton, after which he joined the Mellon Foundation. In a lecture series at Stanford last year, he argued that online education may provide a cure for the disease he diagnosed almost half a century ago. If overloaded institutions diverted their students to online education, it would reduce faculty, and associated expenses. Courses would become less jammed. Best of all, the élite and populist systems of higher education would finally begin to interlock gears and run as one: the best-endowed schools in the country could give something back to their nonexclusive cousins, streamlining their own teaching in the process. Struggling schools could use the online courses in their own programs, as San José State has, giving their students the benefit of a first-rate education. Everybody wins. At Harvard, I was told, repeatedly, “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

[emphasis added]

As I mentioned before, I know Bill Bowen (even though I haven’t seen him in many years). While he is a very nice man, being both an economist and a former university administrator, I can easily believe that this is exactly what he meant.* The question becomes then: When Harvard people say “A rising tide lifts all boats” do they mean the same thing that Bowen does? Do they think faculty should be thrown over the side before that tide comes in?

I think they do.

Exhibit A: After the speech I gave in Connecticut last Friday, a Harvard Ph.D. in the audience slipped me an article. It’s from their Arts and Sciences graduate college alumni magazine. The new issue isn’t available online yet so you’re just going to have to trust me here:

“Thanks to technologies like HarvardX, [Grad Students Wen Yu] and [Ian] Miller suspect, there may be fewer professors in the academy in the future, but they will be much better teachers.”

That last sentiment is so perverse, I’m going to have to take it up in a post all its own, but for now just let the total lack of compassion there sink in for a moment. Sure, we’re going to screw over a lot of other grad students, but we’ll be fine! We’re from Harvard! With respect to there being fewer professors in the future, you just know they’re getting that from somewhere.

Exhibit B comes from former Harvard dean Harry Lewis (who talked to that New Yorker reporter, but was not quoted extensively). In this blog post, he absolves his employer for all blame for MOOC-induced professorial unemployment:

In the case of MOOCs (or other ways of chunking online instruction), Harvard could impose burdensome licensing rules in an effort to protect the scholarly professionals elsewhere. (Just as the Wall Street Journal is now Online but hardly Open.) But of course UC would then utilize someone else’s product, resulting in lower quality instruction at UC, perhaps at a higher price. Would we at Harvard then sleep better, knowing that if any philosophers had been laid off in California, it was not because of OUR MOOC?

Someone else is going to destroy your jobs, he’s arguing, so why shouldn’t it be Harvard? “You’re going to die someday anyway, so why don’t I just shoot you now?

In other words, my fellow faculty members who teach at universities with precarious balance sheets (which therefore makes them ripe for “disruption”), Harvard hates you. Not content to be the richest of the rich, they want to get even richer by making your jobs no longer economically viable.

What’s doubling infuriating about that line of argument is the way Lewis wraps Harvard’s selfish interest in the patina of a good cause, namely openness. That kind of argument is pretty common amongst the MOOC messiah corps. Just look at Coursera. As Irene Ogrizek writes:

Coursera is a for-profit entity. It, along with other for-profits, is being heralded as an example of corporate innovation that will bolster and transform the global education sector. But the bottom line is that Koller, her partner Andrew Ng, and their backers are in it to make money. Images of desperate South Africans might be useful for generating support, but eventually someone, most likely the South African government, will have to pay for the privilege of collaborating with Coursera. And the profits will go to shareholders and not back into an ailing system that can produce a stampede that can kill a mother who only wants what’s best for her son.

Of course, Sebastian Thrun has famously stated that in the future there will only be a need for ten universities worldwide. Therefore, he’s no pal of ours either. The only thing that separates MOOC providers from Harvard is that they want to destroy higher education top to bottom and rebuild it with nearly all the revenue flowing to them. Faculty will simply be collateral damage as whole universities disappear for the sake of investors, taking nearly everybody’s jobs – indeed whole college towns – with them. But at least we’ll still have Cambridge.

It’s as if the Stanford CS department is trying to build a vast infrastructure, suck as much money as possible out of it, then run it into the ground. Oddly enough, as the Stanford historian Richard White explains in his recent historiographic milestone of a book, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, that’s what Leland Stanford and his buddies did to the American railway system over a century ago.

On second thought, maybe that John Henry analogy isn’t so far off at all.

* If you have more time than I do, you can listen to Bowen’s talk at Stanford last year and tell me if this summary is accurate. However, the New Yorker‘s fact checkers are so legendarily thorough, I’d be shocked if his ideas are being distorted here at all.

A theory of the (academic) leisure class.

13 05 2013

“The leisure class is in great measure sheltered from the stress of those economic exigencies which prevail in any modern, highly organised industrial community. The exigencies of the struggle for the means of life are less exacting for this class than for any other; and as a consequence of this privileged position we should expect to find it one of the least responsive of the classes of society to the demands which the situation makes for a further growth of institutions and a readjustment to an altered industrial situation.”

– Thorstein Veblen, from The Theory of the Leisure Class,1899, p. 198.

The other day, Mills Kelly titled a post with two excellent questions, “To MOOC or not to MOOC? What’s In It for Me?”. He came up with two answers: altruism and book sales. In the ensuing Twitter discussion, I noted that some superprofessors do actually get paid by their home campuses for their labor. However, I then got reminded that that sum is generally chicken feed compared to the amount of labor that goes into creating a MOOC.

Pity the poor superprofessor! Spending all those countless hours setting up their Massive Open Online Courses:

There are also significant labor costs that come with offering MOOCs. A recent Chronicle survey found that professors typically spent 100 hours, sometimes much more, to develop their massive online courses, and then eight to 10 hours each week while the courses were in session. This commitment amounted to a major drain on their normal campus responsibilities.

What the Chronicle fails to mention is that those hours come only at start-up – filming, planning, meetings, etc. The entire point of a MOOC, the root of its appeal from a management standpoint, is that once you get it the way you like it, you literally never have to change anything again. I’m not saying that the machine runs by itself, but it certainly will never take 100 hours again. The MOOC would never be profitable to anyone if it did.

The superprofessor, in other words, leads the team building the machinery, then steps back and does minimal work until the money starts flowing. This literally seems to be the lesson that two Berkeley Superprofessors report over on the edX blog:

You will always find ways to improve your material, but remember, you can always revise your lecture recordings later—this Fall we will revise our lectures for the third time. Balance your desire to perfect the material with the need to juggle all the other commitments most faculty must manage.

We’re conscientious, but you don’t have to be. More advice from these guys – “Consider delegating:”

[Y]ou may find it too time-consuming to keep up with the forums. The challenge is exacerbated by the fact that most MOOCs don’t have formal office hours or other means for students to get direct help, so the forums are even more critical to the student experience.

They mention the pioneered-by-Coursera tactic of recruiting “community TAs” from the student population to do the hands-on work of teaching for you, but the deserves-to-be-infamous New Yorker article on MOOCs out this week also notes that graduate students are intimately involved in the edX MOOC-making process. Because, after all, in the future every professor will have their own MOOC for fifteen minutes.

That same New Yorker article also begins to answer Mills’ question about what’s in it for the superprofessors:

Michael D. Smith, the dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, told me that Harvard plans to start paying mooc teachers when revenue begins flowing.

Are they going to shaft the superprofessors who started MOOCs before the investment pays off? Of course not. The MOOC you create now will presumably run for the forseeable future, so the MOOC providers will have to give their creators something. The Penn MOOC article that I linked to over the weekend offers a better analogy: patent policy. A professor creates something that has a market value and then you and your employer split the proceeds. Since humanities professors don’t usually have the potential to get marketable patents, MOOCs become a way for the few well-paid professors in impoverished fields like History or English to become rentiers. MOOCs can make you part of the academic leisure class.

While I realize that my theory bears a startling resemblance to the philosophy of Tim Ferriss, I’m not saying that most superprofessors crave the four-hour work week. It’s more like rich professor, poor professor. Their MOOCs are a direct assault on the rest of our livelihoods. The president of Stanford made this abundantly clear in a piece quoted in that New Yorker article:

“As a country we are simply trying to support too many universities that are trying to be research institutions,” Stanford’s John Hennessy has argued. “Nationally we may not be able to afford as many research institutions going forward.”

If that’s not a declaration of war, I don’t know what is. Superprofessors, despite their often-stated desire to bring industrial higher education to the lesser-industrialized world, are the weapons of mass destruction in this war. They may be aiming to educate people in Africa, but the rest of us faculty will become the collateral damage of their life of comparative leisure.

MOOCs, in short, are nothing but the logical extension of corporate higher education. Karen Michalson explains the ideological background behind the MOOC offensive better than I ever could here:

Corporate culture has now taken over academic culture and destroyed it. The Chinese did something similar with Tibet. European colonists accomplished this in North America. Overwhelm an area with a population that adheres to a different culture and language than the original inhabitants and watch the original culture die, or at least become so weak and marginal you have to squint to see it.

In America, everything is an enterprise, so why should our universities escape that fate? Everything is thought of in terms of a business, and anything that resists that thought category is carved and distorted until it does – albeit freakishly – pass for one. The model is all. The only way to measure value is money. If it doesn’t make money it doesn’t have the right to exist.

But some things have no business being businesses. Just because the capitalist model of competition and free markets sometimes results in better consumer products doesn’t mean it results in better higher education.

We can argue until we’re blue in the face that a living, breathing professor is better than anybody’s taped lectures. They won’t care. The big dogs want to stay “sheltered from the stress of…economic exigencies” even if it kills the rest of us in the process.

“The manager’s brain under the workman’s cap.”

10 01 2013

I realize that I’m not supposed to admit it, but my favorite author – fiction or non-fiction – is Tom Wolfe.  Yes, his writing has far too many exclamation points and the white suit is a ridiculous affectation, but Wolfe has always been focused like a laser on the absurdity of America’s class divide.  So imagine my joy when I saw that he’s written the cover story in the first all-online edition of Newsweek and, as Nick Carr explains, a major sub-theme in the piece is technological obsolescence:

In 1942, Joseph Schumpeter wrote that stocks and bonds are “evaporated property.” Everybody thought of that as such a witty aphorism, but Schumpeter meant it as a lament. “Substituting a mere parcel of shares for the walls and the machines in a factory,” he said, “takes the life out of the idea of property.” The new owners, i.e., the stockholders, lose the entrepreneur’s, the founder’s, will “to fight, economically, physically, politically, for, ‘his’ factory and his control over it and to die if necessary on its steps.” Instead, at the first whiff of a problem the shareholders bail out and sell their share of the ownership to whoever will buy it on the stock market… and couldn’t care less who it is.

Now I haven’t read Schumpeter since grad school, but this sounds right to me. Schumpeter was also the guy who popularized the term “creative destruction,” but I don’t remember him having the same joy over that process that I sense when I read anything by or about Clayton Christensen. Sometimes, evaporation or destructive is simply destruction.

This is certainly true when you apply the same principles that ruined the American manufacturing sector to higher education. As the Worst Professor Ever once explained it:

I know it seems cool to ”disrupt” education if you’ve never had to stand up there and teach. But if you have, I think you can appreciate the irony of computer use being “disruptive” not in the newfangled positive sense of the word but in the old-fashioned sense, as in, not enabling good teaching to happen at all.

Bob Samuels, who just spent the day at a conference on the future of online education in California – ground zero for the creative destruction of a once-great higher educational system – describes the exact mechanism by which most of us proffies could eventually be displaced from our jobs regardless of the performance of the technology which replaces us:

For me the major underlying theme was that outside parties want to help make higher ed more efficient and cost-effective by taking apart these institutions. In what they call “debundling,” many of the providers discussed how one person would design a course, another person would present the course, another person would market the course, and none of these people would be involved in research, community service, or shared governance.

There’s a famous (at least to people like me) Big Bill Haywood quote in the late David Montgomery’s The Fall of the House of Labor about the manager’s brain being under the workman’s cap. In order to rectify that situation, management searched “for ways in which to cut the taproot of nineteenth century workers’ power by dispossessing the craftsmen of their accumulated skill and knowledge (p. 46).” I think that debundling is the way that university administrators have found to do the same thing to us.

The question remains then whether dispossessing the vast majority of the professoriate of their accumulated knowledge is a side effect of the disruption of higher education or a deliberate strategy. As you might imagine, I vote deliberate strategy. Here’s why: 1) MOOC providers of all stripes are already famous for having no business plan. Only the labor cost cuts of teaching tens of thousands at a time are immediately tangible. 2) The privatization of online higher education of all kinds due to lack of capital makes it possible for those entities that take over this function to collect their revenue whether they can actually teach anyone well or not. Living, breathing professors who are willing to explain exactly why the emperor has no clothes are perhaps the only obstacle left between them and a steady stream black ink.

It’s disruption purely for the sake of financial gain. Any effect that disruption has on the quality of higher education – good or bad – is simply an afterthought. At the first whiff of a problem, the VCs will go find another industry to sack and all of us – faculty and administrators alike – will be left holding the bag. Do you think I’m being overly alarmist? I don’t. Comparing what’s been happening in the world of finance for the last thirty years to what’s happening in higher education now should be a no-brainer because the exact same entities are involved. Like Vanessa says, when Goldman Sachs is organizing higher ed conferences, it’s time for proffies everywhere to hold onto their brains for dear life.

The Friday “I just turned in my grades” roundup.

6 05 2011

Actually, we submit them by computer now, but you get my drift.

* Somebody should have started this blog years ago (via Sullivan).

* I’m so old, I remember when the New York Public Library still used call slips. Wait a second, doesn’t the New York Public Library STILL use call slips?

* This is just one of many reasons why I’ve never bought a Kindle.

* John Fea deserves some kind of award for having the patience to write this series. It’s probably going to end up having twelve parts.

* A course on capitalism is an excellent idea, but I’d rather be poor than have to teach Atlas Shrugged. Joyce Appleby’s The Relentless Revolution, however, would make a great central text.

* Via Laphams Quarterly, a tumblr about ghost towns.

At least Woodrow Wilson was being honest about his intentions.

17 03 2011

It’s stuff like this that makes me think that I’m not going to miss the New York Times at all when it mostly disappears behind that paywall:

Despite the obvious appeal of being in such an intellectually rich environment and the chance to learn for learning’s sake, is the much-sought-after four-year education at the nation’s elite colleges and universities even worth it anymore?

Increasingly, the anecdotal evidence against spending such outlandishly high sums of money is looking more and more persuasive even as the demand for the seats — and the price people are willing to pay for them — continues to increase.

Haven’t I seen this argument somewhere before? Oh yeah, I’ve seen it just about everywhere, and while Historiann likes to point out that state schools are a relative bargain, this guy is actually attacking the value of college in general rather than Ivy League schools in particular:

Bill Gates, one of the two founders of Microsoft and now the world’s second-richest person, famously dropped out of Harvard after about two years. Larry Ellison, the founder of Oracle — the software behemoth —and the world’s fifth richest person, first dropped out of the University of Illinois and then dropped out of the University of Chicago before starting his business career. Perhaps the most admired corporate executive in the country — Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple and Pixar, a billionaire in his own right and the largest individual shareholder in The Walt Disney Company — also is a college dropout. He left Reed College after six months, hung around campus for another 18 months and then with Steve Wozniak — a Berkeley dropout who completed his degree later —started Apple.

There’s something beautifully 19th century about this line of reasoning. “If Andrew Carnegie could make it from rags to riches without a college education, you can too!” But what happened if you weren’t quite as successful as Andrew Carnegie?

The new issue of Lapham’s Quarterly is entitled “Lines of Work,” and it’s a little slice of heaven for a labor historian like me. I’m stealing this quote from Lewis Lapham’s introductory essay:

“We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class of necessity in every society, to forego the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.”

That was Woodrow Wilson in 1909, while he was still President of Princeton. The sentiment is despicable, but at least it’s honest. The anti-college diatribes of today have more to do with the fact that rich people don’t want to pay higher taxes to let people who can’t afford college escape a life of specific difficult manual tasks. Nevertheless, their thoughts are always offered up as if they’re trying to do prospective college students a favor. But what’s their alternative to college? The Bill Gates private charter school for future billionaires? Gleaning, more likely.

It’s not higher education that’s failed the prospective job applicant of today, it’s the structure of the economy itself. We professors can only do so much.

It’s all about the stuff.

9 08 2010

I hope you’ve read the NYT article on materialism from yesterday by now. In case you haven’t, here’s a taste:

Thomas DeLeire, an associate professor of public affairs, population, health and economics at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, recently published research examining nine major categories of consumption. He discovered that the only category to be positively related to happiness was leisure: vacations, entertainment, sports and equipment like golf clubs and fishing poles.

Using data from a study by the National Institute on Aging, Professor DeLeire compared the happiness derived from different levels of spending to the happiness people get from being married. (Studies have shown that marriage increases happiness.)

“A $20,000 increase in spending on leisure was roughly equivalent to the happiness boost one gets from marriage,” he said, adding that spending on leisure activities appeared to make people less lonely and increased their interactions with others.

So doing something will make you happier than owning something? Gosh, I hope so as I’ve been aspiring to own less and do more lately. I’ve also been reading a book that dovetails nicely with this subject, No Impact Man, by Colin Beavan. He’s the guy who tried to live for a year without harming the environment. [They also made a movie about his efforts, which I’d describe as interesting but not exactly enthralling. His wife, who can drink three Starbucks coffees that look like milk shakes in one sitting, cracks me up, though.]

Beavan is a little whiny sometimes, but he is also quite eloquent on precisely this subject:

The trick to environmental living might not be choosing different products. Instead–at least for profligate citizens of the United States and Western Europe–it might be partly about choosing fewer products. It might not just be about using different resources. It might be about using fewer resources.

As the ancient Chinese Tao Te Ching says, “The man who knows that enough is enough will always have enough.”

When Walmart takes that line, I might then be able to take their greenwashing seriously. I won’t hold my breath.

To me as a historian, this all goes back to industrialization. Direct from my PowerPoint, here’s the slide I use to define industrialization (it took me like hours back in my early PowerPoint days to do this, so I’m glad it’s getting extra duty here):

If companies hadn’t been able to sell all the new stuff that industrialization produced, then there wouldn’t have been any advantage to industrializing. Indeed, I tend to teach much of late-nineteenth and twentieth century history as being about stuff (or lack thereof during the depression). Americans have never known exactly how much was enough so they have generally been motivated by getting as much as possible.

With the environment being the way it is lately, it’s nice to see a few people talking about getting off the treadmill.

Economists vs Historians: It’s not the numbers, it’s the morality.

20 04 2010

Thank you again to the fine folks at the Historical Society for continuing to send me their journal, Historically Speaking, for no apparent reason. I was excited to read their economic history forum when I first saw a preview of it on their blog and was not disappointed. [I can’t blame them for asking mostly economists to participate as most people in that sub-field are indeed economists.]

Deirdre McCloskey of Illinois – Chicago, summarizing Robert Whaples’ lead essay in the forum, writes:

“It’s very true, as he also says, that our numerical habits have repelled the history-historians, especially since they have in turn drifted further into non-quantitative studies of race, class, and gender (it is amusing that the young economic historian Whaples quotes gets the holy trinity slightly wrong, substituting ‘ethnicity,’ a very old historical interest, for ‘class,’ a reasonable new one; it is less amusing that historians believe they can adequately study race, class, and gender without ever using numbers, beyond pages 1,2,3).”

What’s amusing to me is that economists and economic historians think that numbers of any kind are somehow value neutral. Whaples’ piece is particularly damning in that regard:

Most economists have also concluded that market competition leads to desirable outcomes, while many historians are deeply suspicious of market outcomes. For example, 71% of economists I surveyed agreed that ‘a Wal-Mart store typically generates more benefits to society than costs.’ When I asked historians the same question, only 13% agreed.”

I can’t say I’m surprised by that outcome. If all you care about numbers, all you’ll see on one side are allegedly low prices. What historians see on the other: environmental damage, sprawl, anti-unionism (something which your average economist would probably see as an asset) can’t be quantified, and if it can’t be quantified it might as well be invisible to the economics profession and to me that’s the height of immorality.

My brother is an economist. He thinks I’m a socialist. So I found this line from Whaples particularly amusing:

It is impossible to prove whether or not people are rational. But when an economist who assumes that they are meets a historian who doesn’t, they often find it hard to communicate with each other and end up talking past each other.”

That’s precisely why he and I seldom talk shop. When we do, and I’m sick of listening to him talk like he’s more objective than I am, I just say “Assume a can opener…”.

I can’t win the argument this way, but it does make me feel better.

Online collections at the Hagley Museum and Library.

12 04 2010

It’s sort of funny, really. I’m speaking at the Hagley Museum and Library in Delaware on Thursday night, but it took a web site review in the JAH for me to realize just how much material they have put online. The grocer’s refrigerator above is just the first thing I’ve found that’s right up my alley, but there seems to be a ton of useful literature from other industries too.

And for those of you who don’t like business history, they’ve digitized all the programs from the Miss America Pageant between 1945 and 1967. Think how much fun you can have with those!

%d bloggers like this: