No really, I am a labor historian. Honest!

20 04 2014

I’m one of two panelists discussing the centennial of the Ludlow Massacre (which is today, 4/20) here at the Real News Network:





Random bullet points (more personal than usual).

8 04 2014

* I spent much of last week in New York City at the Roger Smith Food and Technology Conference. I shared my panel with a food scientist and the last artisan salami maker left in NYC. I can’t tell you how cool that experience was.

* I’ll be spending much of the rest of this week at the Organization of American Historians convention in Atlanta. I would never do two conferences in two weeks if it weren’t for 1) My willingness to spend my own resources on professional development and 2) My ability to offer online assignments via class blog posts in my absence. And you thought I was a Luddite.

* My next Chronicle Vitae piece is scheduled to appear about the time I get on my plane Wednesday. It’s called, “What the Heck Am I Supposed To Do With My LinkedIn Account?” Be sure to look for it on 4/9/14. [When I have the chance once it's out I'll link to it from here.]

* After I get back next week is when we here in Southern Colorado begin to mark the 100th anniversary of the infamous Ludlow Massacre. I’m actually Vice President of Governor Hickenlooper’s Ludlow Massacre Commission. If you’d like to learn more about the Ludlow Massacre, read some of the books mentioned here or buy a book offered here (which includes mine) or listen to this hourlong interview of me and Bob Butero of the United Mine Workers from a small Boulder radio station. Believe it or not, I’m actually the conservative in that discussion.

* As you might imagine, all of this has left me very busy. [And I'm only teaching three classes this semester! Imagine what happens when they make me teach four!] Therefore, posting here will likely be rather spotty for quite some time. So please Masters of the MOOC Universe, no important MOOC news when I’m otherwise engaged!





“Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto.”

7 04 2014

Good news everybody!  Robots will only replace SOME us at our jobs by 2034, not all of us.  Who’ll be safe?  As the Huffington Post explains part of it:

Human social intelligence is critical for those professions that involve negotiation, persuasion, leadership or high touch care. Those positions demanding high social intelligence tasks might include public relations specialists, event planners, psychologists and CEOs.

Does that include university professors? You’d hope so, but that would force the people in control of universities to actually respect the quality of the education they produce and I’m not sure we can trust most of them to do that. The corporatization of higher education over the last forty years strongly suggests that most of them would rather treat education like any other manufactured product.

If education were a real factory problem this transition might actually be an improvement. It’s not just that robot arms never get tired or ask for a pay raise. They can work with greater precision than even the best skilled craftsmen. I’ve toured the steel mill on the south side of Pueblo, Colorado many times now. While 10,000 people used to work there during WWII, fourteen people can handle a shift in a building the size of several football fields rather easily now. [And even then, a few of them are just waiting around in case something goes wrong.] Foreign competition, pensions, environmental regulations aside – the payroll in that plant would have gone down over the last fifty years just because of automation. Furthermore, the steel they produce there might actually be better as a result.

Can you say the same thing with a MOOC? The New York Times Magazine makes an argument for the effects of automation on workers in general that reminds me a lot of the argument for MOOCs:

Man invents a machine to make life easier, and then that machine reduces the need for man’s work. Ultimately, it’s a virtuous cycle, because it frees humans up to work on higher-value tasks.

Flip your classroom with the latest MOOC, spend more time in class teaching one-on-one. Everybody wins, right? Only if you completely ignore the class politics that surround labor-saving machinery of all kinds. Nick Carr, explains this point here far better than I ever could:

The language that the purveyors of the endless-ladder myth use is fascinating. They attribute to technology a beneficent volition. The technology itself “frees us up for higher-value tasks” and “propels us into more fulfilling work” and “helps us to expand ourselves.” We just need to “allow” the technology to aid us. Much is obscured by such verbs. Technology doesn’t free us or propel us or help us. Technology doesn’t give a rat’s ass about us. It couldn’t care less whether we have a great job, a crappy job, or no job at all. It’s people who have volition. And the people who design and deploy technologies of production are rarely motivated by a desire to create jobs or make jobs more interesting or expand human potential. Jobs are a byproduct of the market’s invisible hand, not its aim.

If you think most administrators give a rat’s ass about whether there’s a human being or a robot at the front of the classroom then you haven’t been paying attention.





“You deserve a break today.”

10 03 2014

When I was in graduate school, I was both a member and a board member of the oldest graduate student union in the country, the good old TAA. The vast majority of TAA leaders came from three departments: History, English and Sociology. Some of that was an artifact of the size of those departments. My first-year graduate school cohort at Wisconsin had ninety people in it. [Thanks again for that, Bill Bowen.] Yet the flip side of that situation was in some ways more telling: You couldn’t find a scientist in our union if you had put one on the Most Wanted List and offered a $100,000 reward. We always figured it had to do with the quality of their aid packages. Well-paid workers seldom join unions.

Want to know how bad things have gotten at CSU-Pueblo? The scientists here are at the forefront of the faculty’s fight to save the university from whatever the administration has in store for us. I think a lot of this has to do with the unilateral imposition of a 4-4 load. While I teach both undergraduate and graduate research methods courses, a lot of our science professors actually do their research with their students. Doing this, as I understand from what I’ve been told lately, is an absolutely vital part of what it means to be an advanced chemistry or biology major.* It’s as if our administration has told the scientists here to either work twice as hard or stop doing an absolutely vital part of their teaching duties entirely. I certainly understand why neither option is particularly appealing.

While I’ve already shown you the amazing letter that David Dillon sent our campus, I still think that nobody has done more for our cause than Bill Brown from Physics. I’m going to offer up a long quote from a letter to the editor that our local paper published yesterday because I think this applies (at least in the abstract) to so many of us everywhere:

Professors only work 10 or 12 hours per week in front of classes — so thought and said by many. Therefore, the reasoning goes that they are slackers who are highly paid and who work much less than others who have “real” jobs. When financial ills arise, then they must be made to work more to fix problems they had no fault in creating.

I would like to dispel some of these faulty ideas and to suggest what the results likely will be if this scenario is implemented with the entire faculty forced to work 4-4 teaching loads at Colorado State University-Pueblo.

I must confess that I suffered under the misconception that teaching required only a few hours. I spent the majority of my career as an engineer in the aerospace business. I was excited to come to academia and believed that my new teaching career would be almost like semi-retirement.

Little did I know what realities lay ahead. I was quickly awakened to the fact that teaching in front of classes is only a tiny part of being a professor. Here are just a few of the other things I learned that I must do.

Unlike many universities, we do not have teaching assistants at CSU-Pueblo and must do all of our own grading of homework and exams in classes sometimes as large as 85 students. I must prepare exams and homework assignments. I spend a huge amount of time preparing for classes. This entails writing notes to be used and then making them available to students.

There is a lot of bookkeeping when it comes to recording and correcting student grades for all assignments and classes.

I serve on and prepare for many committees that meet regularly that better the university and student welfare. I was a faculty senator for four years. I answer many emails sent by students and other faculty members. At the request of students, I have written many letters of recommendation for admission to medical, pharmaceutical and graduate schools.

Every year, we must submit to the College of Science and Mathematics a long, detailed report for our annual performance reviews.

I advise students about careers and what to expect when they graduate. I supervise the research of senior students and prepare them for their presentations before they graduate. I serve on master’s degree committees for students in the engineering department. I manage the CSU-Pueblo observatory that I built from the ground up after receiving a $200,000 grant. This entails scheduling, repairs, maintenance and public viewings.

I spend time preparing for department reviews that come every five years. As part of my outreach to the community, I am the vice president of the Southern [Colorado] Astronomical Society, which also requires many meetings and events. There are many phone calls and text messages I field from the public.

Another thing I do for outreach to the community is to prepare and deliver lectures of interest. I have done this at the Southern Colorado Astronomical Society, service clubs in the Pueblo area, other schools such as Otero Community College and the Coalition of Professional Engineers of Pueblo.

I offer six hours per week of office hours for students to come for help. I have written many proposals for in-house grants to update our computer lab, to provide tools for our astronomy program and to update the observatory. Then I spend whatever time is left to continue my research on cosmic rays and lightning.

But wait! The State of Colorado pays him to work, doesn’t it? What makes his job different from any other job? Bill has a very good answer to those questions:

In the aerospace business, I worked 40 hours per week and had weekends off. Now that is not the case. I used to receive regular raises and used to make two to three times my current salary.

Perhaps you still have no sympathy for us “spoiled” professorial types, but let’s talk about a basic rule of industrial relations, shall we? If you work anyone too hard for low pay, they will no longer sing and dance for you on cue. Now will they perform nearly as well at their jobs as they might have done otherwise. Perhaps the floors of your McDonald’s will not be so clean. Perhaps the cashiers will have a harder time greeting customers with a smile. Perhaps the quality of the food will suffer too. If you simply tell your forlorn workers to do more with less, this might actually make this situation worse. If that happens, your customers might just flee as fast as their feet can carry them.

As good as Bill’s letter is, I would add that professors – like all other workers – also deserve time for leisure and to spend with their families. The old slogan of the eight hour day movement in the United States was, “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will.” Jesus, I’d settle for half that last one on most days.

Hey Academia! You deserve a break today. I’d argue that you’ll actually work more productively the rest of the time as a result.

* If any scientists out there reading this are slapping their foreheads right now and saying something like, “Welcome to the party, pal!,” cut me some slack, OK? I filled my science requirements as an undergrad with nothing but Psychology and Anthropology courses.





A libertarian commune is a contradiction in terms.

13 01 2014

Like so many things these days, I first heard of Black Mountain SOLE on Twitter. My tweeps were debating whether or not it was a hoax. It is not a hoax. Repeat: It is not a hoax. SOLE stands for “self-organized learning environment,” which includes, as its founders describe it, every education reform buzzword wrapped up into one:

We saw not only serious flaws in the current system but also tremendous opportunity. We’re joining the revolution – alongside new paradigms like DIY education and unschooling, new technology and content like MOOCs, and new blended learning programs – to offer a new education pathway.

And while Black Mountain SOLE is apparently a 501(c)(3), it is hardly free.

I had no reliable confirmation that Black Mountain SOLE actually existed until an article about it appeared in the New Republic shortly before Christmas. You should be able to see my interest immediately from just this exxcerpt:

At Black Mountain, much hangs on this brand of team-building exercise, because community is the program’s chief selling point. The other selling point is, basically, access to the Internet. It’s both an offshoot and an indicator of the recent boom in online education, especially the rapid growth of MOOCs, which have made lecture courses from a wide range of universities available for free online. Though traditional colleges are increasingly rounding out their curricula with online courses, Black Mountain claims to be the first experiment in assembling an entire campus around MOOCs.

Alas, it seems, things weren’t really going well at the cutting edge of the revolution. Read the whole article to learn about all the problems, but this was by far my favorite part:

Accordingly, most of the SOLEmates are more interested in crafting a business proposal than in pursuing some version of a liberal arts curriculum—barely any are taking MOOCs. Tara Byrne, an 18-year-old who told me about a business plan to monetize YouTube, explained, “I’m currently in social psychology on Coursera”—one of the leading MOOC platforms—“so that I can actually use it in day-to-day life. I won’t pick up a MOOC unless I know that I’m going to be using it. It makes me more picky … because I could be making money” by working on her business ideas instead.

So here we have some of the most self-motivated young people in the world, living in what is in essence a commune in North Carolina trying to educate themselves, and the MOOCs that this community were supposed to be organized around have already fallen by the wayside.

Do you see a problem here?

***

One of the strange rabbit holes my obsession with MOOCs has brought me down is the strange relationship between the counterculture of the 1960s and modern-day Silicon Valley. How, to put it as crudely as possible, did a group of well-meaning stoners gradually evolve into the libertarian technological utopians of today? I’ve read Markhoff and I’ve read Turner now and I’ve read Morozov on the subject, yet this relationship still kind of eludes me.

That’s why I have to fall back on the history of the Sixties that I tend to teach in my U.S. survey class here. Imagine that the Sixties Left falls into two factions: the political Left and the cultural Left. Some of the political left wrote the Port Huron Statement. Some of it went “Clean for Gene.” The cultural left, on the other hand, tuned in, turned on and dropped out. These are the people who not only freaked out their parents, they freaked out America. If you don’t believe me, watch this:

But apparently a few of these cultural leftists had real political aspirations, at least in the broader sense of that word.

Fred Turner points to a group that he calls the “New Communalists,” cultural Leftists who expressed their politics through a number of different experiments in communal living that tended to be short lived, as most utopian experiments tend to be. The jump that Turner makes, which just seems impossible for me to describe, is from living in a commune somewhere near Taos or Trinidad, to participating in a community online. If we couldn’t save the world by example, those people essentially said, then we’ll bring everybody together online to do the same kind of reorganization there.

That effort started with The Well, and has only grown bigger in the last twenty odd years. Unfortunately, thanks to companies like Facebook, these newer, bigger efforts have been highly commercialized. Can you serve the interests of your members and still make money? Let’s just say that I quit Facebook as soon as I realized that they’d be using my image to sell crap to my friends. If you’re still on Facebook and you’re over age 16, you’re essentially working against their efforts to monetize your good name, not with them.

***

Read that description of Black Mountain SOLE in the New Republic and you can really see how what came around then has come around again with a vengeance. This time, however, the politics are a lot more self-interested than they were back in the day:

From the first, Dobias envisioned Black Mountain as a haven for young entrepreneurs like himself, and to the extent there are guiding structures in place, that’s the group they serve. Dobias and Hanna share their experience in business; Cleary worked in PR; Adams can teach programming. When they hold workshops, the topics are “how to build a landing page” (Adams) and “how to woo a mentor” (Dobias) and “how to write a press release” (Cleary, who resigned from the operations team in November but is still a “coach” at the SOLE). When I asked Dobias about this, he was firm that he and the staff “don’t want this to be just a business incubator. What makes this place awesome is the exchange of all these different groups mixing together.”

I bet the “Meditation room with backjacks and cushions,” the outdoor swimming pool and the 18-hole disc golf course are lovely, but they’re not exactly conducive to collaboration, let alone learning. Live communally, make a million? It doesn’t hold water. No wonder the whole thing is falling apart already.

Learning, like teaching, is actually a lot harder than it looks. This post is an oldie but goodie which I first read in the early days of my online learning fixation:

E-books + Youtube Videos + tweets x anywhere= learning. It’s just so simple. Yet flawed. It reminds me of that Forbes blog post,a couple of month ago, where that old white guy talked about how he would get out of poverty if he was black, just read stuff online. Real learning is much more than that.

Trying to make money out that arrangement is even harder than succeeding at your stated goal. Coursera and Udacity are finding that out right about now. Even though they have a larger cash cushion than Black Mountain SOLE, I predict they’ll all end up in the exact same place: bankrupt.

***

Why do I predict that? All of these experiments in higher education face the same insurmountable problem: Too much customer service. Students don’t want to read books? Coursera won’t assign them. Students don’t want to watch MOOC lectures? Black Mountain SOLE won’t make them. After all, the learning is self-organized, not top-down.

One of the earliest and most famous communes in America was at Brook Farm, where all those Transcendentalists hung out for at least a while. The goals of that community were:

To insure a more natural union between intellectual and manual labor than now exists; to combine the thinker and the worker, as far as possible, in the same individual; to guarantee the highest mental freedom, by providing all with labor, adapted to their tastes and talents, and securing to them the fruits of their industry; so to do away with the necessity of menial services, by opening the benefits of education and the profits of labor to all; and thus to prepare a society of liberal, intelligent, and cultivated persons, whose relations with each other would permit a more simple and wholesome life, than can be led amidst the pressure of our competitive institutions.

Sounds great in theory, but somebody has to do the drudgery, right? That commune went bankrupt after only six years. If your society is as small as one of Fourier’s phalanxes, maybe you can get by without a leader for a while but that will never work in even the smallest classrooms. Education is top-down almost by definition. [I actually have a fondness for problem-based learning but even that works better under the guidance of trained professionals.]

In education, it is exceedingly difficult to farm out the drudgery to anybody. Send your MOOC to every corner of the planet, but if you don’t follow it there your students will not learn as much if you are not there to help them. On the other side of the equation, you will not learn nearly as much if you don’t do the reading than if you do all the assigned reading yourself. Allow students to plan their own classes, and nearly all your classes will be held out on the lawn faster than you can shake a stick. Somebody has to be the authority figure. Somebody has to be around to say, “No.”

Which brings us back to the 1960s. Rebelling against “The Man” is all well and good, but in education it can only get you so far. It used to be that people entered higher education because they actually wanted to learn something. Now too many people enter higher education only because they want a job. If your degree is nothing but a pedigree, then it doesn’t matter whether you actually learned something in college or not. You’ll get that job anyways when you’re done. To my mind, MOOC providers have not only bought into this mentality, their business model actively encourages it because they know that they’ll never be able to have someone watching every student to make sure that they’re actually learning. They just give out certificates to people who can make a claim to having completed a bunch of multiple choice tests.

Professors are, like it or not, authority figures. They are authorities on their given subjects and they are also authorities in their classrooms. Disrupting them may seem like a revolutionary act, but it’s about as helpful for the cause of actual higher education as blowing up the Army Math building in Madison was for ending the war in Vietnam.

Sometimes creative destruction is just destruction, and it’s sad that we all have to re-learn the lessons of the 1960s in order to realize that fact.





The soft bigotry of low expectations.

25 11 2013

“We’re moving into a world where knowledge, base content, is a commodity, which allows anyone who is smart and motivated and passionate to make something of themselves and open doors to opportunity. But at the same time, the much deeper cognitive skills that are taught in the face-to-face interaction—they’re still going to be a differentiator. The best place to acquire those is by coming and getting an education at the best universities.”

- Daphne Koller of Coursera, WSJ, November 24, 2013.

“Coursera founder speaks the truth,” is the way that Gianpiero Petriglieri described that quote on Twitter this morning, and of course that’s right. You can only get those deeper cognitive skills through face-to-face interaction, which means (by implication) you can’t get those skills through a MOOC. So why then is yet another MOOC maven acknowledging the inadequacy of their product?

To borrow a phrase from the Bush years, I think it’s the soft bigotry of low expectations. While that particular piece of education reform sloganeering arose as a racial argument, I use here to refer to class bias. All the worthy hard-working MOOC students who can’t afford real college can make a name for themselves in Coursera’s numerous lotteries of opportunities in search of a golden ticket. The rest of them will at least get to watch some interesting lectures as they go about their humdrum lives of quiet desperation.

To be fair, Koller isn’t the only person practicing this kind of class discrimination. It’s been part of the DNA of the MOOC Messiah Squad from the very beginning. The title of this post actually popped into my head last week when I read some poor MOOC-ophile argue in the Atlantic last week that MOOC pass rates are actually a lot better than the tiny fractions that even bother to participate at all in the easiest of MOOCs. He sees lots of other denominators with which we could judge success or failure of that particular educational spectacle.

But would any face-to-face or even online class associated with any university campus get to be judged by simpler standards like “took any quiz” or “watched any lecture?” Of course not. The implicit assumption is that MOOCs are so special that they deserve to judged by different criteria so that they can be allowed to innovate their way into acceptability.

Unfortunately, giving MOOCs a pass on retention rates is absolutely the worst thing that higher education could possibly do. As Christian and Calvin Exoo explained in Salon last month:

The crisis in U.S. higher education is not a crisis of access — it’s one of retention. More U.S. students than ever before are starting college. The problem is that our students aren’t finishing college. Six-year graduation rates vary from 51 percent at private institutions, all the way down to 21 percent at state schools. This is the real crisis, and it is one that MOOCs are singularly ill-equipped to address.

Want to know how ill-equipped MOOCs are to solve the crisis of retention? They’re so watered-down that course on great ideas of the Twentieth Century can be devoid of required reading and a Coursera class in World History can have no writing assignments or required reading, yet the completion rates of MOOCs like these remain anemic across the board.

Nevertheless, we are still talking about MOOCs because MOOC providers and the academic neoliberals running elite institutions of higher learning that keep them afloat are willing to deny working class students the professorial attention they deserve in the name of extending their university’s brands. MIT is at least willing to put its money where its mouth is and give its own students the same experience they’re marketing to others. Since MIT students smart and probably self-motivated, that school will undoubtedly survive this ill-advised fad. But what happens to college students outside of MIT who are drug along for the edX experiment? MIT doesn’t care.

Coursera has no such pretensions towards intellectual consistency. Today it appears that Daphne Koller knows what real education actually is, yet she’s still willing to provide a cheap and inadequate substitute to people who can’t afford the real thing. This is worse than tilting at windmills because it will make it much harder for real reformers to convince Americans to provide everyone the education they deserve at an affordable price.

So pardon me if I’m less than impressed by Koller’s new-found defense of face-to-face interaction between professors and students. Say what you will about Sebastian Thrun. At least his company will soon only be shortchanging customers who won’t be wiped out by the experience.





Dear Superprofessors: Your MOOC isn’t yours.

9 09 2013

Dear Superprofessors:

Have you been reading Karen Head’s MOOC posts on Wired Campus? Her last one described the results of her composition MOOC and it’s really quite a stunner. I have a feeling most of you know this part already, but I’m still going to quote it because this point is so important:

Too often we found our pedagogical choices hindered by the course-delivery platform we were required to use, when we felt that the platform should serve the pedagogical requirements. Too many decisions about platform functionality seem to be arbitrary, or made by people who may be excellent programmers but, I suspect, have never been teachers.

This is true to a certain extent in face-to-face classes and explains why everybody and their uncle hates Blackboard. However, in the same way that nobody has to teach a course with Blackboard, nobody has to teach a MOOC with a private, for-profit MOOC provider like Udacity or Coursera. You folks all could have created your own MOOC with lots of interesting interactive high-tech components, but that takes work and your university was impatient to bring on the future. Besides, Udacity/Coursera offered a quick way to fame, if not necessarily fortune.

Perhaps more importantly, by agreeing to go down this path, you had to invite a twenty person team to make your course with you. What do they know about teaching? It doesn’t matter. They know everything they need to know about breaking your course down into little bits so that those bits can be measured and eventually commodified. Perhaps you bargained yourself a good contract and stand to make a pretty penny when students take your MOOC instead of the existing survey courses at someone else’s university. You’ll never meet the professors that your MOOC replaces. Besides, you’ll be in the rentier class so you won’t care.

What’s that you say? You say you do care? Well, if you think your MOOC won’t replace face-to-face classes anywhere else because you have absolute control over your own intellectual property, you better read your own contract. Chris Newfield has read somebody’s*, and it paints a rather surprising picture:

The commercial value of the individual intellectual property exists only in the context of the Coursera business ecology. This is considered normal in a knowledge economy.

This issue becomes clear in the next paragraph, on the Platform:

All right, title, and interest in and to the Platform, related documentation, the Company Website and all updates, modifications, enhancements, improvements, upgrades or corrections thereof, including any assessment features added thereto, and all related Intellectual Property Rights will be exclusively owned by the Company.

Although the University will retain sole ownership of ‘any software, interfaces or assessment features created or developed solely by University or an Instructor, and the Intellectual Property Rights thereto’, the paragraph goes on to grant Coursera a ‘royalty-free and non-exclusive license’ to use any of these University or Instructor-authored elements. You have your property, but we, Coursera, can use it free of charge. Coursera has set up the course IP as though it were non-rivalrous, in solid open source fashion. It will then commercialize this IP in its own financial interest.

[Emphasis added]

Have some of the smartest people in academia had the wool pulled over their eyes by two Silicon Valley startups? That would be funny if this only affected the parties to these contracts. Instead, it affects both superprofessors and the lumpenprofessoriate alike. Some of the rest of us are simply interested in retaining rights to our intellectual property. Others of us are interested in keeping our jobs.

Either way, please keep us all posted. Your business is our business too.

TTFN,

Jonathan

* And if you don’t actually have a contract, I’m afraid the cookie has already crumbled. At least Charlottesville is really pretty this time of year.





On the phenomenon of bullshit (academic) jobs.

22 08 2013

If you haven’t read David Graeber’s “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs” by now, what are you waiting for? As a sometime labor historian and Harry Braverman devotee you can understand why I think it is so important, but really you should read it just as a way to get a handle on the new reality:

A recent report comparing employment in the US between 1910 and 2000 gives us a clear picture (and I note, one pretty much exactly echoed in the UK). Over the course of the last century, the number of workers employed as domestic servants, in industry, and in the farm sector has collapsed dramatically. At the same time, “professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service workers” tripled, growing “from one-quarter to three-quarters of total employment.” In other words, productive jobs have, just as predicted, been largely automated away (even if you count industrial workers globally, including the toiling masses in India and China, such workers are still not nearly so large a percentage of the world population as they used to be).

But rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world’s population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning not even so much of the “service” sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations.

Oddly enough, national treasure Barbara Garson has an article and book out covering very similar ground. Do yourself a favor and make sure you read what’s at both of these links, then come back here.

Now that you’ve done that, my fellow educators, how many of you immediately thought of academia when you read the title of Graeber’s article? Universities are a mecca for bullshit jobs, and exorbitantly paying ones at that. The guy who coined the best word for these positions is Benjamin Ginsberg from Johns Hopkins. I’ve mentioned “deanlets” before in my pre-MOOC days, but here’s Ginsberg’s first use of that term in The Fall of the Faculty (Oxford 2011), p. 2:

“Every year, hosts of administrators and staffers are added to college and university payrolls, even as schools claim to be battling budget crises that are forcing them to reduce the size of their full-time faculties. As a result, universities are filled with armies of functionaries-the vice presidents, associate vice presidents, assistant vice presidents, provosts, associate provosts, vice provosts, assistant provosts, deans, deanlets, deanlings, each commanding staff and assistants-who, more and more, direct the operation at every school. Backed by their administrative legions, university presidents and other senior administrators have been able, at most schools, to dispense with faculty involvement in campus management and, thereby to reduce the faculty’s influence in university affairs.”

What makes matters worse is that younger faculty, most just delighted to have tenure track jobs in the first place, think this is way it has always been. It hasn’t.

However, if there’s a problem with Ginsberg’s otherwise excellent book, it’s that he’s painting with an awfully broad brush. Every campus has administrators and staffers doing bullshit jobs, but an awful lot of them are doing jobs that literally make all faculty jobs possible. Would you want to be a financial aid counselor? I wouldn’t, but I thank them silently every day during this time of year. Similarly, I’d be completely lost without our department’s administrative assistant and I’m not even department chair! I wish we could clone her.

I remember reading a figure somewhere that it took three support personnel to put every American soldier on the front during World War II. In universities, the ratio is undoubtedly lower, but professors certainly can’t run a university all by themselves. Contingent faculty (a.k.a. 75% of us), whose greatest professional solace must be that they are at the very heart of any university’s educational mission, simply don’t have the time.

The interesting question then becomes, how can you tell bullshit academic jobs from the useful non-teaching ones? I think Penn State’s Larry Catá Backer offers the beginning of an answer here:

If one takes Moody’s seriously, and one must, it becomes important to think about university cultures of function in substantially different ways, that is, that to understand the emerging premises under which public universities operate it may be necessary to abandon the premises traditionally used to “understand” the normative values and structures within which universities were thought to operate. The “new” public university that is emerging, and that the approach of Moody’s Report suggests, is substantially distinct from the mythology of public university operations that may continue to embrace. The principal change, subtle but fundamental is that there has been a shift in emphasis in the understanding of the “business” of “education,” with the emphasis on business that now drives education. (e.g.,“Pigs Get Fat; Hogs Get Slaughtered”–On Strategies for Getting Money Out of MOOCs). As a consequence, the university’s core “product” education, is increasingly treated as an instrument of revenue generation, and institutional mechanics are increasingly bent to the objective. The rest–the “how” of revenue generation becomes secondary to the primary objective.

I’d argue that the non-faculty personnel who directly aid in a university’s educational mission are doing real work. The one’s whose jobs focus exclusively on non-educational revenue generation aren’t. Yes, some of the revenue these later people generate inevitably goes to education indirectly, but you can say the same thing about bankers.

The easy to discern problem here is the skimming, which raises the obvious fairness issue. Less obviously, by turning the education part of higher education into a revenue generating machine, the people with bullshit jobs are both destroying its quality and giving cover to Republicans and neoliberals to starve the poor beast even more in the future. In the meantime, college graduates are left facing the new economy that Graeber and Garson describe so eloquently.

This model of higher education is simply not sustainable. Unfortunately, the people with bullshit jobs of all kinds are the ones least likely to get hurt when it all comes tumbling down. They’ll move on to greener pastures and the faculty will be left holding the bag.





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.





“‘That’s not my department,’ says Wernher von Braun.”

24 05 2013

Superprofessors are very happy about being superprofessors. And why shouldn’t they be? After all, they won’t have to repeat the same tired old lectures ever again, the students that do pay attention to them are highly motivated and most seem to have hundreds of (if not a few thousand) adoring fans. Sure, there’s all that work that goes into setting up a MOOC, but the point of a MOOC is to get it so that the machine can run itself. Once it’s perfected, any additional work is supposed be minimal.

So you can imagine that superprofessors might get a little testy when a MOOC backlash comes along and threatens their cushy new lives. “MOOC Professors Claim No Responsibility for How Courses Are Used,” explained the Chronicle‘s Wired Campus blog a few days ago. The point guy in that story was Duke biology professor, Mohamed A. Noor:

Mr. Noor says he believes dismantling departments and replacing them with MOOCs would be “reckless.” But the Duke professor also believes that, in such a case, “the fault lies with the reckless administration,” and not the professor who furnished the MOOC to the vendor that furnished the MOOC to the administration.

“I don’t see it as particularly my business how people use the stuff once I put it out there,” Mr. Noor says—though he adds that if dismantling departments were all a MOOC was being used for, “then I’d stop.”

If you want to see some serious superprofessor-bashing, just read the comments to that Chronicle post. They may be the clearest indication of a MOOC backlash that I’ve ever seen. For now, the worst thing I’ll accuse Noor of being is tone deaf. While his system obviously works well for him, Noor appears to lack any understanding of how education works outside of biology and, perhaps more importantly, outside of places like Duke.

Noor is an advocate for the flipped classroom. He describes how he flipped it on his blog, but let’s get this straight from the beginning: Noor is both a MOOC producer and a MOOC consumer. He provides content on tape for Coursera, then teaches that content in his Duke course. That means that his job is not being unbundled. This fact is vital if you want to understand why superprofessors like Noor love MOOCs and ordinary professors are fighting back.

Whenever I hear somebody suggest that I flip my classroom, I always ask one thing: When are students going to have time to do the reading I assign? Noor describes how some of his Duke students protested the extra work associated with watching lectures in advance. How are professors with students who have two jobs or families to go home to going to solve that problem? They won’t. All students will have left is the MOOC, which almost certainly means that some administrations will wonder why they should pay for faculty to be in the room at all.

On Twitter a few days ago, Aaron Bady noted that any pro-MOOC argument must start with an attack on everybody else’s teaching. Noor offers a textbook case of this on his blog to justify what he’s doing and the way he’s doing it:

Our courses need to go beyond fact dissemination– we need to engage students both individually and in groups to assess how well they are interpreting and applying the concepts we’re presenting them. The flipped class is one means of achieving this goal– students get the primary content in some way outside the class period, and their understanding is assessed. This assessment step is critical– students learn what elements of the material they didn’t correctly interpret or apply the first time, and faculty receive feedback to correct frequent student misinterpretations and misapplications in their presentations. The faculty then spend the class period clarifying areas of confusion directly in response to the student feedback, and then reinforcing true understanding of the material with new problems, applications, and engaging discussions. The format forces faculty and students to interact bidirectionally in the learning process, and this bidirectionality has obvious benefits both to student understanding and faculty teaching strategies. It’s also personally satisfying for both parties, as faculty become less “lecturers” and more “facilitators” in the classroom, they work with the humanity of students rather than treating students as consumers of prepackaged products.

Speaking for myself, I go beyond fact dissemination in every single class I teach. It’s a little easier for me to do so because I haven’t had a course with over 40 students in it since I moved to Colorado. However, even unfortunate professors with hundreds of students in class can goose participation without flipping their classrooms. Nobody needs MOOCs in order to be bi-directional.

In fact, there’s a pretty good chance that MOOCs are going to make education worse for the vast majority of students in flipped classrooms. If you remember the whole San Jose State letter, the administration there moved Sandel’s justice MOOC out of philosophy and into the English Department. They could do this because the act of unbundling makes it possible to have in-class teachers who don’t really know the material. This, in turn, is an open invitation to pay them less or get rid of them altogether. Of course, as superprofessor and professor all in one, this is not a problem for Noor. And since Duke seems to have a pretty good shared governance structure, this problem is unlikely to arise for him at any time in the future.

The same can not be said for the rest of us. It’s clear from that Chronicle article that even Noor recognizes this fact:

“Ultimately, faculty at individual colleges need to be the driving force behind what students at their campuses are using,” he says.

“And if that’s not the case” at San Jose State, says Mr. Noor, then MOOCs are “the least of the faculty’s problems.”

Unfortunately, providing administrations with a tool they can use to beat shared governance to death isn’t going to help that situation.

Read those Chronicle comments and you can see that a bunch of people make an analogy between MOOCs and the atomic bomb. While that’s far-fetched in the sense that MOOCs will never kill tens of thousands of people, the ethics involved with how your creations are used are exactly the same. I think JeffRogers142 got this ethical problem absolutely right by quoting the great Tom Lehrer:

“‘Once the rockets go up, who cares where they come down?
‘That’s not my department,’ says Wernher von Braun.”

In this case, hundreds if not thousands of Noor’s colleagues all across academia care where and how those MOOCs come down. As long as superprofessors continue to show this kind of gross indifference to the welfare of nearly everyone else in their profession, they shouldn’t be the least bit surprised if they’re no longer treated with much collegiality anymore.








Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,233 other followers

%d bloggers like this: