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.

Meanwhile, back in my real job… (Part II).

24 04 2013

From the same interview as last time, I’m also in this half hour on the history of the infamous Ludlow Massacre:

This one is close to my heart as I do a lot more with this subject than just talk about it on TV.

Will the last non-super professor in academia please turn out the lights when they leave?

16 04 2013

In 1892, William Weihe, the former President of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers union, testified before Congress that his union:

“never objects to [technological] improvements and makes allowances in every particular where there are improvements…[W]henever there is an improvement made by which certain men will be done away with, then their jobs will be done away with. There is no objection.”

By 1909, his union had effectively disappeared, relegated to a couple of small specialty mills in Ohio.

I realize that I’ve been kind of shrill lately, but this kind of complacency just scares me to death. Yes, skilled iron and steel workers faced a particularly steep hill to climb during the late-nineteenth century because mechanized steel production was a huge improvement over hand puddling, but the question in education is not whether MOOCs and online education are superior to face-to-face instruction. [When Harvard and Princeton start giving actual credit at Harvard and Princeton for their MOOCs, then maybe we can begin to question that assumption.] The question is whether MOOCs and online education are sufficient to serve as substitutes for the face-to-face instruction that so many of us provide.

It’s easy to guess how I’d answer that question, but imagine you’re a college student who’s been convinced that all he or she needs is a degree rather than an education in order to make it in life. Which path are you going to choose?

What faculty need to understand is that a lot of other players in this discussion, particularly the ones who don’t actually teach for a living, are using similar criteria. In other words, they couldn’t care less whether the future of higher education actually teaches students anything or not. Some of these people are interested primarily in efficiency and improved test scores. Some of them are interested in their bottom lines. Some of these people just hate universities.

For purposes of the primary audience for this blog, it is also worth noting that precious few participants in this discussion have any interest in the economic situation facing college professors, adjunct and tenure-track alike. Much to my continued alarm, the people ignoring our economic concerns includes an incredibly high number of actual college professors. They seem to think it is not their place to object to “improvements,” and are willing to make allowances for any such changes even if they work against their own self-interest.

Perhaps if more of us actually understood that there’s a target on all our backs, this shocking degree of complacency will finally change.

“Our house was our castle and our keep.”

18 03 2013

This year is the fiftieth anniversary of E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. I already wrote about that book last summer when I read it again, but that was a post about what the word “Luddite” really means. A recent Guardian piece reminds me that that part has very little to do with the reputation of the book:

Thompson touched on the trade unions and the real wage, of course, but most of his book was devoted to something that he referred to as “experience”. Through a patient and extensive examination of local as well as national archives, Thompson had uncovered details about workshop customs and rituals, failed conspiracies, threatening letters, popular songs, and union club cards. He took what others had regarded as scraps from the archive and interrogated them for what they told us about the beliefs and aims of those who were not on the winning side.

Professors, as much as some of us want to deny it, are working class. We have rituals that seem bizarre to the uninitiated. We have long periods of apprenticeship in which we pick up these rituals. We have bosses that want to make us work harder for less pay. We even have common styles of dress.*

Academia is our house of labor, and MOOC providers are deliberately trying to tear down the door so that they can rush in and trash the place. To do this, they have to appeal to the same populist instincts that doomed earlier generations of skilled workers. After all, no other workers get tenure. This whole hatred of the “sage on the stage thing” is another example of technology putting the elitist professor in his or her place. But who are the real elitists here [h/t Undine]?:

No students at Irvine or Duke or Penn will be able to take any of these courses for credit, though. Matkin said UC-Irvine does not consider its Coursera courses, as currently constructed, to be worthy of its credit because “we do not control learning environment of these students…. There are 250,000 signups in our six courses, with open enrollment so anybody can sign up, and those anybodies can influence negatively the learning environment of students who are serious about taking it.”

One kind of education for people who can afford college tuition. A lesser kind of education for those who can’t.

But what about access and individual empowerment? If the entire world can’t go to college then something must be terribly wrong, right? This kind of thinking drives me absolutely bananas:

Bricks-and-mortar campuses are unlikely to keep up with the demand for advanced education: according to one widely quoted calculation, the world would have to construct more than four new 30,000-student universities per week to accommodate the children who will reach enrolment age by 2025 (see go.nature.com/mjuzhu), let alone the millions of adults looking for further education or career training.

So we’ll educate the entire world, but not do anything to provide jobs for them once they graduate? Let them pay through the nose for an inferior education, then blame lack of effort on the part of students for their inevitable un- or underemployment. Makes me think that that Edububble guy may have a better schtick than I first thought.

Or maybe not. I think the key omission in all those “college professors are a bunch of elitists” arguments is that we let students themselves into our house, not just by teaching them our respective disciplines but by looking after their best interests, sometimes even years after they graduate. In contrast, who invited all the for-profit vultures in directly through the front door of the University of California system? Administrators, of course. That they did in the name of students’ best interests only means that the powers that be there are steeped in the rhetoric of education reformers whose real goal is to destroy education. After all, what happens when Coursera and Udacity pull a Google Reader and decide that running all the MOOCs that UC students need to graduate no longer meets those companies’ longterm interests? The students will be left holding the bag.

The sad thing about comparing MOOC Madness to the work of E.P. Thompson (or just to the work of Madness for that matter) is that the English working class got crushed by industrialization (or Thatcherism). Most of us professors (even contingent faculty) are in a much better economic position than the machine breakers ever were. Unfortunately, as Thompson so beautifully demonstrated half a century ago, they had us beat hands down in the class consciousness department.

* My wife keeps begging me to get rid of my herringbone tweed jacket, but I always explain that sometimes I actually need to look like a professor.

“Teamsters in tweed?” I wish.

11 02 2013

Beating up on Clay Shirky is something of a sport amongst the people I follow on Twitter, and that sport was particularly popular last week when this article came out.  The line that got the most derision had nothing to do with MP3s or Napster or even MOOCs.  Instead it was this:

“But when someone threatens to lower the price [of education] then we start behaving like Teamsters in tweed.”

Now that sentence is freighted with an enormous number of assumptions (all of which are insulting to Teamsters), but Shirky’s real purpose here is to shame his fellow faculty members.  He seems to think that the proper response to MOOC-ification is for all of us to sit back and let “progress” run its course.  That’s easy for an Internet expert with a job at NYU to imply, but what’s a community college professor who’s about to become a glorified teaching assistant supposed to do when MOOCs threaten his or her ability to pay their bills?

I say they should behave more like Teamsters.

Perhaps Shirky picked the phrase “Teamsters in tweed” for alliterative purposes, but I think he deliberately wanted to invoke the violent reputation of that union as a means of creating enough guilt to stop faculty everywhere from sticking up for themselves.  Or maybe he’s arguing that resistance is simply futile.  Even if it is, that resistance is absolutely crucial if displaced faculty ever want to get anything in exchange for their displacement.  The only intelligent thing to do when someone wants to make your job obsolete is to organize.

Does this kind of talk make me sound like a Teamster?  Good.  If there’s anything I’ve learned in my fifteen-odd years of being a professor it’s that most administrators think that the class divide ends at the edge of campus.  It doesn’t.  [Go talk to an adjunct sometime if you don’t believe me.]  Yet the powers that be generally want to act as if every professor is part of a big, happy family even when they’re not.

Running a university during the age of permanent austerity means convincing faculty to put in the greatest amount of effort at the lowest possible cost.  Yelling “Think of the children!” every time people in power want to cut somebody’s salary (using technology to do so or not) is simply a business strategy.  What just kills me is how well this con works on most of my colleagues across academia.

As I’ve written over and over at this blog, the wonderful thing about the online education/MOOC debate is that by sticking up for ourselves we professors ARE thinking of the children since a lousy higher education for almost everyone is of no use to anyone, especially the students who pay for it.  That doesn’t mean my job is special.  It simply means that the quality of the service I provide is just as important as the price when determining its longterm value.

While this rant may seem a tad radical to some readers, all I’m really saying here is that labor and management need to sit down together and work out issues of mutual interest from a position of mutual respect and relative equality.  The Teamsters call this process “collective bargaining.”  In academia, unless we’re lucky enough to work in a union shop, we call it “shared governance.”

Shared governance?  Hasn’t the Internet made that obsolete?  Well, it will if we aren’t willing to fight for it.

%d bloggers like this: