“But if you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out.”

12 03 2012

“People are all over this idea lately,”

writes Paul Graham about the idea of replacing universities with technological utopias of an undetermined nature:

“I think they’re onto something. I’m reluctant to suggest that an institution that’s been around for a millennium is finished just because of some mistakes they made in the last few decades, but certainly in the last few decades US universities seem to have been headed down the wrong path. One could do a lot better for a lot less money.”

It’s certainly easy to do the same things that universities do for a lot less money, but will technology necessarily make academia better? Ultimately, I’m not sure it matters anymore. The people who control politics and higher education in America are going to impose radical restructuring on academia not because they want to do it better, but because they want to do it cheaper. Whether the changes they institute in the name of cost-cutting prove better or worse for education in the end is completely irrelevant to their goals.

More importantly, they and ed tech industry that wants their business don’t care who they hurt in the process of making their fantasy the new reality. This piece includes a term coined by the economist Joseph Schumpeter that gets at this mindset well:

[C]oming up with new educational models is hard to do if you’re already working pretty hard teaching the existing program. But there’s no stopping this sort of Schumpeterian “creative destruction,” and I’d hate to be working for the educational equivalent of Polaroid — a brilliant and innovative company that proved unable to adapt to a rapidly changing technological frontier.

Creative destruction is still destruction, and you can’t fight destruction with resignation. You fight creative destruction by putting forward a different set of values – a set of values that emphasizes learning over destruction for its own sake. I don’t like the idea of giving up without a fight, particularly when it’s my job that’s potentially on the chopping block.

This guy who I quoted the other day suggests that:

If you’ve got Amazon as an analogue for these massively open courses, there is still a model where people actually go into bookstores because sometimes they want to touch, or they like hanging out, or there’s other value offered by that. What it means is that the university needs to rethink what it’s doing, how it’s doing it.

I say if you play their game by their rules, then you’ve already lost. After all, they’re the ones carrying pictures of Chairman Mao. If we carry them too, we won’t make it with anyone either.





“Will you still need me, will you still feed me…?”

26 02 2012

As a matter of fact, I do take requests. This one‘s for you, Phil:

The Hewlett Foundation is sponsoring a competition: the goal is for somebody on the Kaggle platform to get as close as possible to predicting the already marked grade of 23,000 high school student essays.

Perhaps this should worry me, but taken by itself it doesn’t because this will never work. Grading essays, as anyone who’s ever done it knows, is highly subjective (but by no means arbitrary) work. Give a lot of “A”s in a row, and you’ll be harder on the next batch. Give a lot of “F”s and you’ll look for “A”s. My friend Brett used to say that he knew it was time to stop grading for a while when he started growling at the papers. While some people might call this a bad thing, I’d call it “dealing with human beings.” Strangely enough, most people write for human beings in the real world rather than for algorithms.

I find this much more common story of teaching on autopilot a lot more scary:

I was assigned a textbook course in American history. Composition was not a prerequisite, and the course was steered by two multiple-choice exams provided by the textbook’s publisher. Area Tech had adopted state-approved standards for the subject, and these were guaranteed to be met by the text, which was written by a well-affiliated professor, published by a major New York house, and retailed to my students at 60 federally subsidized dollars each. It contained some decent maps, but it was scattered, bland, and thoroughly tiresome. It was designed so that any literate adult could be slotted in to teach it. By our second class of going over its chapters, the students, a healthy mix of ages, races, and cultural backgrounds, enjoyed it no more than I did.

Plug any literate adult into the role of designated grader and professors with my qualifications become completely unnecessary. How can this situation ever exist (the naive might ask themselves)? Because the powers that be no longer care what the quality of higher education is like for most people anymore. That, of course, is the scariest story of all.

Think I’m exaggerating? You may have seen this one yesterday. Here’s Rick Santorum, on college and college professors:

“There are good, decent men and women who work hard every day and put their skills to the test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor… That’s why he wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image,” Santorum said. “I want to create jobs so people can remake their children into their image, not his.”

An algorithm would be Rick Santorum’s dream college professor, at least at non-Christian schools. No taxpayer dollars for high-priced, elitist labor. No brainwashing. In fact, no thinking whatsoever. No wonder Rick Santorum loves those for-profit colleges.

Where does that leave all of us liberal college professors? Foraging for food when we’re 64. You think the job market is bad now? Wait until we’re all replaced by an adjunct or a machine. I don’t know about you, but I have to scrimp and save as it is already.





“1, 2, 3, 4…Can I have a little more?”

17 01 2012

Why do business professors generally make more money than history professors? The answer, trying to be fair about it, is that business professors have non-academic alternatives. That means that universities have to compete with marketers in order to hire a marketing professor, accounting firms to hire an accounting professor, etc. History professors…well I guess we have Plan B, which hasn’t really been worked out yet.

Yet this whole line of argument assumes that the academic labor market is, in fact, free: that there are a number of options out there for people seeking better employment, that they are well-informed of all those options and that they won’t be afraid to risk moving. But what if the academic labor market isn’t free after all? There’s an article in the new Harper’s (so new that it’s not even on the web site as I write this) about monopoly employers, who (if I remember my economics right) are actually monopsonists – One buyer of labor and many sellers. It mostly covers workers in the computer industry and the chicken industry, but a description of a free (labor) market there, provided as contrast, doesn’t apply much to academia either.

I’ll take each trait one at a time:

“Most important is an equality between the seller and the buyer, achieved by ensuring that that there are many buyers as well as sellers.

The deliberate restructuring of demand has eliminated that possibility.

Second is transparency. Everyone sees the quantity and the quality of the product on offer, and the price at which each deal is done.

Those of us in state schools can usually find out everyone else’s salary without too much trouble. But do you know their courseload? Do you know their perks? Are you rude enough to ask?

A third characteristic is a tendency to deliver egalitarian outcomes.

I probably make about $35,000/year less than the average business professor at my university and I have a higher courseload. But then again, tell that to our adjuncts.

Adjunct faculty in the humanities make less than well-supported graduate students at most universities, yet they carry most of the teaching load in many places. And don’t tell me that’s because they don’t do research, because today’s adjunct faculty are just as capable of putting out books as anyone who’s lucky enough to have the time to write when not teaching just two or three classes each semester.

A free labor market would create something akin to equal pay for equal work. Since academia is nothing like it, there must be some reason why the academic labor market isn’t free. The New Faculty Majority blog posts this part of an article on art that suggests a parallel to academia:

Classical economic models assume that suppliers don’t have any particular emotional attachment to what they’re supplying; all they really want to do is to make money. As a result, if they’re not making money, they’ll exit the industry, leaving more to go around for everyone else. As we see from Kirk Lynn’s contribution to the discussion, however, many artists (especially artist-entrepreneurs) have far too much passion for their work to consider exiting solely for financial reasons. The result of this lack of exit is a surfeit of fantastic art that few aside from its creators have time to take in.

Perhaps then they exploit us (to differing degrees) because we care. Since you’ll take less to do the work which you find meaning in and enjoy, then we’ll pay you less. I know we’re always free to quit, but what do you do if you actually believe in what you’re doing and want to try to make academia better? I guess we could all try to become Blue Meanies administrators, but what if you want to be able to look at yourself in the mirror each morning?

You could always start a blog! Or maybe not. This is from Reason #76 over at a blog that you really should be reading already:

Why? Why are academics—of all people—afraid of writing (and speaking) honestly about their profession? Why do so many of those who do express themselves feel compelled to do so anonymously? The answer lies in the staggering power imbalance between academics and the people who employ them. That imbalance is so great because of the crippling realities of the academic job market. The consequences of offending your colleagues and superiors in any way can be dire, because until you have tenure (see Reason 71) your employment is insecure; you are easily replaced.

But if we just worked all together now…





An Elvis analogy.

27 12 2011

In her year-end post, our pal Kate mentions my fondness for historical analogies. Her historical analogy in that post is union musicians protesting their replacement in movie theaters by pre-recorded tracks.  While I love that story, I’m not sure it’s a good analogy for edtech as it has a happy ending. Theater owners (who were mostly the Hollywood studios at that time) make money, customers get cheaper movie tickets and the musicians’ union didn’t disband because there were still plenty of places for them to play live music. Indeed, I suspect if you work for the local in Nashville, LA or Vegas, you can make a fair chunk of change as a union musician still.

Speaking of Vegas, I was on my way to Christmas in Vegas with the family (not a bad idea at all, really) when I first read Kate’s post.  In honor of that trip, I was reading Peter Guralnick’s Careless Love:  The Unmaking of Elvis Presley. That’s the second volume of a two-volume biography of THE KING.  The first book, which I read years ago, is quite wonderful for understanding just how important Elvis was musically. The second is mostly depressing, like Nick Cage in Leaving Las Vegas, but still a great read.

I don’t remember most of them, but it’s clear from the book that Elvis movies are almost all pretty awful. Guralnick blames Elvis’ manager, Colonel Tom Parker, for that mostly. Early in the book, Guralnick explains the way Elvis’ contracts were structured.  Elvis made between $750,000 and $1,000,000 per picture.  That was almost as much as Hollywood’s top star at the time, Elizabeth Taylor.  But then Elvis and Parker split 50% of everything the picture made after it earned back its costs.  Since the kiddies were going to see Elvis in anything he did, that gave Elvis every incentive to make his pictures as fast and as slipshod as possible.  The scripts were awful (Elvis played a race-car driver in three different movies), the music was often ill-chosen and he certainly never got a chance to develop as an actor.

So who did this hurt?  Elvis, of course.  Not financially. He made lots of money, but doing nothing but acting in movies with dumb stories and recording soundtrack albums with bad songs on them made him miserable.  This is Guralnick, p. 207:

“It was clear that he himself was neither interested in, nor satisfied with, the music that was being released in his name, and for all the Colonel’s pep talks and recitations of figures and numbers, and deals, there was no getting past the fact that the records were no longer selling as they once had , they no longer mattered as they used to.  He admired the Beatles, he felt threatened by the Beatles, sometimes it made him angry how disrespectful the Beatles and Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones were toward the public and their fans – but most of all he was envious of the freedom they evidently seemed to feel and to flaunt.  He, too, had once enjoyed that freedom, he, too, had once been in the vanguard of the revolution, and now he was embarrassed to listen to his own music, to watch his own films.”

In case you’re wondering where I’m going with this, professors are Elvis. Students could be our adoring fans, but they’re being encouraged by the Colonel to demand the same bad movies over and over again.  Take this particular money-making idea, for example:

MyEdu is an online tool aimed at helping students better plan and manage their college experience. It was originally founded in 2008 as Pick-a-Prof, a website that allowed students to rate their professors; the following year the Internet startup was rebranded as MyEdu and its mission became more comprehensive. Through tools that track students’ course requirements each semester, provide detailed degree planning and rate faculty members, the site aims to improve students’ return on education by increasing graduation rates and decreasing the time it takes to earn a diploma.

“Going to college is much like investing in your portfolio; you have to keep an eye on how much return you’re getting on your education investment,” says Frank Lyman, MyEdu’s senior vice president.

Is this really what we want to teach them?  Now that President Romney has promised all our students jobs when they graduate, they’re going to end up being insufferable. Is going to college a good idea if you go for the wrong reasons?  Here’s Guralnick quoting Elvis (p. 468) looking back on his film career, before the pills eventually killed him:

“It was a job.  I had to be there at a certain time in the morning and work a certain amount of hours, and that’s exactly how I treated it.”

I think professors and students alike could learn a lot from Elvis’ experience. If you do what you love for the wrong reasons you will no longer love it.





Will college professors go the way of the milkman?

19 09 2011

I have been a Natalie Merchant fan since I first saw 10,000 Maniacs in college. In the old days, when I still went to concerts, I saw them more often than I did any other band (even after their shows were overran by teenage girls in peasant dresses). I pre-ordered the first Natalie Merchant album in seven years before it came out last year (rather than download the tracks) so that I could read the liner notes, and have had it in my car ever since. It’s two discs of the work of mostly obscure poets put to music, so there is actually a lot of interesting stuff to learn there.

This is my favorite track on the album:

The poet is Eleanor Farjeon, well-known in English places, but not in America. As Merchant notes, poetry aside, perhaps the most endearing thing she ever did was to turn down the title Dame of the British Empire with the line, “I do not wish to become different from the milkman.” Words to live by if I’ve ever encountered them.

They seem particularly useful to us academics, as we (myself included, of course) tend to greatly overrate our own usefulness. So many of us assume that whatever we’re interested in will be interesting to others, even if it isn’t. [See here for an important variation on this phenomenon.] I’ve also seen far too many examples of academics who assume that they’re somehow different than other working people just because they have a Ph.D.

We had time, and somehow we found the resources to study something for seven-odd years. This does not make us immune to the same rules of employment that blue collar workers face, like technological unemployment or the inevitable class struggle between employer and employee. This post by Tenured Radical about her computer troubles from over the weekend reminded me of Henry George’s complaint that industrial workers had been reduced to “mere feeders of machines.”

At the same time, there’s one way that I really do hope to be different from the milkman. Unlike milkmen, I hope my chosen profession continues to be practiced beyond a boutique existence long after my career has ended. If anyone has studied the demise of milkmen in America, I’d be interested in reading their work. If I had to guess though, I’d say that milkmen were probably victims of better refrigerated transport. It became cheaper to make milk on vast dairy farms and keep it cold for hundreds of miles than to squeeze it fresh and send it down the street. Yes, I know milk delivery is still a boutique operation in some places, but most people aren’t willing to pay that much more for a better product.

Will the college students of the future be willing to pay more for a better education? Will they even be able to pay more for a better education? Earlier this summer I wrote:

Seriously, the primary reason that I don’t go totally Luddite on this entire profession is that if given the opportunity, I don’t think the average bean counter is going to remake the university very well at all.

I still believe that, but now I’m afraid that the vast majority of both administrators and college students couldn’t care less. If I’m right, that should be enough to make you empathize with working people of all kinds. Especially milkmen.

Perhaps we can all double as psychiatrists, just like this milkman did.





“Time has come today.”

3 09 2011

I think it was Dan Allosso who tipped me off to the existence of Khan Academy. At Khan Academy, you see, the time (for homework) has come today. Not tonight. Today. Their big innovation it seems is that students watch lectures at night so that better-tailored instruction can be done during during the day in class time. Wired Magazine explains:

This involves replacing some of her lectures with Khan’s videos, which students can watch at home. Then, in class, they focus on working problem sets. The idea is to invert the normal rhythms of school, so that lectures are viewed on the kids’ own time and homework is done at school. It sounds weird, Thordarson admits, but this flipping makes sense when you think about it. It’s when they’re doing homework that students are really grappling with a subject and are most likely to need someone to talk to.

For all I know, this works great for secondary school math.  However, I didn’t realize that this model had hit higher education too until I went to that seminar on “Making the Move to Hybrid and Online Courses” last week. [Despite all that stuff about “lecture capture” that I read a few weeks ago.] Our facilitator suggested that professors could tape themselves lecturing, put those tapes up on Blackboard, then spend more time in class on other activities.

While I had no particular reaction to Khan Academy the first time I read about it, when I realized that this model might be the future of the college classroom my arm immediately shot up.  My question was, “When are they supposed to do the reading that I assign them?” That’s when I first heard about “guided reading,” which apparently means stopping your every other paragraph to ask questions about what they just supposedly read. Why do this? I was told that professors do this now because students aren’t used to collecting information the way that we’ve always done it.

Maybe that’s the problem. [Here’s the part where I undoubtedly lost all the nursing and business professors who attended that seminar with me:]

There ought to be no doubt that “guided reading” would absolutely kill any kind of narrative. More importantly, how can anybody ever expect to “guide” their students through an entire text of any significant length during three hours of class per week? Come to think of it, when exactly did we give up entirely on reading long texts? People used to get panicked over the poor reading ability of America’s students. Now we no longer seem to care.

Imagine for a moment that you teach history as one darn fact after after another. I don’t, and I suspect you don’t if you read this blog, but imagine if you did. Wouldn’t you want your students to read before class in order to get the facts and context that you don’t cover in class? Suppose they heard you lecture at night. What are you going to do during the day then? Lecture some more? Give more bubble tests?

Now suppose you actually teach history as the literary art it is.  They hear you lecture at night. Are they going to read on their long texts during the day?  What do they need you there for then? Suppose you spend all day working on their writing. Where are they going to hear about other interpretations of the same material? Remember, they spent all evening listening to you. Are you going to spend your in-class time deconstructing yourself? Remember, they can’t make up their own opinions about the text because they haven’t read anything for you.

I just mentioned on Friday to my undergrad majors class how much I love discussions because I never have the same one twice. Even if you ask the same questions (which I don’t), you never know where the answers are going to take you. The great thing about history is that the answer is never “11.” There are always a myriad of answers to every question, and picking the best one is most of the fun.

Run your history class Khan Academy/style and there will be no texts to analyze, no building blocks for arguments, no thinking for themselves. Even in Bible study, there’s always at least one long text to discuss.

I wonder what the Bible is in the Church of the Ramones. I’ll bet you it rhymes.

PS Is there tithing in the Church of the Ramones? I hope not, because I don’t think my current church would mind if I had two religions.





Three videos.

2 08 2011

My friend Al Jacobs played these three videos for our TAH teacher colloquium this afternoon. They are all well worth your time.

For instructions on how you can borrow them for classroom use, click here.





Way too much fun for someone like me.

11 05 2011

So far, this is my favorite find from the Library of Congress’ new National Jukebox.





“Get Back.”

7 11 2010

Today I had to explain to my daughter that “Across the Universe” was not actually a Beatles movie and that this came first:

Frankly, I’m just glad she cares.





“King Tut” (1979).

7 06 2010

Thank you, Ray, for making me go look for this:








%d bloggers like this: