BYOB (Be Your Own Boss).

You might not know this about me (as I don’t write about it much here), but I’m Co-President of the Colorado Conference of the American Association of University Professors (or AAUP).  In that capacity, I knew about this story long before it got reported (even though I didn’t participate in the investigation or contribute at all to the report):

A new report from the American Association of University Professors alleges that Colorado’s Community College of Aurora terminated an adjunct because he refused to lower his expectations for his introductory philosophy class. The report sets the stage for the AAUP to vote on censuring Aurora for alleged violations of academic freedom later this spring, but the college denies such charges. It blames Nathanial Bork’s termination on his own teaching “difficulties.”

I know Nate pretty well, so I’m more than a little biased when it comes to a case like this. Nevertheless, there are a couple of things about this incident that just made my head explode. First, as you can see from that IHE article, Nate still teaches at Arapahoe Community College, which is part of the same community college system as the Community College of Aurora. At CCA, Nate was allegedly such a bad teacher that the college fired him “virtually on the spot,” yet he’s still working productively down the road. If Nate was really such a menace, don’t you think CCA might have wanted to warn its sister school about him?

The second, even-more-mind blowing part of this case goes back to Nate being fired “virtually on the spot.” Nate was apparently so awful that they fired him DURING the semester, leaving all of his students in a lurch with some patchwork of substitute teacher(s) until finals week ended. He’d have to have been pretty darn awful for the benefits of that maneuver to outweigh the considerable costs. Of course, it wasn’t really about Nate’s teaching.

Nate’s firing was about making a point. The authors of the AAUP report on Nate’s case cover this subject very deftly:

A cannier administration might have let Mr. Bork finish the semester and then have declined to renew his contract. Insofar as this could have been done for exactly the reasons that appear to have motivated the CCA administration’s summary mid-semester dismissal of Mr. Bork, it would have constituted just as severe a violation of academic freedom. But the administration would have enjoyed the plausible deniability afforded by policies and procedures that enshrine arbitrary nonrenewal of appointments for adjunct faculty members.

It is certainly no secret that adjunct faculty lack real academic freedom precisely because of their precarious employment. Yet the administration at CCA made no pretense of the idea that Nate and other adjuncts there have the same control over their classrooms that tenure track faculty at most places (hopefully) have. They came up with this “Gateway to Success Initiative,” imposed it indiscriminately upon faculty of all kinds and fired Nate in response to his desire to be his own boss (at least as far as the way that he chooses to run his classroom is concerned).

While the AAUP’s Committee A (which oversees investigations like the one at CCA) doesn’t take that many cases in any given year, it should be obvious why this one is really important. Here is an administration that won’t even make the usual happy noises about all faculty having academic freedom. They think they should have more power over curricular decisions than their own faculty do. While I ran a few courses on spec in grad school, I’ve never taught as adjunct. Nevertheless, I have to imagine that one of the reasons that you’d put up with low pay, no benefits and zero job security is precisely that you can be your own boss in the classroom setting.

Yes, if you’re a terrible teacher, you might be subject to observation and discipline. But that discipline should be meted out by other faculty (like your department chair) and not by your administrators. You should also have the opportunity to change course if your teaching is somehow not up to snuff, and not get summarily dismissed in the middle of the semester.

Everything I’ve written about this case so far should be obvious to any informed faculty member who considers the issues at stake. But I want to make two more points that might not be so clear to everyone.

First, adjuncts are just the low-hanging fruit in a long-term administrative movement towards trying to control the way that faculty to teach. You can discipline adjuncts, particularly CC adjuncts, because they have few expectations of academic freedom and (often) a dire need for continued employment. Once this becomes the norm, there is no reason to believe that administrators will let tenure-track and tenured faculty exercise their traditional prerogatives in their own classrooms. Running a university like a business means closely controlling exactly how work gets done. If faculty acquiesce to this kind of academic Taylorism, we’re all gonna end up working with stopwatches behind us no matter what our employment status happens to be.

Second, to get back to a subject more common on this blog, technology is already greatly enabling administrators in this quest to control the classroom. My old obsession, mandatory LMS usage is just part of this phenomenon. But the destruction of faculty prerogatives goes beyond just administrators. Consider this observation from Jonathan Poritz and I in our book Education Is Not an App (p. 65):

While a typical face-to-face course, or even a regular fully-online course, does not have to cater to the recommendations of the nineteen or twenty people who may collaborate to produce a MOOC, the rise of online learning tools has meant that professors of all kinds have less say over their own classrooms than they did even twenty years ago. One reason that the power of [“teaching and learning specialists”] has increased is that the power of faculty has dwindled as technology has made it easier for faculty prerogatives to be divided when the work of teaching gets unbundled.

Now we’re not saying that instructional designer stink and they all must be destroyed. What we are saying is that the final decision about how the classroom will operate must belong to the professor, no matter what their status of employment happens to be. If you build a better mousetrap, use the carrot not the stick. Most faculty are smart and caring enough to join any technological bandwagon worth joining.

For all these rasons, by taking a stand on Nate’s behalf, the AAUP is actually taking a stand on behalf of us all. If you’re appreciative of this kind of work, you should consider joining us.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in AAUP, Adjuncts, Shared Governance, Teaching, 0 comments

“I don’t need your civil war.”

All us historians let out a loud sigh when we read that story about Republican Senator Ron Johnson wanting to replace us all with Ken Burns videos. It’s an incredibly stupid argument, of course, but it’s also sadly typical of everyone who has no idea what history professors actually do all day. “Leave it to someone from a party led by a reality TV star to confuse videotape with the learning experience of a classroom,” explained Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers:

“What Ron Johnson doesn’t get is that education happens when teachers can listen to students and engage them to think for themselves ― and that can include using Ken Burns’ masterful work. But this is typical for a party with an education agenda as out of date as Johnson’s Blockbuster Video card.”

We all know she’s right, but I’m afraid that simply ridiculing the Johnson position isn’t going to be enough to prevent de-skilling and automation in education at all levels.

Perhaps you saw that Ken Burns – God bless him – tweeted in response to Johnson that, “I’m here to support teachers, not replace them.” Unfortunately, Ken Burns doesn’t control the means of educational production in this country. In other words, Ron Johnson and his ilk could replace every history teacher in this country with a Ken Burns video and Ken Burns couldn’t do anything about it. Neither could those teachers themselves, especially non-union secondary school teachers and faculty off the tenure track, because their jobs are so precarious. Better to be the ones inserting the video cassette and administering the multiple choice test after the tape ends than not to have any job at all.

I understand the difference between engagement and watching videos all day. Ron Johnson doesn’t understand the difference. Unfortunately, an awful lot of college professors (the ones who rely primarily on lectures to convey the information that accompanies the skills of their respective disciplines) don’t understand the difference either. The issue here is not how best to use videos in instructional settings, this is actually a debate about what education is.

Yes, I know that some lectures are better than others. Before I gave up lecturing entirely, I took great pains to engage with and watch the faces of the students in my audience. I once had a political science professor back in college who could only lecture staring up at the ceiling. It drove me crazy because I might as well not have been there at all. You could easily have replaced him with the poli-sci equivalent of a Ken Burns video. But, then again, the same thing is true of all us good lecturers too. In my case I think it would have hurt the quality of education in my classroom, but the sad truth is that people like Ron Johnson don’t care about educational quality.

To be honest, I’m not particularly fond of Ken Burns’ work. I don’t need “The Civil War.”* The first twenty minutes or so of “Baseball” are truly mind-blowing, but I have lots of problems with the rest of that documentary.** I liked “Prohibition,” but you probably don’t care what I think about those videos. Neither does Johnson and that’s exactly the problem. The attack on our teaching methods isn’t really economic (as Johnson seems to think). It’s ideological. As a good book review that showed up in my Twitter feed the other day (and which started with the Johnson story) put it:

It’s a common complaint among conservatives that many tenured professors “radicalize” students with Marx and gender theory while living royally off of state funding and federal student loans. Online and competency-based education will fix both, according to critics like Johnson and Scott Walker, by limiting professors’ unchecked power and improving efficiency with market-based solutions.

Replacing all us professors with video, or robots, or even robots showing videos won’t save anyone any money, but it will do a great job at preventing us from “radicalizing” anybody.

All the way back in 2012, Cathy Davidson declared quite famously that every professor who could be replaced by a computer should be. I know she meant well, but the people who have the power to replace professors with computers don’t mean well at all. If educational technology is itself neutral, the companies that push it and the audiences they push it towards aren’t neutral at all. To put it another way, video didn’t kill the radio star. Video companies did. That’s why we have to have a better defense for idiotic arguments like Johnson’s than just calling it an idiotic argument. Otherwise we all run the risk of winning the argument, but still ending up unemployed.

To prevent that from happening, faculty need to choose and control their own technological tools – tools that promote engagement rather than tools that turn college into a video game or a Ken Burns film festival.*** If we suffer from a failure to communicate our true aims – or worse yet, a civil war – the consequences will be dire not just for faculty, but also for society as a whole.

* This isn’t the place to get into why, but it involves WAAAAAY too much Shelby Foote.

** For example, the almost complete absence of the oldest franchise in the National League.

*** That’s why my friend Jonathan and I have written a book about how faculty can take control of their own electronic future. If it’s not out now where you live, it will be available there very, very soon. You might consider buying it.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Adjuncts, Teaching, Technology, 0 comments

MOOC madness takes its toll.

It seems as if it’s been a very long time since I’ve written anything about MOOCs. To be honest, I’ve been avoiding clicking on MOOC links entirely in order to avoid the urge to write about them. Unfortunately for everyone, last week I accidentally came across a story with a MOOC section so scary that it should send shivers down every faculty member’s spine everywhere. So let’s do the time warp again and party like it’s 2012:

One insight may be to think differently about how academic assets like MOOCs are marketed and, more importantly, assessed. Consider this evaluation of a MOOC at Kennesaw State University. KSU offered its first MOOC in 2014 — the K12 Blended and Online Learning MOOC (K12BOLM). According to an assessment of the MOOCs first run,

“By traditional measures, the first iteration of the MOOC aligned as expected. Enrollment decreased weekly. Of the close to 6,000 learners initially enrolled, 40% were active in week 2. At the conclusion of the 8-week guided course, 6% of the learners enrolled in Week 1 successfully completed all aspects of the course. This included weekly discussions, video embedded quizzes, readings, peer-graded activities and three unit level assignments.”

I know this is bad of (particularly since the school in question is at least one or two rings on the prestige ladder above my employer), but the first thing I thought when I read this was, “Kennesaw State has MOOCs?” To be fair, so does the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, but it’s not the quality of the MOOC provider here that gets my goat. It’s the fact that Kennesaw State must have something better to do with its money.

For example, KSU’s last reported six-year graduation rate is just 42%. They could have taken all the money that went to Coursera (through the University of Georgia system) and spent it on scholarships, or maybe giving decent wages to their adjunct faculty (who, according to this site, make 58% less than the national average for adjunct instructors) or even building a new building that their existing students could conceivably enter and use one day. But no, Kennesaw State had to get their own MOOC.

So what happens when you invite a platform vendor like Coursera into your university? The whole governance structure of the place changes. These are slides from Paul-Olivier Dehaye’s #DLRN15 presentation that deserve to be tattooed on the chest of any administrator at a college that’s thinking about MOOCs when they have students who are already enrolled their who deserve first crack at those resources. Think of them as before and after:



Once you have a hungry edtech startup in the middle of your governance structure, it’s hard to get them out. MIT and Harvard have the assets to feed the beast, I’m guessing Kennesaw State University does not.

So how does Kennesaw State justify its time in MOOCs?:

Some skeptics might consider KSU’s experiment a failure because of its low completion rate. But in evaluating this MOOC in 2015, KSU looked at other factors, including social media mentions. And, in fact, the MOOC helped to increase brand awareness: “Over 25,000 Twitter Hashtags Tweets and Re-Tweets were documented. … More than half had never heard of the institution. Another 25% had heard of the institution but were largely unfamiliar with it.”

I think they would have gotten even more brand awareness had they lit $350,000 on fire in the football stadium during the homecoming rally, but who’s counting?

If anything I think example shows that everyone wants to be a MOOC producer. Nobody wants to be a MOOC consumer. This would explain Coursera’s over-reliance on university partnership funds and nano-degree certifications rather than licensing fees for all the courses they’ve created. Flipping you class with someone else’s lectures is an admission of inadequacy, which is why it is extremely hard to find any self-respecting college professor who has done this voluntarily.

This explains why those of us who are interested in the whole MOOC life cycle can now look forward to the Darwinian struggle stage. It costs money to pay graduate students to police discussion forums. It costs money to license old photos. It costs money to update your MOOC continuously. Eventually, increased “brand awareness” will not be enough. The first MOOCs to go will be the ones that don’t attract enough people willing to pay for certificates. Then the next MOOCs to go will be the ones that don’t fit into those micro-degree programs. By the time Coursera disappears, most of its current offerings will already be dead letters.

Nonetheless, MOOC madness has still taken its toll.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Adjuncts, MOOCs, Shared Governance, 2 comments

“We can’t be consumed by our petty differences anymore.”

Yippee!  Rebecca Schuman is back from maternity leave and writing at Slate again. This makes me happy because Rebecca is a) prone to say exactly what everybody else familiar with academia is thinking, but too polite to put into words for any publication whatsoever and b) hilarious.  This new essay explains the kinds of comments that appear whenever someone complains about adjunct working conditions, and apparently the comments that appeared there are exactly the kinds of comments she mentions in the article.

Actually, I’m going to have to take Rebecca’s word for that because life’s too short to read the comments.  Indeed, I made the mistake of reading the comments on my last Vitae article and got incredibly depressed for about a day and a half by all the self-destructive tendencies on display there.  Never again.  Yet I now know thanks to Rebecca that some tenured people like me enjoy telling our adjunct colleagues in comment sections all around the Internet how supply and demand works.

Well, fellow tenured people, allow me to explain supply and demand to you:

1.  If there is a large supply of people willing to do the same thing that you do for a lot less money and no benefits, then profit-maximizing employers will tend to replace the more expensive people with the less expensive people in order to balance their budgets. 

Even if somehow manage to hold on to that job, working conditions will gradually drift towards the level of the least compensated among us, not the best.  What’s that you say?  You think you’re special?  You do research?  Tell that to every professor at a public university in North Carolina:

Sen. Tom McInnis, R-Richmond, introduced a bill Thursday that would require all professors in the UNC system, regardless of research obligations, to teach at least eight courses per academic year to receive their full salary.

I bet the vast majority of adjuncts in that state already teach that load.  If 76% of the faculty doesn’t have the time to do research already than your average Republican legislator is thinking, “Why not the rest of the faculty too?”  As long as we accept the idea that it’s OK for our adjunct colleagues to toil away with four or more courses and no living wage, we don’t have a leg to stand upon when they inevitably try to do this to the rest of us.

2.  If anybody in the world with a computer and an Internet connection can teach our classes instead of us, then our wages will tend to go down as the supply of labor goes up.

Yes, I’m talking about online courses, and no I’m not saying that all online courses are bad.  What I am saying is that if the supply of potential labor increases, more workers will chase a limited number of jobs.  If more workers chase a limited number of jobs, compensation will tend to go down over time.

I know, your online course is terrific.  I actually believe that.  You probably put lots of effort into it and do things online that nobody can do in a face-to-face setting.  That’s great, but how long will your online class remain yours?  What happens if your next dean, or your next President or your next Governor doesn’t give a hoot about educational quality?  What recourse do you have?

I’ll tell you what recourse you have:  You can go find another line of work, just like all those adjuncts you’re currently ignoring.

And don’t think the fact that you only teach face-to-face makes you immune.  If an online class and a face-to-face class are taken for the same credit, then most students will tend to drift to the easiest, lowest cost option and your job will disappear right out from under you.  Which kinda brings me to…

3.  If a machine can do the same work that you can do, your employers will substitute your labor with those machines because this cuts down on their demand for labor, which in turn decreases costs.

I hate to channel Tom Friedman*, the Kevin Carey of 2001, but the same forces that have outsourced accountants and X-ray technicians will inevitably lead to the outsourcing  of college professors as long as this is deemed academically acceptable.

Come to think of it, this is exactly what makes Kevin Carey so incredibly dangerous.  Again, so that I can circumvent having to read any more of his book than absolutely necessary, let me outsource this point to Audrey Watters’ and Sara Goldrick-Rab’s IHE review of the End of College that you’ve probably already read by now:

“Bowen had previously been skeptical of the idea that technology could fundamentally change higher learning. Based on his new research, he wrote, ‘I am today a convert. I have come to believe that now is the time.’” Rather than question the wisdom of sudden conversions based on single studies, Carey wonders, why didn’t colleges immediately hop on board and begin embracing what he calls “a golden opportunity to charge students less money without sacrificing the quality of instruction”?

If the quality of expensive face-to-face higher education is indeed the same as in a MOOC then an awful lot of us faculty are royally screwed.  We can explain why it isn’t until we’re blue in the face, but if we lose this argument then tenure will mean nothing because students will indeed migrate to the University of Everywhere just like Carey wants them to do and we won’t be able to do anything to stop it.

By the way, who’ll be teaching students at the University of Everywhere (assuming those students have even contact over the Internet with any faculty at all)?  Adjuncts, of course.  That may explain in large part why Rebecca ends her piece with this warning:

Academics in all disciplines would do well to tame their sanctimony about the “lesser” spirit sciences, lest they find themselves on the business end of the next collapse.

She’s talking about interdisciplinary warfare.  I’m talking about inter-class warfare.  Tenure-splaining supply and demand to adjuncts who just want to put food on the table is fiddling while Rome burns.

To try another analogy, we faculty are facing the “Independence Day” scenario here, people.  The aliens control our supply.  The aliens control our demand.  If we can’t get together and change that scenario, not even Will Smith will be able to save us from extinction.

*  The problem with Tom Friedman is not that he is a lousy reporter.  Face it, people:  The World Is Flat was WAY ahead of it’s time.  The problem with Tom Friedman is that he thinks the changes he describes in The World Is Flat are all unquestionably good things for a society as a whole no matter how many livelihoods they happened to destroy.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Academic Labor, Adjuncts, Technology, 4 comments

What do Salman Khan and Scott Walker have in common?

Q. What do Salman Khan and Scott Walker have in common?

A. Neither one of them seems to think that teachers work particularly hard.

Let me explain:

Like all good brands, Khan Academy has an origin story.  Here’s a 2009 San Francisco Chronicle article that gives you an early version of a narrative that Audrey Watters and anyone else who follows edtech matters has probably read several thousand times since it first came out:

It began with long-distance tutoring in late 2004. He agreed to help his niece Nadia, then a seventh-grader struggling with unit conversion, by providing math lessons over Yahoo’s interactive notepad, Doodle, and the phone.

Nephews and family friends soon followed. But scheduling conflicts and repeated lectures prompted him to post instructional videos on YouTube that his proliferating pupils could watch when they had the time.

Yet, right there in the same article, is the beginning of a contradiction:

In the long term, Khan believes his academy points to an opportunity to overhaul the traditional classroom, by using software to create tests, grade assignments, highlight the challenges of certain students, and utilize those doing well to aid their struggling classmates…

This would minimize the time teachers spend on menial tasks, untether them from the one-size-fits-all approach to education and enable them to focus on individual students’ particular needs, he said.

[Emphasis added]

One-size-fits-all approach to education?  As Audrey pointed out a long time ago, this strategy is the very definition of a one-size-fits-all approach to education:

There’s actually very little in the videos that distinguishes Khan from “traditional” teaching. A teacher talks. Students listen. And that’s “learning.” Repeat over and over again (Pause, rewind, replay in this case). And that’s “drilling.”

The tacit assumption that makes it marginally different is that after students watch the videos at home, teachers are supposed to be going desk-to-desk doing the real hard work of teaching – namely helping each student overcome their individual problems.  But remember why Khan started taping videos in the first place?  He couldn’t help all of his relatives and family friends at once, so he put his instructional videos up on YouTube.

Khan, of course, at that time had a day job as an analyst at a hedge fund.  The difference between Khan and ordinary teachers is that the ordinary teachers are earning a salary – indeed a salary paid by taxpayers –  in order to help their students.  If teachers can’t get around to help little Johnny in the back of the room fill out all of his xeroxed worksheets, then the teacher can damn well stay after school and help them.  Who cares if their class has forty kids in it?  It’s the teacher’s job to make sure that everybody in their class learns the material, and if they don’t (for whatever reason) the teacher will be held accountable. What will supposedly prevent said teacher from working themselves to death is all the time that technology will save them in other places during their day.

The notion that technology will save white-collar workers from menial labor is pretty common these days.  It’s kind of like the carrot that will lure us all uncritically into the rope noose that will leave most of us hanging upside down from a large tree branch before too long.  Unfortunately, as Nicholas Carr writes on page 227 of The Glass Cage:

It strains credulity to imagine today’s technology moguls, with their libertarian leanings and impatience with government, agreeing to the kind of vast wealth redistribution scheme that would be necessary to fund the self-actualizing pursuits of the jobless multitudes.

Instead, those teachers who are lucky enough to be left would have to work harder.

Which brings me to the situation at my alma mater, UW-Madison. I’m tempted to say that you’re probably living under a rock if you haven’t read this, but I’m sure that some of you don’t care as much about the plight of college faculty or the University of Wisconsin – Madison as much as I do, so here it goes:

[Governor Scott] Walker said UW campuses might be able to tap into their reserves to offset the cuts, but he emphasized “it will make them do things that they have not traditionally done.”

“They might be able to make savings just by asking faculty and staff to consider teaching one more class per semester,” Walker told reporters Wednesday in Madison. “Things like that could have a tremendous impact on making sure that we preserve an affordable education for all of our UW campuses, and at the same time we maintain a high-quality education.”

Here the implicit becomes explicit: “You aren’t working hard enough.”  Who cares if you have a forty+ hour week already? Most of that time isn’t being spent on your real job – which is, of course, teaching.

Honestly, I didn’t realize until I went back to dig out the original quote that Walker was talking about faculty in the entire UW system, not just Madison. So while the people who taught my graduate classes in Madison might be going from a 2-2 to a 3-3, I’m guessing that the people teaching survey classes at UW-Stevens Point will go from a 3-3 to a 4-4, while those folks at the 2-year branch campus in Rock County would be headed for a 5-5.*

What’s that you say?  You have other work to do all day besides teaching?  You want to see your kids once in a while?  Well, I hear that Khan Academy has some lovely videos available for you to assign as homework.  And then there are these things called MOOCs…

*  How much money would this scheme save? Not much. If tenured people took on an extra class, the only people who could be easily fired are the contingent teachers  who make ridiculously low salaries as it is.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Academic Labor, Adjuncts, Politics, 3 comments

The mushy MOOC middle.

“Few people would now be willing to argue that massive open online courses are the future of higher education. The percentage of institutions offering a MOOC seems to be leveling off, at around 14 percent, while suspicions persist that MOOCs will not generate money or reduce costs for universities—and are not, in fact, sustainable.”

– Steve Kolowich, “The MOOC Hype Fades, in 3 Charts,” Chronicle of Higher Education, Wired Campus, February 5, 2015.

“When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer.”

– Hans Gruber (as played by Alan Rickman), “Die Hard,” 1988.

The idea that MOOCs would somehow take over the world was always ridiculous.  After all, if everyone had their own MOOC nobody would have any time to watch anyone else’s.  And please don’t claim I’m participating in the Gartner Hype Cycle by writing this otherwise I’ll have to scream.

What I do think we have here is a new place that I’m going to call the mushy MOOC middle.  This is where everybody assumes that all that MOOC hype was overblown, but also that MOOCs still have an important role to play in the future of higher education.  You can see that new conventional wisdom surface in many different MOOC mentions these days.  Here, for example, is the guy whose book is going to be completely overlooked once Audrey Watters finishes her edtech magnum opus (if it hasn’t been already):

There are those who view MOOCs as the savior to managing the ever-spiraling cost of higher education, and others who see them as sowing the seeds of the demise of the university as we know it. The truth, of course, lies somewhere between.

And here is the great historian and (alas) superprofessor, Eric Foner:

But this is not the future of education. At least I hope not. But it is a tremendous adjunct to education.

“Adjunct” to education?  Yup, adjuncts all over the country will be forced to assign Foner’s lectures long after the great man is retired, while one of his best students continues to teach Civil War history the old-fashioned way to anyone with the ability to pay tuition at Columbia and the credentials to get admitted.  So while MOOC hype may be on life support, the MOOC itself remains alive and kicking as a viable alternative for short-sighted administrators to short-change the less-affluent or less-qualified college students of the future.

Indeed, I am reminded of another Hans Gruber line from “Die Hard” here:

“Well, when you steal $600 you can just disappear.  When you steal 600 million, they will find you, unless they think you’re already dead.”

Don’t let the Hans Grubers of the edtech world get away with their $600 million just because MOOCs are dead to you.  This fight has to continue – even when the MOOC hype finally disappears entirely – for the sake of all the faculty and students left behind.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Academic Labor, Adjuncts, MOOCs, 1 comment

Teach AND perish.

A little earlier today, some nice folks at the Chronicle (not the same ones who occasionally pay me money to write stuff) temporarily opened up a new locked article called “Teach or Perish.”  Thanks to the wonders of my university’s universal subscription for that publication, I can still quote it:

But no decision we ever made could have been more catastrophic than this one: Somewhere along the way, we spiritually and emotionally disengaged from teaching and mentoring students. The decision—which certainly hasn’t ingratiated us to the job-seeking generation—has resulted in one whopper of a contradiction. While teaching undergraduates is, normally, a large part of a professor’s job, success in our field is correlated with a professor’s ability to avoid teaching undergraduates.

[emphasis in original]

That’s not a completely insane sentiment.  Perhaps it’s true at Harvard or somewhere like that.  But then I came to the last line of the author’s biography:

This semester he is teaching one course, “Philip Roth: Fiction About Fiction.”

In case you’re wondering, it’s not the idea of teaching a course about Philip Roth that bothers me.

Inevitably, that’s the part I tweeted when I first read it. Yet the ensuing discussion there reminded me that something else about that article that bothered me before I got to the very end.  Stretching my mind all the way back to this morning, I remember thinking “Who do you think you’re calling ‘disengaged?'” when I read the part I just quoted.  Then during that Twitter discussion, I remembered the awful sinking feeling I had last semester trying to stay engaged while teaching four courses and keeping up with my research agenda.

That’s when it hit me: This may be the worst example of academic victim-blaming that I’ve ever seen.  No faculty anywhere ever asked for the humanities to become a political football.  No public university professor in their right minds ever asked for Republican state legislatures to cut university funding to itty-bitty pieces.  No contingent faculty, even the extremely rare ones who actually do teach out of “love,” prefer having to teach five or six classes each semester in order to survive.  Yet the paragraph that I quoted above (which is basically the crux of the whole essay), pretty much suggests that everything is the professoriate’s fault because we gave up on teaching.

So says the guy teaching one course this semester.

Come to think of it, weren’t we all supposed to let the MOOCs take over because all those superprofessors at elite universities were the best teachers available?  Heads they win. Tails we lose.  This is Frank Heppner, Professor Emeritus of Biology at the University of Rhode Island:

Things like TED and MOOCS are great for expanding the exposure of great teachers, but nobody watching those broadcasts has the feeling that the lecturer is talking to THEM. So, in the new world of large class college teaching where there is scant opportunity for students to be personally exposed to experienced, motivating teachers, how are we going to INSPIRE students, especially the non-traditional ones?

We could start by not assigning any professor, anywhere no matter what their level of employment more than three courses per semester and pay every last one of them a competitive, living wage.  Then cap every last class, online or otherwise, at thirty students, no matter what the discipline.

What’s that you say?  That’s not “efficient?”  Well, then can you at least stop blaming professors for giving up on teaching then?  We didn’t create these conditions, yet we’re the ones who have to face their effects every single working day.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Academia, Academic Labor, Adjuncts, MOOCs, 2 comments

But The Man CAN bust our music.

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As a comparatively old person, I think in albums. No song from the second side of “Abbey Road” sounds right to me unless the whole thing is played in order. And don’t even get me started on the proper way to listen to “Dark Side of the Moon.” Nevertheless, I can see the appeal of being able to buy single songs at a time.

I’ve been going over my CDs lately so that I can upload some of them to Amazon Prime Music and listen on my phone if I so choose (which pretty much proves right there that I’m not THAT old, but that’s besides the point). While doing this I discovered a disc that I had labeled “ITUNES1,” followed by the date 12/28/03.

Basically, it’s hits that I liked from the 1990s from albums that really stunk, and I’m pretty sure that it’s the first iTunes disc I ever made. Take this one, for example:

Yes, it’s cool that Chumbawamba was an anarchist collective, but the next song on that album was called “The Good Ship Lifestyle.” I remember that when I began to play the whole album at my then-girlfriend’s apartment thinking that song was absolutely insufferable Marxist garbage, so I stopped listening right there.

Unfortunately, I have a problem when it comes to uploading this particular collection of eleven-year-old purchases. My iTunes program can no longer read it anymore.  And a similar problem comes up again and again. Take Feist, for example. In that case, which I think was from 2008, I liked the single – Yeah, I first heard it on an Apple commercial, you gotta problem with that? – and the whole album but apparently I can’t do anything with this file because I bought it on another computer.

As this was happening, I couldn’t help but think of Thomas Frank. Yes, Thomas Frank the political columnist, but back in the 1990s he was Thomas Frank the historian. To me, he was the guy who made that “But the Man Can’t Bust Our Music” ad famous in his 1997 book, The Conquest of Cool. Basically, that book is about co-optation. To paraphrase Abbie Hoffman, it’s about how ad agencies took the energy from the streets  and re-directed it in order to sell goods. That ad is basically exhibit one in this process since it was put out by Columbia Records, which was (and undoubtedly still is) part of a rather large corporation.

What I didn’t remember until I Googled up that ad and read it again is that it is mostly trying to sell synthesizers. [It’s probably too fuzzy for you to see in the above, but one of the records pictured there is actually for “Switched on Bach,” a fixture in my elementary school music classes.] Somehow, I don’t think of synthesizers as being an essential element in a musical rebellion. Indeed, electronic music strikes me more as just another sign of corporatization. After all, you probably needed a record contract just in order to afford one. After all, look what they said about Bob Dylan when he went electric at Newport in 1965.

Wait a second!!! What does all this have to do with higher education? I’m getting there. I’ve been reading Music for Deckchairs for so long that I could actually dig up this 2011 post in which Kate found an old ad from the American Federation of Musicians:

Here is a struggle of intense interest to all music-lovers. If the Robot of Canned Music wrests the helm from the Muse, passengers aboard the good ship Musical Culture may well echo the offer of Gonzalo, to trade “a thousand furlongs of sea for an acre of ground”. Are you content to face a limitless expanse of “sound” without a sign of music?  Monotony in the theatre – corruption of taste – destruction of art. These must inevitably follow substitution of mechanical music for living music.

Of course, she then went on to compare that sentiment to the situation faced by university professors even before the “Year of the MOOC” had begun:

Are we in the same position? Is the Muse of Education threatened by the Robot of Educational Technology? Just as in 1931, this oversimplifies a tangled weave of innovation, business speculation, consumer demand and freak opportunity. Technology isn’t exactly designed in a vacuum, and is capable of doing most of what we might wish for. So the edtech that we have tells us a great deal, symptomatically, about the wishlist that higher education has revealed to its would-be suppliers through the way that we speak about growth, mobility and risk—and perhaps the lesson from the current emphasis on analytics is that we should be careful what we wish for.

[Yes, you Johnny-Come-Latelies, Kate has been writing that well for centuries in blog years.]  So, MOOCs are essentially dead and live performances still occur. The revolution lives, right?  Well…not exactly. Rather than talk about automation, in the spirit of Thomas Frank I want to talk commodification.

When those old American Federation of Musicians played, the music was an ephemeral experience. People heard it and it was gone. When they recorded that music on vinyl, those records could be sold, and most artists came around to this situation because many of them made a good living on record sales alone. When people bought those records (or CDs for that matter), that music was theirs in the physical object sense. My compact disc collection is large enough that I can keep myself entertained for days. I wouldn’t be uploading any of it to Amazon’s cloud if I didn’t know that that music was still in my possession.

Now imagine recording your lectures on videotape. If you do it on the university’s equipment, is it still yours? This guy from Brigham Young started a company to market his own videos, but what happens to those of us who record ourselves and don’t have good intellectual property clauses in our employment contracts? Come to think of it (and I’m pretty sure I saw someone asking this question on Twitter recently, but I didn’t mark the Tweet), what happens to your online course materials if you switch universities? In particular, what happens to your online course materials if you’re an adjunct? Perhaps these tools aren’t valuable now, but if people can mine Tweets for gold you know the faculty’s pedagogical product will be commoditized eventually.

I may be comparatively old, but you all know that I am no Luddite [Now Chumbawamba, on the other hand…]. Therefore, I’m not telling you to bypass teaching with technology.  What I’m saying is that you have to be your own producer. Be your own agent. Heck, it would probably be best for you to be your own record company too. This is the only way that you can assure that The Man will be unable to bust your music.

That’s what’s best for education, and that’s what’s best for you too.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Adjuncts, Labor History, Music, Teaching, Technology, 8 comments

My adventures teaching digital history.

Curtain 2I’ve had an absolutely terrible semester. The reason was/still is for one more week my fourth class. Like one of those self-destructive overworked academics who my friend Kate describes so movingly here, I’ve been trying to do everything I usually do this fall despite having about 33% more teaching on my plate than usual. Almost at the end now, I recognize that the only casualties of all this extra work have been blogging and sleep so I know that things could have gone much worse. I also take my hat off to everyone out there who has to do even more teaching than this to make a remotely decent living every semester. Nevertheless, it has been quite difficult trying to keep up to my usual high standards for everything.

That’s why it’s nice when your students can bail you out and my digital history class has done precisely that. Faced with so much more class time, I really didn’t want to teach a course just like every other one, so I put many of the things I learned about at the RRCHNM at George Mason last summer into practice for the first time. Actually, the first lesson I learned is that you can’t throw students too much at once or they’ll shut down. That’s why I let them gravitate towards the programs they like. I can now definitively state that the results have been spectacular.

As I mentioned before, I threw out the syllabus mid-semester because the students wanted to focus on Scalar. What’s funny about this is that I didn’t think I’d be using that one all that much when I first heard about it in Virginia. It just seemed so over my head. I knew I wanted them to do exhibits, but I was trying to get them to use either WordPress (which I know well) or Omeka (which still doesn’t make much sense to me, but then again I’m not a museum professional) as a platform. It turns out that Scalar is not just a fantastic publishing platform, but a great exhibit platform too.

Here are some screenshots from the three group projects:

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Screenshot 2014-12-07 18.57.35For one thing, they all look fantastic (and they have a few more days to finish editing so they’re just going to look better soon).

However, what’s more important to me is that this kind of class causes so much less wear-and-tear on the professor, even when I’m not familiar with everything that I’m teaching. For example, I could give students a program and go tell them to go georectify a map, and it would actually be done. Then they’d come back and show me how to do.  Video was actually their idea.  Their Scalar skills are now better than mine, but I’ll catch up by the time next semester rolls around. Following a cue from John Randolph at UIUC, I’ll be creating at least one Scalar syllabus and getting students to write web and traditional research papers in my senior seminar class at the same time.

I’m also planning a much bigger Scalar project now with the Steelworks Center of the West here in Pueblo, which owns the Colorado Fuel and Iron Archives, the source for all the wonderful pictures and maps in these student-created books.  Since I know the archives better than just about anybody with the possible exception of the archivist, I’m an essential consultant on every student project.

Speaking of the students, the most surprising and gratifying thing about this whole effort has been their reactions. I’ve heard similar sentiments to this one expressed many times over the last few weeks:

“I honestly have never done anything like this project before. I have never gone to a museum, pulled out some documents, maps, and pictures from over a hundred years ago and then analyzed them. Usually, I got them off of the internet. It was fascinating to pull out those old mine maps and look at all of the detail that went in to constructing it. I had a lot of fun working with those maps. I also learned how to go about looking at archival information…

Overall, I learned a lot in this class. I spent more hours working on this class than all of my other classes but I also feel like I gained many more useful tools out of it. The history and technology lessons that I learned from this class could never be undervalued.”

Yeah, I know this is old hat to some of you who’ve been doing this for years now. I also know that some of you traditionalists out there are wondering why any historian wastes his time teaching computer skills, but it’s fun (and comparatively relaxing) to do things completely different every once in a while. No, I’m not planning to do this sort of thing in every class I teach going forward, but how could you possibly argue against doing this at least some of the time with this kind of success?

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Adjuncts, Digital Humanities, Teaching, Technology, 4 comments

As the learning management system turns…

“[T]he LMS does a very poor job at providing a lot of the learning technologies desired by faculty and students. There is no way that a monolithic LMS can keep up with the market – it cannot match functionality of open internet tools especially without adding feature bloat.”

– Phil Hill, “LMS and Open: The false binary is based on past, not future markets,” e-Literate, September 15, 2014.

A good friend of mine who (normally) works at our sister school about three hours up I-25 from Pueblo, Colorado State University in Fort Collins, forwarded me the changeover announcement for their new learning management system. I’m about to fisk it. I don’t usually write about my own university on this blog, but, of course, I don’t work in Fort Collins. However, if anybody up in our system office reads this and thinks it’s a little too close for comfort, let me assure them that this sort of thing is happening just about everywhere. I’m using this particular e-mail only as a means to get at several broader points that you can appreciate even if you don’t work in Colorado at all. This announcement was simply the one that appeared in my mailbox first.

Introductory language aside, let’s start with that fisking!:

“Dear Colleagues,

We’re writing to update you on CSU’s upcoming move from the Blackboard Learn learning management system to Instructure’s Canvas learning management system. This transition will progress over the next three semesters, and will be complete before summer session 2016. At that time, Blackboard Learn will no longer be available to faculty, staff, and students at CSU and Canvas will become the only fully supported learning management system available at CSU.”

Three semesters? This must be a big deal then! I wonder if the faculty were consulted about this decision beforehand. Apparently not:

“The University’s decision to move to Canvas is a result of our involvement as a founding member of Unizin (, a consortium of leading universities that includes CSU, the University of Florida, the University of Indiana, and the University of Michigan. Unizin, which will soon be joined by a half dozen other institutions of comparable stature, is intended to increase the influence of higher education institutions in the development of a new educational ecosystem.”

Notice the language here: “The University’s decision to move to Canvas…,” not the faculty’s. “[I]ncrease the influence of higher education institutions,” not faculty. Apparently they’re more concerned about muscling out Unizin’s potential competitors than they are in opening up the decision-making process to their own employees.

In fact, it seems as if the decision to go with Unizin wasn’t really CSU’s decision at all. As my buddy Phil Hill has reported, faculty input in joining this consortium was minimal. Yet all the schools got together and settled on Canvas before Unizin was even public, despite the fact that very few of the founding members of Unizin used Canvas before this announcement. If I worked in Fort Collins I might develop the academic equivalent of those right-wing tendencies to believe that the United Nations is secretly plotting to establish world government. CSU is voluntarily giving up its sovereignty.

Yet you wouldn’t know that by reading this e-mail. Here’s the last sentence of that above paragraph:

“In brief, we want higher education faculty and staff to have a larger voice in the technology that our students use to learn.”

They’re not exactly off to a flying start on that front, are they? More importantly, look again at the Phil Hill quote I topped this post with again. Faculty everywhere have already performed the electronic equivalent of voting with their feet. If they bother to use their LMS at all, they barely use the bells and whistles that these companies offer them – perhaps because the wider Internet offers more options that they can actually control themselves or perhaps because they don’t need those bells and whistles to do their jobs well.

Yet the LMS bandwagon marches on. Back to that e-mail:

The founding members of Unizin have selected Canvas as our common learning management system. We’ve negotiated a highly favorable pricing agreement with Instructure, which will reduce our overall costs. Also, Canvas is a system that has significant advantages in features and ease of use over all other learning management systems, Blackboard included.

What’s missing from those Canvas advantages? Educational value, of course. Yes, I know that the folks who made this decision undoubtedly believe that CSU can offer better classes through Canvas rather than Blackboard, but shouldn’t faculty be the ones to play the most important role in making that decision – particularly if you want them to buy into this decision by using that new system once it’s in place?

Instead, those technologically-sophisticated faculty are left with more work to do:

“That said, this change requires instructors and students to learn the new system. We know this will take time, effort, and patience. And we know that it will take a great deal of support from the larger campus community. With that in mind, our colleagues at ACNS, TILT, and OnlinePlus have collaborated to develop a Canvas website ( that hosts a rich set of resources to smooth the transition to Canvas. You’ll find a workshop schedule replete with training sessions beginning October 15, online guides and videos, and information about one-on-one work sessions and a Canvas Information Center in Morgan Library. You’ll also find, over the coming months, lists of short courses, PDI sessions, and summer workshop sessions as well as a growing collection of videos, tutorials, and web guides.”

IHE reported the other day that the US LMS market is saturated. As a result, you can expect the same kinds of classes coming to your college as providers drop prices to entice cash-strapped administrations into changing systems for budgetary reasons rather than educational ones.

But there is another option. Be your own LMS. Learn and use those open Internet tools that react to the much-vaunted market faster and more effectively than any giant corporate entity that only contracts with administrations rather than individual faculty members ever can. It’s faster. You’re guaranteed that the tools you pick will gibe with your teaching style (because you’ll pick them) and – here’s the kicker – it’s almost certainly cheaper for your employer:

“Please know that we are making every effort to ease the transition from Blackboard to Canvas. In addition to our pilot studies this semester and next, this includes the development of software tools to import existing course content from Blackboard to Canvas. Finally, it involves a significant allocation of staff resources to help instructors make the move to Canvas.

[Emphasis added]”

I gotta crazy notion: How about reallocating those resources towards faculty? Think how many adjuncts could get an exceptional work environment with all that money, Tony.

Posted by Jonathan Rees in Adjuncts, Learning Management Systems, Technology, 5 comments