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.

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:

Dehaye1

Dehaye2

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.

The death of expertise.

A few days ago, a Twitter acquaintance of mine – the gloriously cynical Professor Enron  – wrote out a Twitter rant that I’ve had trouble shaking.  I don’t really feel like teaching myself Storify right now, so I’m just gonna reproduce it here in full:

What’s crazy about this is that teaching is actually the reason that shared governance exists.  Because we faculty understand our disciplines better than anyone else, decisions that affect the university’s educational mission ought to be made in conjunction with us otherwise that mission will suffer.

But faculty prerogatives aren’t just being attacked by power hungry administrators, they’re also being attacked by other educators.  And to make matters worse, they’re being attacked in the name of education.  The best example of this, of course, MOOCs.  Here’s Josh Kim in his column at IHE:

One of the important outcomes of the growth of open online education has been the development of new campus competencies to evolve and support teaching and learning. MOOCs have provided venues where faculty have the opportunity to collaborate closely with teams of non-faculty educators. Developing a MOOC is a creative endeavor involving faculty, instructional designers, media educators, librarians, developers, assessment experts, and students.

How many tenured faculty superprofessors – presumably the greatest experts in their fields – have been so taken with the notion of MOOCs that they are now devoting their teaching careers to MOOCs exclusively?  I’m guessing none.  The Beatles broke up because they all wanted to be solo artists.  Other than Sammy Hagar, how many solo artists join already established groups?*

Moreover, the attack on expertise through edtech also includes people with no teaching experience whatsoever.  I just knew that an essay entitled “UberEd” was going to make me cringe, yet I read it anyway:

I believe there is someone out there who is on the verge of creating a sort of UberEd, and it is almost certainly not a university president or federal lawmaker. Instead, it’s an entrepreneur who grasps the importance of putting students first who stands to start making waves in higher education.

No matter how much expertise you have, faculty can’t make a living working a micro-job.  Look at almost every adjunct ever, yet those positions (or any other position without the protection of tenure) is likely to get unbundled first because they have the least power to resist the kinds of technological changes that redefine education for the worst.

So how do we faculty get people to respect our authority without looking like this:

via GIPHY

Make sure that we aren’t alone.

Educational experts of all kinds want to usurp the power of faculty.  They do so by claiming expertise. But expertise is dead, remember? The next Uber for Education or the next one after that is going to privatize all those university-based instructional designers into oblivion and replace them with people who know even less about the subjects that students are supposed to be learning than the first set of interlopers did.

The compromise here is easy.  Faculty accept the expertise of the educational experts and instructional designers, and welcome them into their course design process as a resource rather than competitors.  At the same time, educational experts and instructional designers should accept the expertise of the faculty.  Stop trying to tell them what education is.

Then we can both fight the death of expertise together.

* Buckingham/Nicks doesn’t count. They were a duo.

Cut the professor a check and walk away.

It’s awesome that even though I’m down to something like a once-a-week posting schedule on this blog, people still tweet articles at me that are right up my alley.  Saves me the trouble of fishing around for material.  So thanks to my well-known hatred of learning management systems, I had this in my mentions when I woke up on Monday:

The next-generation learning management system shouldn’t be a system at all, but a “digital learning environment” where individual components — from grade books to analytics to support for competency-based education — fit together like Lego bricks, a new white paper recommends.

Is that a good thing or a bad thing?  Well, that’s certainly better than a one-size-fits all learning management system, but then again just about anything would be better than Blackboard.

Should we at least be happy, though, if commercial LMS providers actually evolve in the right direction?  Let’s compare this development to the gold standard for professor-centered online idealism, Jim Groom and Brian Lamb’s “Reclaiming Innovation”:

Instead of supporting “learning enhancement environments” on an enterprise level, colleges and universities implement and mandate the use of “learning management systems.” Thus, before we even begin to encounter the software itself, we privilege a mindset that views learning not as a life-affirming adventure but instead as a technological problem, one that requires a “system” to “manage” it. This mindset and its resulting values result in online architectures that prioritize user management, rigidly defined and restricted user roles, automated assessments, and hierarchical, top-down administration. Yes, creative and engaging learning can happen almost anywhere. But environments matter, and disturbingly often these systems promote formulaic and rigid instruction.

So the authors of that white paper used the word “environment” rather than the word “system” Score one for them. Unfortunately, only so many Legos fit in a Lego box.  And what happens, for instance, if you don’t want to play Lego at all?  I, for one, might prefer Lincoln Logs and you can’t attach a Lego and a Lincoln Log since the notches aren’t the same size.

In other words, I’m afraid even the next-generation learning management system will still be hierarchical and top-down.  But why exactly does this matter?

Your Online Course Is Not Yours Alone:

In no way do I mean this as an “I told you so,” but since Jen Ebbeler decided to blog about what happened to the Online Rome course she designed, I want to spread her lesson around as a faculty education tool.  Take it away, Jen:

From the beginning, I designed and built the course to be instructed by others.  I also made a strong effort to work with the course instructor to ensure that there was a qualified and experienced instructor positioned to take over the project and manage its transition to the Classics Department…. I was stunned to learn yesterday, indirectly and in passing, that the Classics Chair had opted not to implement the “succession plan” that I had carefully and thoughtfully crafted.  As well, different instructors were appointed for the summer session and fall semester–and, though both are skilled classroom instructors, they are either unqualified or under-qualified for the specific tasks that the successful instruction of Online Rome requires.

Yes, you have to make some sacrifices when working inside a university environment with limited resources, but why this one?  As Jen notes:

Besides the apparent personal politics at play in this decision, it also reflects a surprising ignorance about the crucial role of the instructor in an online class.  As any (good) educator knows, the most important requirement for a successful course is the instructor’s pedagogical skill, experience, and knowledge of course content.  This does not change when the classroom is replaced by a computer.

If anything, it become more important because online teaching skills are anything but instinctual.  First, you have to understand the platform.  Then you have to implement the pedagogy. Kevin Carey likes to dismiss today’s professors by informing them that they never learned anything about teaching in graduate school. While that’s not true for a whole slew of us faculty, I think it is true for most of us with respect to teaching online.

That may explain why disrespecting the instructor in an online environment seems incredibly common from where I sit.  For example, Phil Hill picked this part out of a very long IHE article from an anonymous 25-year adjunct:

I have taught many online courses. We have tapped about 10 percent of the potential of online courses for teaching. But rather than exploring the untapped 90 percent, the college where I taught online wanted to standardize every course with a template designed by tech people with no input from instructors.

What do they get as a result of this kind of interference?  Well, at the very least, online courses that aren’t built with the best pedagogy possible when too many other non-pedagogical considerations enter the mix.

“Freedom!!!”:

Things don’t have to be this way. It is possible to use online tools outside the direct control of your campus administration in order to create good online classes (or to enhance face-to-face classes too, for that matter). Lucky for me, my main inspiration for exactly this sort of thing has started sharing her strategies in other places besides Google+. Ladies and Gentlemen, Laura Gibbs. This is from the summary of her recent interview with Howard Rheingold:

Gibbs doesn’t lecture — at all. She does provide resources, a course aggregator, and an assignment to blog, comment, and remix. The learning, reflection, and discourse all happens on the open web, and her learners publish “Storybook” websites in which “they retell traditional stories in fantastic new ways.” She found, qualified, and aggregated free online mythology and folklore resources for her students, publishing an “untextbook” of folktales and myths, from which “each student makes their own textbook” from the trillions of possible combinations of tales.

In case you don’t have time to watch the whole interview (at the link above), let me transcribe what I think is the most answer that Laura gave:

“I was frustrated as a teacher in a classroom, but going online gave me all this freedom, gave my students all kinds of freedom, so I’m kind of baffled sometimes when I hear people talk about online learning being impersonal, or online classes being impersonal. For me, it has just been the opposite.”

Laura, in other words, has no interference from an LMS, constantly mediating her interactions with her students and forcing her to upgrade every six months or so so that the provider has a new selling point for unconverted campuses.  She also has no interference from higher-ups at the University of Oklahoma, who have let her teach the way see she fits for something like thirteen years now.

But how many other online instructors get this kind of freedom?  Seriously, I’d like to know. The anonymous adjunct mentioned above doesn’t but which situation is more typical?

Regardless of the answer to that question, it is worth considering how long anybody who currently has this kind of freedom is going to be able to keep it. As the transition from face-to-face to online learning accelerates in more places, I believe there will inevitably be more ass deans trying to justify their existences by taking control of people’s online classrooms. This is why I’ve been so obsessed with mandatory LMS usage for some time now. To me this smells of being just the beginning. And even having a Lego box full of many brightly-colored pieces is not worth the heartache that this kind of interference with our traditional professorial prerogatives will bring.

Cut the Professor a Check and Walk Away:

The last time I blogged at any length about LMSs, I got slapped around by the vastly-better-informed-about-this-subject-than-I-am Michael Feldstein.  Here’s the only part of that ordeal that actually bothered me:

Here’s the hard truth: While Jonathan wants to think of the LMS as “training wheels” for the internet (like AOL was), there is overwhelming evidence that lots of faculty want those training wheels. They ask for them. And when given a chance to take the training wheels off, they usually don’t.

The reason that hurt so much is that he may be right. I’ve never done a poll.  If Jim Groom spoke to every faculty member in America, I’m certain he wouldn’t be (but that hasn’t happened…yet).

Here’s what I do know, though. If you actually trained faculty in how to teach online effectively, they wouldn’t choose a corporate LMS because they would no longer be afraid of the wide open Internet.  Unfortunately, training – and I’m talking real professional development here, not a one-day corporate retreat catered with bad pizza brought in by Sysco, Aramark or whichever soulless corporation has a monopoly on food service at your campus – costs money. More importantly, if online education appeals to your administration precisely because they want more control over the teaching side of the university, then they WANT you to stay ignorant.

I’m not really alleging an evil conspiracy here. I’ve used this quote from Mike Caulfield before and I’m gonna do it again here because I think it captures the utter banality (rather than villainy) of the modern administrative mindset so well:

And I think a lot of administrators are frankly relieved about this, because as more and more education moves online, the idea is that we can bulldoze our strip-mall exburban eyesore and replace it with something centrally managed and controlled.  And courses will be delivered as these closed, feature complete products, designed by the experts — us, the instructional designers.

Standardization over variety.  Order over chaos.  Anonymous adjunct’s experience over Laura Gibbs’ – not necessarily because it will save money (although it will), but because it allows administrators to exercise control over how courses get taught, which in turn will greatly increase executive power.

If administrators really wanted to improve the quality of any particular online course, they would cut the professor a check and walk away.  No, I’m not talking free money here.  There’d be a call for proposals, and reports at the end to demonstrate that the professors who got the money did what they said they’d do.  All the usual accountability measures.  If the professor needs help making this happen, then they can call the instructional designers rather than the other way around.  If administrators wanted to find a place to fund these checks, they could just cut out all the money going to for-profit Silicon Valley startups rather than the actual educational experience and give it to faculty instead.

In a nutshell, what I’m really saying here is to trust faculty to do online education right.  Anything less is a threat to your academic freedom.

“I feel the earth move under my feet…”

Good old Phil Hill shot me his notes from Educause via Google+ last night because he knew I’d want to see them. My first reaction was that I wasn’t touching this one with a ten foot pole, but I changed my mind – not because I want to insert myself into the business of my northern colleagues, but again because it’s just such a beautiful way to make a broader point.

Here’s Phil, summarizing Colorado State University – Fort Collins’ Pat Burns on the decision-making process that led them to both switch LMSs and join the online education consortium Unizin:

Q. [paraphrase re. 30-minute decision meeting] It doesn’t sound like there was a lot of room for faculty buy-in as part of the process. Could you talk about whether this will happen later?

A. The negotiation was a consortial negotiation. It really wasn’t possible to involve the faculty in that negotiation. We have a fairly good trust relationship between faculty and administration at CSU. We had an open forum on that, and we had a question and we explained it really wasn’t possible since Unizin was structured as a consortium, and the negotiations were proceeding as a consortium.

Imagine trying to make a decision that was so vital to CSU’s teaching and learning experience in the real world (say, building a new classroom building) without consulting faculty. The brouhaha would be worse than if you mixed up everybody’s parking spaces.

Perhaps everything will work at fine up north because the administration there cares about its faculty and its students alike.  But what if they don’t? They certainly don’t everywhere else. I know nothing about the University of Maryland University College except that it’s the online arm of the Maryland system. OK, I know that one of my friends stopped working there (he was actually a department head) because he didn’t think they were serious about education. This article, by a Interim Provost/deanlet there, demonstrates why I think he was right to do so:

“Until now, institution-wide changes in the faculty role have been the exception, the provenance of that seemingly marginal group of not-for-profit and for-profit institutions serving adult students. But the margin has become the center, and the reality is that any large-scale migration to online education, adoption of open educational resources (OERs), competency-based education or many of the other changes being explored almost necessitates further unbundling of the traditional faculty role.

By the same token, enterprise-wide reforms will not succeed unless faculty are included in the conversation. Institutions must be able to clearly explain why they’re unbundling, and what those new “bundles” will look like.”

The author goes on to note that “every serious party admits cost reduction must be part of the equation.” I guess that makes me a jolly joker. No, scratch that. I agree that cost must be part of the equation, but I’d like to look at a few other cost centers besides faculty salaries.

There are some incredibly talented and dedicated people teaching online right now. I just think of all the incredibly dedicated online teachers I’ve come to “know” through the Interwebz: Laura Gibbs, Lisa Lane, Shane Landrum (just to name a few). You don’t have to follow any of them very long to see that they can do wonderful things online, including countless wonderful teaching strategies that can only work online.

But what if the people who control the medium by which dedicated online instructors interact with their students won’t let them do their thing their way?

Some of us are employed by universities that have academic integrity. Some of us are employed by universities that don’t. Some of us are employed by universities that might have academic integrity now, but do you know if they’ll still have it if their financial stability is ever tested? If there’s one nice thing about working in academia it’s that your boss usually doesn’t act like your boss, but that, of course, is changing rapidly, and when your boss really starts acting like a boss then you know you’re in trouble.

Online education (and to a lesser degree even regular education conducted online through a learning management system) offers plenty of new opportunities for your boss to be bossy. As my friend Kate explained back during LMS week:

But as we move towards a more competitive system, with tighter budgets and higher expectations for quality, we should probably notice that the LMS is also a performance monitoring system for teaching. Minimally this is being introduced through the development of institutional threshold standards for online learning practice, while the attention of analytics tools is technically towards the evidence of student engagement with learning. As more routine teaching shifts online, there is nothing whatsoever to inhibit the development of LMS analytics for staff performance evaluation—including of casual and sessional staff.

Sure, monitoring you means they can tell that you’re doing a good job, but have you ever considered the possibility that that your means and their ends might not be the same? You care about education. If your employer doesn’t, your talent and skill at teaching online will become irrelevant online. It might even actively hinder your career.

Or consider the implications for academic freedom of teaching online. Thanks to big data, they can tell (and maintain a record of) everything controversial that you might possibly tell your students. They certainly never could have done that much to protect their “brand” before higher education moved online.  Then there are the many intellectual property issues that arise in higher education that would never be an issue in a face-to-face class.

I can feel the earth move under my feet right now. Unfortunately, earthquakes like this one are going to swallow up deserving and undeserving teachers alike.

PS Yeah, I wrote a post with this exact same title once on the old blog, but in my own defense that one was on an entirely different subject. New blog. Old title. At least I picked a different video this time.

“Every man, woman and mutant on this planet shall know the truth about de-evolution.”

I have to admit that I became much more fond of Clay Shirky the moment that I found out that he occasionally reads this blog (or at least the last version of it). It’s not like I had anything particularly against him before. It’s just that I had only read a few of his articles and a couple of blog posts and all of it seemed a bit too technologically utopian for my taste.* Little did I realize that he has the same kinds of problems that I do:

The level of distraction in my classes seemed to grow, even though it was the same professor and largely the same set of topics, taught to a group of students selected using roughly the same criteria every year. The change seemed to correlate more with the rising ubiquity and utility of the devices themselves, rather than any change in me, the students, or the rest of the classroom encounter.

As a result, Shirky has banned electronic devices in his classes.

I sympathize. Indeed, I’ve been all over the place on precisely this question. What I settled on is a pretty simple general principle: different technologies for different classes. In classes which are mostly lectures (aka surveys), I’ve ask students who want to use a laptop to sit in the front row. Since I’m a walking lecturer as well as a lecturer who’s been doing the same survey class long enough to work without written notes, I can see who’s not paying attention. Since my survey classes aren’t huge, I can therefore do something about it if I see that anybody’s not paying attention.

Phones are a different matter entirely. I can’t imagine a single viable reason why anybody would have or want to take notes on their phone. Usually, they’ll bend over the desk or table, cradling their phone lovingly and try to be unseen. But come on! It’s kind of obvious what’s going on and it’s also rude as heck.

Yet I am now teaching a class where students have to bring their laptop to sessions. Indeed, without it, they’d be lost.

I. My own personal three-ring circus.

My time with the nice people at RRCNMH has been put to good use almost instantly. Having been forced to teach a forth class this semester and not wanting to do something conventional for fear of boring myself to death, I decided to teach a hybrid, experiential learning, digital humanities course based around the collections of our local corporate archives, the same one I wrote a book out of just a few years ago.

So far it’s been amazing in many sorts of ways. Since I had some experience with a few DH tools before, I knew that the great appeal is that you get to ponder entirely different kinds of questions than you do in ordinary classes. To borrow one from a few semesters ago in the early days of my wiki, should the sanitariums of old Colorado Springs be categorized as “Medical Facilities” or do they belong under the existing category of “Leisure?” [The class and I picked leisure.] The same kinds of questions are emerging already and the semester is only three weeks old.

More interestingly, the entire way that I teach has changed. It’s not just that I never expected to be paid to introduce undergraduates to digital tools like Dropbox or Omeka. It’s that it’s almost impossible to script any class in advance. For one thing, I have no idea what I’m doing from week-to-week so the agenda kind of arises organically from student blog posts and e-mails. I also have no idea how long reviewing any of these tasks are going to take.

The most interesting thing about the whole endeavor is the potential for students to teach me. After all, I literally have no idea what I’m doing. If they figure out a problem first then certainly I can learn from them. Then, when I do this again for my first undergraduate Colorado history course next semester, I might actually cease to feel like a fraud. At least for the moment I’m a fraud who’s enjoying himself.

It all sort of reminds me of an old Steven Wright joke: “You know how it feels when you lean back in your chair and you think you might fall over backwards and you don’t? I feel like that all the time.”

II. Shared governance rocks.

Sick person that I am, another thing that I do for enjoyment is read books about shared governance. OK, I know of only one book about shared governance, and when I read about it in IHE a while back I actually bought it. Since it’s written by a historian covering the history of this important (at least to us) subject, it has turned out to be more fun than I ever expected.

I don’t want to review Larry Gerber’s The Rise & Decline of Faculty Governance here (maybe if anybody reading this has a publication interested in such an essay, you can drop me a line?). What I do want to do is drop a lot of quotes. You see, Gerber starts with shared governance (or lack thereof) all the way back at the beginning of American higher education and reading old-timey professors complain is a little like that scene in The Shining where Jack Nicholson is looking at all the pictures on the wall and he sees the ghosts all around him in them. It’s hard to tell what era they (or you for that matter) are really occupying.

Here are a few examples:

A) Louis Aggassiz, 1874 (p. 26):

“I believe that there is no scientific man who will concede that there can be a university managed to the best advantage by anybody but those interested in its pursuits, and no body of trustees can be so interested.”

B) The Nation, 1881 (p. 29):

“…[The businessman trustee] wishes very much, indeed, that a college could be carried on without professors, and has a vague notion that by some sort of improvement in organization this result may some day be attained.”

C) William Channing Russel, President of Cornell, 1881 (after he was dismissed by the Board of Trustees there, p. 34).

“[Universities] are not business enterprises, nor are professors clerks or servants, nor have the Trustees any right to look down on them, ignore their claims, or treat them summarily…”

I could go on. Heck, I’m not even done with it yet. Who knows how many ripped-from-the-headlines kinds of academic controversies I’ll eventually find?

III. Jocko homo.

I swear I wasn’t going to read this book with a highlighter, but the quotes were just so good and they just kept coming that I couldn’t help myself. I wanted to be able to get back to them later. It’s not that I even expected to blog about them later, but eventually the link between tech and shared governance became very clear to me.

Human interaction matters. Human beings matter. As Nick Carr wrote earlier today, summarizing his new book:

I argue that we’ve embraced a wrong-headed and ultimately destructive approach to automating human activities, and in Apple’s let-the-software-do-the-talking feature we see a particularly disquieting manifestation of the reigning design ethic. Technical qualities are given precedence over human qualities, and human qualities come to be seen as dispensable.

That’s why teaching machines are a contradiction in terms.

But the people in charge don’t seem to understand that. The same way that Apple is pushing automated conversation on us, whether we want to or not, too many administrators are pushing automated education on us whether we need it or not. My class, if nothing else, has already demonstrated the importance of having a living, breathing professor around to help students with cold feet and to serve as a ringmaster in the three-ring circus.

Of course, if there’s only one path students can take then the ringmaster seems superfluous. That’s why this article from Slate about those textbook company course packages just scares me to death:

Creating online courses from scratch is expensive and time-consuming. When universities try to do it themselves, the results can be erratic. Some online classes wind up being not much more than grainy videos of lectures and a collection of PowerPoint slides.

Publishers have rushed in to fill the gap. They’ve been at the game longer, possess vast libraries of content from their textbook divisions, and have invested heavily in creating state-of-the-art course technology.

Faced with these alternatives, schools frequently choose the plug-and-play solution.

Unfortunately, in an online university which might have faculty scattered across the planet, shared governance is very difficult. In a university which makes vital technological decisions like which learning management system to use, shared governance does not exist in the traditional sense of that word. In a university that forces professors to use their e-mail system for professional correspondence or their web pages for conducting your course business, faculty prerogatives no longer exist.

Shared governance is the vehicle by which faculty can resist these and countless other similar developments. What’s technologically sophisticated may be pedagogically backward, and it’s up to the well-trained, tenured faculty of the world to tell the difference.

Anything else sounds like de-evolution to me.

* Indeed, if I’m really going to get into this education technology thing in a big way, I should probably read his books.