“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

Way back in 2012, when the new all “online-Ivy” Minerva, was known less formally as “the Minerva Project,” the MIT Technology Review explained founder Ben Nelson’s labor plan:

Nelson says classes will be designed by A-list faculty from other universities, acting as consultants. But once the lesson plan is on paper, they will be presented to Minerva students by newly minted PhDs; Nelson says academic jobs are so hard to find that he should have no problem attracting instructors.

Too many PhDs. Too few jobs. Lots of extremely smart people left to teach at Minerva, right?

Well, maybe not. There’s a biased, but well-detailed three-part series on Minerva at PC magazine that seriously makes teaching there sound like a living Hell. For example, consider this:

As the figurative striker, the professor is expected to run plays. Faculty inherit meticulously developed curricula, and they are expected to stick to the script. (Given class-time sensitivity, Minerva has even added a timer to the system). This may trouble faculty for whom academic freedom is sacrosanct and course design a point of personal pride. Minerva isn’t for them.

That’s right, they’re literally gonna put a stopwatch on you while you’re teaching. I guess that worked at the Watertown Arsenal….oh wait, it didn’t work at all at the Watertown Arsenal. Maybe higher education will be different. After all, it’s not like professors have any unique skills that promote illusions of dignity. Oh wait…

Of course, it goes without saying that where there’s no academic freedom, there’s no tenure. With tenure (sadly) on its way out in so many places these days, I can almost understand why someone would jump for a job under these conditions, but then consider the way that faculty at Minerva are going to be evaluated:

[E]ducators must accept a greater degree of surveillance. Just as students must acclimate to seeing themselves speak in class videos, faculty must accept that everything they say during class, office hours, and advising, is recorded. From my conversation with Dean Chandler, I understand that the process hasn’t been finalized, but faculty will be evaluated using recordings from classes, feedback from students, and student performance metrics.

In other words, Minerva faculty are going to be evaluated using all the worst methods from both secondary and higher education. What could possibly go wrong?

What appears to be Minerva’s response to these kinds of concerns is contained earlier in the article I just linked to:

[U]nless an educator is hired to design curriculum, she will teach predesigned courses. Minerva representatives pitched the approach as a feature, rather than a bug: Without having to develop curricula, educators were “free” to focus on student conversations.

This definition of “freedom” is very much in line with a kind of freedom that Nicholas Carr has identified as being touted all over Silicon Valley:

The dream that the technologies of automation will liberate us from work, the dream expressed by McLuhan, is a seductive one. Karl Marx, in the middle of the nineteenth century, wrote of how new production technologies could have “the wonderful power of shortening and fructifying human labor.” He foresaw a time when he would be able “to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind.” But Marx did not believe that the emancipatory potential of technology was inherent in the technology itself. The emancipatory power would be released only through political, economic, and social changes. Technology would always serve its master.

While Minerva’s classes are from automated, what’s essentially happening here is that some of the traditional professorial functions are being turned over to a computer so that the teachers can build more widgets educate students more-intensely during their time under the stopwatch. They can do this because the technology that Minerva is employing doesn’t serve the needs of the workers or the students here. It only serves the needs of Minerva’s investors.

Whether there are enough surplus PhDs out there willing to work under these conditions is open to question in my opinion. However, the notion that anyone could offer students an Ivy-caliber education while working under these conditions is absolutely absurd. Desperation is to educational quality as Kryptonite is to Superman.

Posted by Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.


Great post, Jonathan. I just pulled the wagon up to the ranch on Friday evening–it’s good to be back in Colorado.

The issue of instructor surveillance isn’t just something for Minerva instructors to consider. When my department interviewed the Chair of Anthropology about the development of their online minor and how online courses were working for them, her response to our question about evaluating teaching presented the online surveillance format as a feature, not a bug. In fact, she was very enthusiastic about how she could monitor instructors on a weekly or even daily basis and “know much more about what goes on in those classes than I do in our F2F courses!”

Did I mention that she’s now an administrator on the make at Baa Ram U.? No? You probably guessed that already.

Contingent Cassandra

And, of course, the ability (which will soon become the need) to surveil is pretty much a full-employment plan for layers and layers of new administrators (and/or armies of people writing and rewriting code that tries to capture nuances best captured by humans, if at all — but I’m sure Pearson et al. would love to have a go at it, as long as there’s a nice yearly contract fee involved). Gotta make sure the students get their money’s worth, you know!

This job incorporates the two features most likely to make me run with all my might in the other direction: lack of ability to create my own curriculum and revise it, on an ongoing basis, in response to how students respond; and increased surveillance/supervision by people who aren’t teaching on a regular basis under the same conditions as I. It also goes without saying that it bears no resemblance whatsoever to what I experienced in the Ivy League, either as an undergrad or as a grad student TA (where not-always-so-benign neglect was the order of the day). I’m betting that very, very few in any people who have earned Ph.D.s, from any institution, will want this job — all the more so because it doesn’t come with any illusion of being a stepping-stone to a real academic job (that may be the downside of getting to design your own syllabus, and the other bits of autonomy that come along with today’s typical adjunct job; they foster the illusion that you’re building your skills/c.v.). As far as I’m concerned, the likelihood that these classes will be unstaffable is a feature, not a bug.

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