“Yeah, a storm is threatening my very life today.”

So I got to meet Audrey Watters yesterday. Her talk here in Madison at the Digital Pedagogy Lab Summer Institute was (as you might expect) pretty intense. I highly recommend that you read it (or watch the video which I’m told should be up at the DPL web site eventually), but here are the points she made that struck me as so important that I had to write them down:

1. Teaching is affective labor (meaning it’s influenced by emotion).

2. This explains why teaching is underpaid and unappreciated, since affective labor is generally associated with women’s work.

3. If the powers that be can convince everyone that computers actually care about students, they will replace all teachers with computers without batting an eyelash.*

While I enjoyed the first day immensely, I did feel like a bit of an interloper until Audrey came along. While I no longer believe that all forms of online education are evil by definition, it is still extraordinarily hard for me to decide exactly what I’m for and what I’m against. Perhaps the great value in Audrey’s talk was that it made me realize that my opinion doesn’t really matter as much as I once thought it did.

If you ever read my old blog, you know that I continually went back and forth on whether a “let them eat MOOCs” approach to higher education would lead to a rebellion among the student population (since they are generally such an inferior form of instruction) or be obediently accepted because that’s what the new normal will become. In fact, I still go back and forth over this same question.

Thanks to Audrey, I realized that the answer to this questions doesn’t really matter because the storm is coming even if John Hennessy now wants it postponed. I once wrote:

“I don’t know whether the Internet will make college professors obsolete, but then again nobody else does, either.”

Unfortunately, the best way to predict the future is to invent it. No, scratch that. The best way to predict the future is to impose it upon everyone else whether they want it or not. The people in charge can make college professors obsolete – whether or not we deserve that fate – because the answer to the obsolescence question depends much more on power than it does on educational quality or justice. No matter how good computers become at mimicking affective labor, they can still make it rain. All we faculty can do is beg for shelter.

Actually, I plan to do more than beg. I think the best way to ride the storm out is to build your own boat. I’m here in Madison in order to learn how to build the strongest and sturdiest boat possible.

* Actually, she put this point in the form of a question, but that’s how I interpreted it since I know we’re both pessimists at heart.

Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

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