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:


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.

Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Sporch Ezza

    I particularly liked the recommendation of alliances with instructional designers toward the end. *Would Nils Lofgren (solo->E-Street Band) count, even though he now has more or less a solo career?

  2. quasihumanist

    I don’t think the problem in most universities is that the faculty’s expertise in their fields or in teaching their fields or in structuring the curriculum for their fields is not respected. The problem is that, for a university on the brink, as many universities are, expertise in any of these things is much less important than expertise in convincing students to come back for another semester. Even if faculty have expertise in this, they are generally reluctant to use it.

    All the short term pressures on a university push it towards becoming a diploma mill, and faculty are most certainly not experts at running one.

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