Apparently, my projects for the next couple months are converging (teaching, textbooks, and more MOOCs)

Everything seems to be converging for me right now. In my online Computers and Writing class right now, we are all signed up and engaging in the MOOC “E-Learning and Digital Cultures,” which is a) sort of a meta-experience in it’s my online class taking a MOOC and talking about that MOOC in my online class, and b) is sort of like using a MOOC like a textbook. Meanwhile, in scholarship news, I am going to be giving a couple of talks about MOOCs in March and, at the CCCCs, I’m going to be doing a poster session about using iBooks Author to make a self-published version of an iPad book based my self-published textbook. Anything I can do to combine and overlap projects is a good thing.

I was thinking about this convergence the other day initially in response to a couple of Chronicle of Higher Education pieces.  First, there’s “The Object Formerly Known as the Textbook,” which more or less suggests that MOOCs might indeed be the replacements of “textbooks,” albeit unter a name like “courseware” or “learning experiences.” It kind of rehashes a number of things, including some of the same kinds of things I wrote about back here in October.  Second, there’s this article on free textbooks, “Pay Nothing? Easier Said Than Done.” If the question is “can you make money by giving away the content of textbooks, then the answer is clearly “no.” But it isn’t terribly difficult to give away textbooks online, though I agree completely with the sentiment here about getting them to count:

Some professors who write free textbooks “almost become celebrities in their own field” with books that are widely used, said Mr. Ernst, of the University of Minnesota. But writing open textbooks does not usually factor into tenure and promotion decisions, said John Gallaugher, an associate professor of information systems in the Carroll School of Management at Boston College and the author of a widely used open textbook called Information Systems.

“By giving my text away, I had an enormous impact on the field,” he said. “But that isn’t going to move me from tenured associate professor to tenured full professor. If there’s no career incentive and no financial incentive, then it real­ly relies on faculty altruism.”

First, I certainly did not become some kind of “celebrity” in my field by posting my textbook online.  Second, it wasn’t so much “altruism” as much as it was “I have nothing to lose-ism” that drove me to post my textbook online. If a publisher wanted to publish and sell it, I’d probably take it down. But I do agree that an open textbook is not likely to figure much into the tenure and review process (even at EMU, where we count lots of different things) and that’s kind of a shame. If that were changed, I suspect a lot more people would publish open textbooks.

But let me circle back to my online class and the E-Learning and Digital Cultures MOOC. My grad students and I are all signed up and the idea is to participate there and to also participate as part of my class too, which means discussing it on the class web site and also blogging about it. So as much as anything else, I’m modeling for my students. Continue reading “Apparently, my projects for the next couple months are converging (teaching, textbooks, and more MOOCs)”

MOOCs and Webinars

I was the respondent the other day at a MOOC webinar that was sponsored by Michigan State’s Writing, Rhetoric and American Cultures. Eventually, I think they’re going to post the whole audio recording of the event on their site. It was a good event, although it was a little weird too. This is the first time I had done a webinar like this and it’s a sort of strange speaking experience in that I know there were about 100 or so people logged into it and listening, but my speaking part (which was true with everyone else, of course) was just me sitting in my office and talking at my computer with no visual cues from anyone else. So it’s hard for me to tell if others heard me and were nodding in agreement, frowning angrily, or looking at me like what I was saying was gibberish.

It was probably a combination of all of the above.

Anyway, a brief run-down of how I thought it went (based on my notes and memories):

  • First up was Rebecca Burnett at Georgia Tech.  The course they’re developing will emphasize a multimodal approach to writing, it isn’t going to replace the face-to-face course, and they’re hoping to attract students who are “self-starters, self-motivated,” creative, risk takers, etc. She raised some concerns though about Coursera and the like– and actually, a colleague of Burnett’s wrote about those concerns a few days before this in this piece from The Chronicle.
  • Next was Denise Comer at Duke. It sounds like they are also thinking of an ESL “angle” to the class, but what I thought was interesting in her talk was what I guess I would describe as some of the worries and concerns she has about all of this at this point. She talked about how the experience seems a sort of “unflipping” of the classroom because of the focus on recording videos. And she also talked about how the process of recording these videos for Coursera made her and her colleagues unusually self-conscious about how they appeared to their students. She mentioned one colleague who brought a bunch of ties to the recording because he didn’t want to appear to be wearing the same outfit for the whole class.
  • Then Scott DeWitt and Kay Halasek from Ohio State. They discussed the OSU being a very collaborative effort involving tons of folks there, and they pointed out it’s important to be involved in these things early because if we aren’t at the table, then who else will be? (Which, btw, is an excellent point: even folks who think this MOOC thing is a completely bullshit folly best pay attention to it.) They again talked about self-motivation and an opportunity for researching student writers, and they also talked a lot about what they hope to see and study regarding peer review.
  • Then Julie Lindquist from MSU talked. She covered similar ground at this point, but she too emphasized the experimental/investigatory nature of this project, the emphasis on learning (I have in my notes “shifting the gaze to learning,” which I like) and again an interest in MOOCs as a research site.
  • Then I came in and looking over the twitter feed on it, I guess I was fine, but I had a bit of a feeling of being a little too much of a “Debbie Downer” on the whole thing. I mean, here are these folks who have spent a lot of time and effort developing these projects and they’re obviously optimistic and hopeful about the chances of success, and I come in there and ask a lot of pointed and difficult questions. Anyway, I first pointed out this isn’t really new (think “classes by mail” in the late 19th century not to mention online classes for the last 20 or so years) and a lot of the questions that David Noble asked in his Digital Diploma Mills book are still relevant here: who is making money off of this, how will this benefit students and how do we know it will, and how does this impact academic labor? I asked about the dropout rate because if the Coursera dropout rate as it is right now is 90%, how are these courses going to reconcile that? And I also asked about how folks are going to address the problem of scaling because content scales much better than teaching?

And then it kind of went from there.  Jeff Grabill, the moderator and organizer of this, asked questions of the first five based on what folks had said and what was coming in via the Twitter feed. He didn’t come back to me, which makes sense I guess since I was the respondent and not the one “brining it” as it were with an actual MOOC project. There were a couple of other things I would have liked to have asked along the way though.

For one thing, there seemed to be some question among this group about the claim/argument that teaching doesn’t scale well– I am not sure who, but I think someone said something along the lines of “how do we know that?”  

Well, I think the assumption that teaching scales poorly (or at least it doesn’t scale for all teaching and it certainly doesn’t scale as easily as content) is based on hundreds of years of practice. Just look at how we teach at universities now: there are some classes (notably ones where success is assessed by machine graded tests) we hold in lecture halls, and others (like first year writing, but also like speech, fine art, music, laboratory experiment classes, etc.) we hold in smaller groups. Introductory writing is not taught in lecture halls, and when those experiments have been tried before, they’ve failed.

Furthermore, there is a limit for even large lecture hall classes: I think you’d be hard pressed to find a lecture class at any university in this country that has over 1,000 students, but this is not for a lack of space to hold those lectures. Most big universities have at least one auditorium or sports facility or something that could accomodate that many people in a class a couple times a week. I think universities don’t have lecture hall classes above about 500 (and more typically they are around 200) because we’ve known for a long time now that even in a class where it’s all about a “sage on a stage” professor spitting out content for students to feed on so they can later regurgitate that processed content on to a scantron sheet, even in that setting there are logistical limits.

Another question I wish someone had asked: where’s the “remedial” or developmental piece to these courses? Because I thought that the whole point of this Gates Foundation grant was to develop those kinds of courses, and the kinds of courses that these folks were all sketching out didn’t quite seem like that to me. Instead, it seemed like everyone was talking about developing learning experiences for self-motivated students– which is great, but that isn’t the profile of your typical student in a developmental writing class.

And while we probably wouldn’t have had time to talk about it anyway, it would have been nice to have heard a little more specifics about the curriculum. Perhaps that’s premature– all of these folks are talking about courses going online in a few months not now– but I would have liked to have heard more about what sort of innovations being considered for fostering peer review and self-assessment. Software like Eli might be one piece to the puzzle, but I would have liked to have heard some more specifics on that.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens next in all this.

The latest promises and perils of MOOCS: California and “eLearning and Digital Cultures”

Two mostly unrelated readings and thoughts about MOOCs this morning.  First, via the book of face, comes from Gregory Ferenstein at TechCrunch, “How California’s Online Education Pilot Will End College As We Know It.” Here’s how it opens:

Today, the largest university system in the world, the California State University system, announced a pilot for $150 lower-division online courses at one of its campuses — a move that spells the end of higher education as we know it. Lower-division courses are the financial backbone of many part-time faculty and departments (especially the humanities). As someone who has taught large courses at a University of California, I can assure readers that my job could have easily been automated. Most of college–the expansive campuses and large lecture halls–will crumble into ghost towns as budget-strapped schools herd students online.

Certainly alarming and dramatic, but is this true? Hard to say since we’re talking about a pilot program, but I have my doubts, mainly because Ferenstein (who is a TechCrunch staff writer and not someone who appears to know a whole lot about how education works) makes some interesting and problematic claims along the way.

He starts by pointing out that San Jose State University provost Ellen N. Junn says that 50% of entering students are ill-prepared in high school and thus don’t meet the “basic requirements” for classes like math and English (writing). That may very well be true, but  that sure seems like a problem with secondary schools and not universities. Anyway, because of the poor graduation rate (48%) and expenses and such, the governor and everyone else in California are desperate to try something– thus a MOOC experiment. And really this part of things makes sense to me. Given the problems, why not try a bold experiment?

But then I think Ferenstein’s argument gets a little more mooshy.

First, there’s this:

A review of research by the Department of Education in 2009 found that “students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction.”

What that meta-study found was that online classes were either slightly better or about the same, but the best results came from “hybrid” course formats. Further, different teaching techniques worked better than others and what did not appear to help people learn were the things that are common in these MOOCs: a lot of video lectures and quizzes. And beyond that, two of the reasons for the results that come out of this study are that students spend more time engaged in the course and students self-select (and are thus more motivated) in online courses.

Then there’s this:

More recently, a pilot of MIT and Harvard’s joint online educational initiative, EdX, found that blending SJSU classes with world-class online lectures reduced the number of students who received a C or lower by 31%.

That link to the New York Times article suggests that this isn’t quite the results of that study. What really seems to be the case is the EdX course was used in one of the SJSU courses more or less as a textbook and that was more effective. That makes a fair amount of sense.

And that leads to this:

In other words, computers can–and have–successfully replaced teachers.

That link is to a stoopid CNN article that says nothing, and the logic overall here is along the lines of “therefore, Ray Charles is God.”

I’m not trying to suggest there is nothing to what Ferensten is claiming; it’s just that there’s a lot that has to fall into place for this to be the beginning of the end. For starters, this pilot program has to succeed, and I for one am extremely skeptical about the chances of a MOOC being a good solution for remedial learners. Second, even if this does work (and that’s a big if to me), I think what it signals is more of a redistribution of the labor forces: that is, part-timers will be working more for the Udacities of the world and less for universities, which could have both bad and good impacts. And third, the rest of the world (university accrediting agencies, employers, parents, students themselves, etc.) have to buy into all of this for this shift to happen.

So worry, but the sky isn’t falling quite yet.

And then there’s “eLearning and Digital Cultures,” which is a post about the MOOC of the same name that starts a week from today. It’s a post by an education tech specialist named David Hopkins who is one of 36,000 students signed up for the course. Ten of those thousands includes me and my students in English 516 this semester.  516 is an online graduate course about teaching with technology, and I’ve build into the course taking this MOOC for the next five weeks. It promises to be very meta: students in an online course take a MOOC about online learning as part of the requirements for that first online course.

We’ll see how it turns out, but I like to think this is the real possibilities of MOOCs. As a substitute for a “real” course, MOOCs seem like a bad idea, which is why I don’t think the sort of thing being tried in California (and lots of other places) is going to work, even thought that might seem like the most obvious uses of MOOC. I think instead MOOCs will prove to be useful for something we haven’t really anticipated yet, and/or they will be useful as textbooks and as online gathering spaces that tie into smaller classes.  That’s one of the reasons I want my students and I to give this MOOC a try as a space where we can share with others around the world our thoughts on “eLearning and Digital Cultures.”

 

 

Presidential Footnote

The other day via the trackback notifications here, I learned that MLA President (or I guess now past President?) Michael Bérubé mentioned one of my previous blog post in his recent 2013 Presidential Address, though he doesn’t quote me per se. Hey, I’ll take whatever attention I can get.

I agree with just about everything Bérubé says until the last four paragraphs of his speech– that’s where he mentions me, and I’ll get to that in a moment. The rest of the speech seems kind of melancholy though.  Don’t get me wrong– it’s well-written (albeit a bit wandering) and thoughtful and smart; it just seems like kind of a bummer. He speaks about the often repeated problem of graduate students in English literature falling out of love of reading and the difficulties of persuading anyone outside of “the humanities” to agree that “the humanities” is worth something, etc.  He writes “Time and and again this year, I have asked myself: how did we get ourselves into this?” with this being the reality that folks like those at the Modern Language Association have to now lobby business and government to convince them what they do matters.  Of course, fields like composition and rhetoric have always had to justify themselves to other stakeholders, but that’s another matter.

He also speaks at different points about the Adjunct Project web site, which was/is an interesting crowd-sourced project started by Josh Boldt which shares information on literally thousands of adjunct (e.g. part-time) teaching positions in lots of different fields. It started more or less as a Google spreadsheet and it has become a site/service sponsored by The Chronicle of Higher Education.  I’m not sure what to make of that. I suspect that the CHE can do a better job hosting this and far be it from me to suggest Boldt shouldn’t get something from CHE as a blogger and/or organizer, but it does feel odd that this grass roots effort has been taken over by something that’s more corporate.

Anyway, I get mentioned near the end of Bérubé’s speech:

Early this year I witnessed a particularly debilitating example of how this works. In response to the publicity generated by Josh Boldt’s Adjunct Project, a rhetoric and composition specialist replied that it was odd for the MLA to be promoting wage recommendations for contingent faculty members, because we have never been all that interested in the teaching of writing. It seemed to me at the time a complete non sequitur, because our wage recommendations don’t stipulate what anyone might be teaching in any realm of language or literature.

That’s me! That’s me!

But to be clear, I wasn’t criticizing Boldt’s project at all. Rather, as I think my February blog post makes clear, I was responding to a post that Bérubé made on Crooked Timber— really, I was responding to a response to a comment that Bérubé made to my comment on that post (if that’s confusing enough).  In his post, Bérubé was talking about all the stuff that MLA was going to be doing in 2012 in the name of adjunct labor and he mentioned Boldt.  And while I think the MLA effort is problematic for a bunch of different reasons, I think Boldt’s project makes sense, which is probably one of the reasons why it has caught on a lot more than the MLA’s efforts.

Anyway, as I said back then, it is admirable that MLA has decided to give the issue of adjunct labor attention, but these issues have been a major topic of concern amongst the CCCCs crowd for decades. And the reason why the CCCCs crowd has been talking about all of this for so long is because most of the adjunct labor in English departments teaches first year writing.

Bérubé goes on:

We simply think that everyone in the business should be paid a minimum of $6,920 for a standard 3-credit-hour semester course. Our critics have derided this as hopelessly unrealistic, and this critic was no exception; he said we might as well wish for ponies while we were at it. When I replied that I didn’t see what any of this had to do with the teaching of writing, I was reminded that introductory writing courses fall on the extreme end of the low-wage spectrum, and that the MLA has historically ignored those courses, which is one reason why the National Council of Teachers of English was founded. I granted the point, of course, but could not refrain from noting that the NCTE was founded in 1911, and that perhaps, in the interest of better working conditions for all our colleagues, it would be best to bury that century-old hatchet.

First off, I stand by my “might as well wish for a pony” analogy as both accurate and funny enough to be included in an MLA speech. I think everyone should be paid as fairly as possible (adjuncts included), but this kind of money simply does not square with the “supply and demand” functions of the market. It would be nice if this weren’t the case, but that’s the reality of the matter. And simply wishing that everyone was paid $7000 a section is sort of like, well, you know….

Second, as came up in that February 2012 blog post in my original post and the comments, what I would like MLA (and NCTE, for that matter) to do is try to address the problem by encouraging writing departments to change their hiring practices and by speaking more specifically to would-be part-timers.  First year writing programs ought to hire part-time instructors who have training and experience in composition and rhetoric, not literature PhDs who taught some comp while they were graduate students. My colleagues in literature maintain this practice in hiring part-timers to teach literature; why shouldn’t we do the same?

And by speaking more specifically to would-be part-timers, I mean we should do more to persuade those “road warrior” instructors that teaching part-time at several different institutions is a bad bad idea. So many adjuncts are exploited because they allow themselves to be exploited. Part-time teaching should be for people who only want to/need to work part time and not for folks who were unable   to get full-time work teaching in the first place.

As for the burying of the hatchet: it isn’t as simple as that. Bérubé writes this in his next paragraph:

But of course the point remains that although the object of this association is to promote study, criticism, and research in the more and less commonly taught modern languages and their literatures and to further the common interests of teachers of these subjects, as our constitution says, we have generally been understood to be more interested in literature than in language. Many of our colleagues in rhetoric and writing don’t see the MLA as their organization, and neither do many creative writers. There is no natural reason for this; we should be reading our mission broadly and inclusively.

First off, I think Bérubé is severely over-estimating the “broad and inclusive” appeal of the MLA convention to those who are concerned with language but who do not study literature. There are many reasons I haven’t been back to the MLA convention in a dozen or so years, but one reason is because the last time I looked there was literally nothing I was interested in attending, and this out of hundreds of sessions. The last time I looked, there were maybe a 15 sessions having to do with composition and rhetoric and maybe a half-dozen on technical writing; everything else was one flavor or another of literature. Which is fine, by the way– there aren’t a lot of lit sessions at the CCCCs either– but don’t claim that MLA is a “broad and inclusive” conference when it demonstrably is not.

Though I might give it another try in January 2014 because it’s in Chicago and because I am told there has been a lot more about “digital humanities” lately, whatever that’s supposed to mean.

Second, I think Bérubé (and a lot of other people in literature) are not understanding that composition and rhetoric folks and writing studies folks are increasingly moving away from “English” and “literature” departments. This has been going on for a long time in terms of the nature of what we think is worthy of study, the methodologies we use to study things, and increasingly, even the departments we are in.

In a way, literature and comp/rhet are sort of like a dysfunctional couple that has grown apart and then sort of broken up. Only the break-up was never officially announced and literature, who was the one in the relationship who was clearly in charge and made all the decisions, is now is in denial that there’s anything really that wrong.  At the same time, comp/rhet is on to other things and seeing other people.

“Coursera Announces Details for Selling Certificates and Verifying Identities” (or, watch how you type that, mister)

From the Chronicle of Higher Education blog/site “Wired Campus” comes “Coursera Announces Details for Selling Certificates and Verifying Identities.” To quote:

The company, Coursera, plans to announce on Wednesday the start of a pilot project to check the identities of its students and offer “verified certificates” of completion, for a fee. A key part of that validation process will involve what Coursera officials call “keystroke biometrics”—analyzing each user’s pattern and rhythm of typing to serve as a kind of fingerprint.

The company has long said that it planned to bring in revenue by charging a fee to students who complete courses and want to prove that achievement. And Coursera has long recognized that its biggest challenge would be setting up a system to check identity. Other providers of free online courses, which are often called massive open online courses, or MOOCs, have decided to work with testing centers and to require students who want certificates to travel to a physical location, show an ID, and take tests while a proctor watches to prevent cheating.

The article goes on to explain that students will need to “hold up a picture ID in front of a Webcam, and then pose for a second picture of themselves, for an initial identity check,” and as a way of authenticating yourself after that, students will type a short phrase to register and then authenticate the pattern of typing.

Let’s just set aside the basic question of whether or not this would work.  It is worth mentioning that the CHE article quotes a security expert who implies it might sort of work but if someone types differently because they are in a “bad mood” it might not work, and all you have to do is imagine typing at a different keyboard or with just one hand or something to come up with ways this could all be thrown out of whack. But let’s not go there.

If Coursera (and other MOOC startups) really thinks that the “biggest challenge” it faces is checking student identity, then they really aren’t aware (or forthcoming) about the real challenges they face. Checking identity seems pretty low on the list to me, though I am also a writing teacher who does not obsess over things like plagiarism either.

And let’s be clear: if verifying identity is a problem in online classes, then it is as least as large of a problem in face to face classes too. I’ve been teaching for almost 25 years now and I have never asked to see a student’s ID in a class. I don’t know anyone who has, frankly. The closest I’ve come to that is to get a student’s ID number when I’m advising them, and even then, I don’t check the picture on their ID. I assume students are who they say they are, but if the same person shows up throughout the term and tells me they are Joe Schmoe, I’m not at some point going to stop and ask for their papers or their typing to verify that.

No, in my view, the biggest problem Coursera et al face is finding a way for education and teaching to “scale” as well as learning or content (and as I have suggested in previous posts, I don’t think this will work) and to either convince “the world” at large (employers, for example) that certification in a MOOC course ought to count the same as a college course in the grand scheme of things, and/or to convince colleges and universities that they ought to accept Coursera certificates as transfer credits for certain classes.  Stuff like identity or plagiarism or cheating is low-hanging fruit.

Another interesting aspect of this article is the explanation of much this certification would cost:

The company and colleges are still struggling to decide what to charge for the certificates, though in its latest announcement Coursera said the price would run $30 to $100.

“It’s a huge decision: You’re essentially setting a market,” said Daphne Koller, a co-founder of Coursera, in an interview this week with The Chronicle. “No one has ever priced this before.”

and…

So why would someone pay for the verified certificates?

Peter Lange, provost at Duke University, which plans to offer one of the courses in the new pilot, said each free certificate would have a clear disclaimer on it: “It says something to the effect of, We cannot vouch that the person who got this document took the course or did the work.”

First off, Koller is flat-out wrong in claiming “no one has ever priced this before” because there are lots of different online certificates for training and, of course, Kaplan and Phoenix and other online proprietaries long ago figured out what to charge. This is a pattern with Koller, this idea that she and her partners at Coursera are in completely uncharted territory when it comes to teaching online.

Second, once again I have to wonder if Coursera’s academic partners (like Duke) are going to honor these certificates at their own institutions– that is, could I take a Duke run Coursera MOOC and have it actually “count” toward something if I were admitted to Duke? I am fairly confident that the answer is “no,” which raises another question for me: if the institution teaching the MOOC is not willing to itself honor the Coursera-issued certificate, then why does Coursera think that other institutions (like the EMUs of the world) will be willing to call that credit legitimate?

 

On having “The Least Stressful” Job of 2013

Making its rounds on the intertubes yesterday was this article/blog post/something by Susan Adams at Forbes, “The Least Stressful Jobs of 2013.” The winner? University professor, of course!

The article is so factually inaccurate in so many different ways that there’s really no point in explaining why. But there are two interesting aspects of the way it has been reported. First, after many flabbergasted comments from various professors, Adams published an addendum/apology where she acknowledged that being a professor is actually a lot of work and even potentially stressful. Second, as a part of that addendum, Adams says “but don’t blame me; blame CareerCast,the marketing/PR firm that came up with these lists in the first place.”

In other words, all Adams did was reproduce the quasi-made-up lists of least stressful jobs and posted it, all under the rhetorically persuasive guise of “reporting” for an established magazine. Classy. And it would appear that the rest of the lemmings in mainstream media have chased after this story too: a google search turned up similar links/stories on ABC News, some business web sites, some TV station web sites, etc.

I think the most stressful jobs list is also pretty telling.  There are jobs there that I would assume are stressful (military, firefighter, police officer, etc.), but then there’s Public Relations Executive, Senior Corporate Executive, Photojournalist, and Newspaper Reporter, jobs that are pretty close to the kinds of work people at CareerCast do. Nothing self-serving about that at all, right?

Not surprisingly, professors have complained about this low stress characterization. Two blog posts I’ll mention is “The Least Stressful Job for 2013? A Real Look at Being a Professor in the US,” by Audra Diers at the blog Facts & Other Fairy Tales. She goes to exhaustive lengths– and I mean exhaustive— to describe just how very stressful and time-consuming it is to be a professor.  Second, Aaron Barlow writes about all this in “‘The Job I Love’ and ‘Why I Fight.'” I think Barlow is exactly right when he explains why it’s difficult to compare/explain the profession to people who look at work and jobs as something unpleasant that is done in order to pursue real passions when the reality is that the job/work of being a professor is the passion. Interestingly enough, Barlow was interviewed and clearly misquoted by these CareerCast people.

But it is also easy in these sorts of rebuttals (and in the comments on that Forbes article or on mailing lists I’m on) to slip into workload exaggeration in an effort to tell the best “oh, you think you had it bad” story ala Four Yorkshiremen:

But just what is “stressful,” anyway? What do these people mean? It turns out that CareerCast does have a methodology of sorts, though it is a strange point system/scale/something, and there’s no explanation as to how things are scored. Being a university professor scores on this scale (according to these folks) a 6.45. By contrast, the most stressful job, Enlisted Military, scores 84.75; a PR Executive scores 48.52; and a photojournalist scores 47.12.

The application of these points is clearly pretty loosey-goosey; in fact, if I were to guess, I’d say it looks like what the CareerCast people did was sit around in a conference room or a bar one day and bullshit with each other to come up with the numbers. This probably explains why so many careers related to the careers of these CareerCast wonks rated so high. I am almost certain that they didn’t actually ask anyone in these fields to rate their own stress levels.

So as a public service and as a way to procrastinate, I thought I’d go ahead and score my own stressfulness on the job based on their scale.  Here it goes:

  • Travel, amount of 0-10: 2 I’m going to give myself a 2 for this because while I generally still need to go to one or two conferences a year as part of my work (and I have to pay a lot of those expenses myself), I don’t really have to do this much anymore since I’m tenured and all that. But when I was in graduate school and seeking tenure, going to conferences was critical, time-consuming, expensive, and thus stressful, so I’m sticking with that 2. It’s not as bad as a job where you are flying someplace every week (I have a brother-in-law who does that), but it’s not non-existent either.
  • Growth Potential, income divided by 100: ? Honestly I’m not sure what this means, but I will say this: one of the clear problems of being a professor– especially at a place like EMU, where it is comparatively easy to get tenure and promotion– is that you “max out” in terms of pay and rank.  This is one of the reasons why professors become administrators. Besides, if the number for stress is high, wouldn’t this be a good thing? I’m confused by this one. I’ll say zero even though I know that’s wrong.
  • Deadlines, 0-9: 5 I suspect that the CareerCast people sat around and said “yeah, my professors always took a couple weeks to pass back grades on papers– they didn’t give a shit about any deadlines.”  That’s because when you are a professor, you have lots and lots of other deadlines that have nothing to do with teaching that are more important than passing back those papers. There are deadlines for publishing, for posting grades, for advising, for committee meetings, for doing assessment and other university busy-work, etc., etc. Lives are not at stake and deadlines are often not met, but yes, there are lots of stressful deadlines.
  • Working in the public eye, 0-5: 1 Given the criticism of education in the MSM and the fact that I am a public employee who has to maintain a public persona as a teacher and a scholar in my field, I do feel a certain amount of “public eye” stress. I mean, it’s not like anchoring the local news, but it is also not an anonymous profession.
  • Competitiveness, 0-15: 15 People outside of academica have no fucking clue on this. Anyone– and I mean anyone— who is in a tenured position at a university, particularly in fields like English or Rhetoric and Writing, competed mightily for that position. They competed against applicants to graduate school for admission and an assistantship, they competed against their classmates in graduate seminars for recognition, they competed against their peers around the country to get accepted to conferences and to publish essays, they competed against their peers again to get hired in the first place, and they continue to compete with their faculty colleagues for damn near everything. EVERYONE who has a tenure track job has dealt with the stresses and pressures of the never-ending competition, and show me someone who is in a particularly prestigious tenure-track job and I’ll show you the most competitive S.O.B. you’ll ever face.
  • Physical demands (stoop, climb, etc.), 0-14: 0 As I am fond of saying of this work, it beats shoveling coal. Assuming we’re not talking metaphorically- that’s covered by competitiveness.
  • Environmental conditions, 0-13: 0 Though I have had some sketchy office spaces.
  • Hazards encountered, 0-5: 0 Though I can imagine folks in chemistry might feel differently.
  • Own life at risk, 0-8: .5 Obviously, being a professor is not dangerous like being a firefighter or police officer or soldier. But given the rare but unfortunate incidents of violence on college campuses, I would say there is some anxiety there that is stressful.
  • Life of another at risk, 0-10: .5 See above.
  • Meeting the public, 0-8: 6 This is another one of those categories where I suspect the CareerCast people, the ones who were once students in classes like mine, thought “yeah, those professors are so lucky, they never have to deal with the public, just students and stuff.” Well, I’ve got news: students are “the public.” Now, most of my work with students– especially the good ones– is very pleasant and rewarding, no doubt about that. And working with college students is generally a lot easier than working with “the public” one encounters in secondary schools, social work settings, shopping malls, restaurants, etc.

That said, every professor/lecturer/adjunct/graduate assistant I know can tell you several hair-curling stories about dealing with students/the public who were insulting, mean, weepy, drunk, scary, crazy, potential violent, lazy, rude, and/or all of the above. Honestly, working with the public/students is often the best and the worst part of the job, and it is definitely one of the sources of stress in my life.

So for me, I’d give being a professor a 30, not counting that “growth potential” question. I’m not saying it is in the “top ten” of stressful positions (though being a PR Executive isn’t in the top ten either in my book), but it ain’t quite as easy as it is to come up with these top ten lists in the first place.