An initial response to Carey’s “The End of College” (or college costs don’t matter)

I’ve read about half of Kevin Carey’s The End of College and I’ve seen lots of the critiques of it in the education media, particularly in Inside Higher Ed.  There’s this, this (which has a pretty decent bullet-point summary of the book), this (which is probably too polite), and this piece by Audrey Watters and Sara Goldrick-Rab.  That Watters/Goldrick-Rab piece is probably my favorite because it is so biting and so extensively cited, though Kim thought it a little too “biting.” I commented on that article already. In any event, while my own reading of Carey is a “work in progress,” I thought I’d share two thoughts for now.

First, I am both bothered and puzzled by the attention Carey’s book is getting. I’m bothered because this book seems to be getting way WAY too much attention, and I’m puzzled by this because it seems to me the point he is making about “The University of Everywhere” is basically the same that the “Year of the MOOCs” bandwagon was making in 2012. If all this were new, I guess it might make sense; that it’s not new at all and it’s still getting great PR confuses me.

I referenced Carey’s book (well, indirectly because I ran out of time during the presentation)  at the CCCCs, and I suspect I’ll be quoting from him if I ever get this MOOC book/sabbatical project together (knocking on wooden things). I see him figuring into the last chapter where I am imagining the future of MOOCs and whatever comes next, and the seemingly never-ending quest to make education cheaper by making it more “efficient” and by further distancing teachers from students and/or bypassing the teachers altogether. Here’s a long quote from my CCCCs talk that I didn’t get to read that gives you an idea about where I’m coming from about why I’m confused by the attention:

I think Carey is wrong in lots of different ways. I think he’s right that higher education spends too much money on football and fancy campuses, and there is no doubt that higher education costs too much money. But his assumption about the research/teaching balance being out of whack and the inability of professors to teach is at best an exaggeration. Carey talks about runaway costs, but as far as I can tell, he says little about how expenses have been driven up by rising administrator salaries and increased bureaucratic demands on everyone from outside stakeholders (assessment!). Further, he seems to think that the content that would be delivered electronically in the University of Everywhere is free as in “free beer,” that that work just magically happens.

But the reason why Carey’s argument matters is the same reason why the MOOC business got traction a few years ago: Carey is playing off the popular (and largely uninformed) view of college, that it’s far too expensive because professors don’t do anything to teach and they are getting paid too much to do something that appears to most people outside of academia to not actually be a job. Write a book about how higher ed needs to be reformed by improving government funding, eliminating administrative bloat,  and by streamlining extracurriculars gets zero discussion and it sells 200 copies [and as an aside: I am afraid this is the book I am writing]. Write a book about how higher ed ought be run like Google and it gets covered by the New York Times and Fresh Air and lots of other places and it sells thousands. So even though the future of Carey’s “University of Everywhere” seems like an even more “risky business,” it’s similar to MOOCs in that we need to engage in the conversation.

The second (and more important and counter-intuitive) thing is about the “college costs too much” argument. Much of Carey’s book argues college as we know it needs to be completely retooled because it costs too much money, which is of course the conventional wisdom from most about higher education (including me). This is a rational observation. But here’s the thing: it seems to me most would be students and their parents don’t actually care that much about the costs.  It certainly isn’t driving most decisions students make about where to go to college.

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CCCC 15 in Tampa Recap

Just like last year, my CCCCs was again fairly MOOC-centric and included the usual suspects. My thoughts/recollections on the few days there:

  • Unfortunately, I am likely to remember this CCCCs years from now as the one where there was a horrible accident right outside the conference hotel and convention center. The short version is a driver somehow lost control of his car, jumped the curb on the street that ran between the hotel and the convention center, and hit three pedestrians, killing one of them and seriously injuring the other two. I didn’t see it– I was sitting in the lobby of the hotel trying to get caught up on a few email/Facebook things– but a lot of people at the conference did see it and I’m told it was horrifying.  One person I talked to who was right there when it happened said she was busy writing an angry email on her cell phone (something didn’t get done right and she was mad, that’s all you really need to know), and when the accident happened, she felt this strange everything frozen in place and time sensation, and then she deleted that email before sending it since it didn’t seem that important anymore.
  • I was on the fence about going to the conference at all this year because I’m on sabbatical right now (did I mention I was on sabbatical?), and because I wasn’t that crazy about going to Florida generally. I am not a “Florida fan,” so to speak. Annette’s parents have lived in Naples for about 16 years now and we go down there pretty much every year at Christmas (including this past Christmas). That’s plenty of Florida for me. But as far as I can tell, most people were thrilled to be down there, and my colleague and University of South Florida alum Kate Pantelides was really REALLY thrilled to be visiting Tampa again.
  • I had a chance to get to talk with/have dinner with my newest EMU colleague at the conference, Chalice Randazzo, who will be joining us from Texas Tech. I wasn’t on the search committee, so I actually talked with her more at the conference than when she was here for the interview. And it’s always nice when colleagues in the field come up to you in the lobby of the hotel and say stuff like “you made a great hire,” especially when I didn’t have much to do with it.
  • Every CCCCs, there are people who I just never see and there other people who I inexplicably see everywhere. This year, the “saw everywhere” person was Stuart Selber. Don’t ask me why. I also hung out with/caught up with the usual suspects, some folks I see all the time (like Benninghoff and Bill HD), some folks I see about once a year (Nick Carbone, Heidi Estrem, Linda Adler-Kassner), and some I see somewhere in-between (Doug Walls, Mike McLeod).
  • The three most memorable panel-type things I saw were the Ohio State folks’ roundtable session on their MOOC, part of a session by Johndan Johnson-Eilola and Anne Wysocki called “Blow It the Fuck Up: Composition After Writing,” a presentation I thought was provocative (though it’s easier said than done and I think there’s a lot to value by being aligned with a specific position), and the Ignite sessions that were on Friday night. There needs to be more of these Ignite kinds of things– short (five minute), provocative speeches that take place in a more social interaction– there was an intermission and cocktails.
  • My session and my talk went fine. The other folks on the panel all gave good talks that I wouldn’t mind returning to as I get back into the MOOC work this coming week. The only downside was we had a somewhat overeager chair who aggressively timed the presentations and flagged me for running out of time, which surprised me because I timed my talk to be 18 minutes. Turns out that our chair was assuming a 15 minute time limit. Hmm.
  • And lots and lots of great conversations with folks outside the sessions. Honestly, that’s the biggest reason for going to the CCCCs for me at this point. It’s always nice to meet people you kind of “know” from Facebook or Twitter or the WPA-L and put a face with a name, and it’s always nice when people say nice things to me about stuff I post or about the MOOC book or whatever (I assume that anyone who would have said mean things just avoided me). It did get hard to keep answering the “how’s your sabbatical going?” question after a while, though interestingly enough, when I expressed my mixed feelings about it all to people who had previously had sabbaticals, they tended to say “yeah, I know what you mean.”
  • The “extracurricular” activities were pretty decent. The bar at the conference hotel was too expensive, but it was nice sitting on that patio. The annual Bedford-St. Martin’s party was at the Florida Aquarium, which was very cool as a venue, though there was almost no food– not a big deal for me, but this was not the kind of party I recall as a grad student where you could go and more or less piece together a complete (and free) meal. I ended up for dinner after that party at a place called Cevíche that probably was my favorite food experience of the whole conference– though I had a couple pretty good meals. I was also a part of a pretty amusing food fail. Long story short, it turns out that the very popular Bern’s Steakhouse doesn’t appreciate it when you show up thirty minutes late for your reservation for three with five people. So we ended up at the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City, which was also a very Tampa thing.
  • So all in all, I’m glad I decided to go and I felt a pretty good kick-start on the sabbatical. Now I’ll have to contemplate next year’s conference. Once again, I feel mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I’m not even remotely crazy about going to the location– Houston– and, as I say every year, the last thing I need on my CV is another conference presentation. On the other hand, my former colleague and friend Linda Adler-Kassner is the program chair and it is pretty much the only conference I’m even contemplating, so….

My CCCCs 2015 Presentation

Here’s a link to the presentation I’ll be giving at the Conference for College Composition and Communication meeting next week in Tampa, Florida. My talk is called “Risky Business: The Difficult to See, Always Moving, Fast and Fuzzy Future of Corporate-Sponsored Massive Online Open Courses.” My session is G.10, which is at 9:30 in the morning on March 20, and it looks like we’re in “Grand Ballroom I, Level Two,” whatever that means.

There could be some changes along the way, but this is probably pretty much how I’ll roll. Why post it here now? Two basic reasons. First, I think this is the best way to make the presentation available to people in the name of accessibility– the CCCCs has a nice little video about this here. I haven’t had a lot of people in my audience over the years who have had some kind of disability where they have requested a transcript or what-have-you, but it has happened, and this is a lot easier than me handing out a paper document.

Second, there’s so much going on at the CCCCs and this session is at the relatively early time of 9:30, which means that lots of people who might be interested in this aren’t going to come to the panel. And on a closely related point: every presentation I’ve posted online has received many MANY more visits than there were actual at the presentation. I’ve already mentioned this on this site, but I’ll mention it again: I gave a talk at the Cultural Rhetorics Conference on October 31 last year. It was a nice little conference up at Michigan State, and for a whole bunch of reasons (including time of day and other things on the program), my panel had about six people in the audience. No big deal, that happens, and we still had a nice discussion.  But I am quite sure that at least ten times that many people have at least looked at the blog post that has the script and slides from that presentation.

Does that mean that we should just skip the conference thing and throw all this stuff up online? Of course not. But it does mean that I think we ought to take more advantage of the affordances of the face to face space of conferences like the CCCCs– conversation, networking, socializing, collaborating, etc.– and use spaces like this one to publish content that can be accessed before, during, and after the actual face to face event.

Anyway, read away (or not).

Post from sabbatical-land 180 days to go: three miscellany items

Colleagues and friends routinely ask me if I’m “enjoying” my sabbatical. It ebbs and flows.

Sometimes, I feel like I’m getting lots done. The research and reading and writing goes on with the “MOOCs in context” project; I’m starting to line up interviews with MOOC instructors, which will make up a lot of the third section of whatever this turns out to be (let’s remain optimistic and call it a “book”). I turned in a revised draft of a chapter for a collection on MOOCs, and I have the beginnings of my CCCCs presentation. So I kind of feel like if I didn’t accomplish anything else between now and September 1 (assuming these interviews go off without a hitch), I think I would have satisfied the unspoken agreement of scholarly productivity during this time away.

At other times, I feel like I’m not really doing anything. These feelings are slightly more mixed. Sometimes, my feelings about not getting enough done are cavalier, a sort of “screw it, I earned this break” feeling. More often, my fallen Catholic guilt kicks in. And at still other times, because I really am away from teaching and the rest of the day job (the quasi-administrative duties, the appointments, the hanging around and socializing in the office, even the busy-work), I’m bored. I get things done when I’m busy; when I have too much free time, I pick up a potentially unhealthy SimCity habit.

So yes, I’m enjoying my sabbatical. Except when I’m not.

But this post is really about three miscellaneous things I have wanted to blog about for a while and things I can imagine writing about more later, but that I don’t have that much time or interest right now. So better to get something down rather than let the moment pass entirely.

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