Why Kevin Carey is (mostly but not entirely) wrong (again)

Last week, HuffPo published an article by Kevin Carey called “The Creeping Capitalist Takeover of Higher Education,” and, if that title wasn’t provocative enough, it also included these two sentences above the story/as a subtitle: “Just a few years ago, universities had a chance to make a quality education affordable to everyone. Here’s the little-known and absolutely infuriating history of what they did instead.”

The basic contours of Carey’s argument here are based on his book The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere. I talk about this book in a book I have coming out in fall 2019 about MOOCs and distance education, More Than a Moment. In his book and in this article, Carey makes a lot of good points, but he is just as often quite wrong– and he was/is really wrong about the potential of MOOCs to make college free and “everywhere.”

First off, some things Carey is right about.

It’s hard to disagree about college tuition being too high. Carey’s assertions as to why tuition is high and his solutions to this problem are way way off, but no sensible observer of American higher education would disagree that college is too expensive.

He’s also right that Online Program Management firms (OPMs) are potentially troubling. I think his characterization of OPMs is simplistic and he forgets that non-profit higher ed has had some complicated and fraught arrangements with for-profit enterprises for at least the last 150 years. Carey is alarmist in this article, I suppose in part because it’s HuffPo. It is true that the arrangements between OPMs and universities are often problematic. EMU’s relationship with the OPM Academic Partnerships is an example of this– and besides talking about this in the last chapter of my book, I blogged about it a while ago here,  and I take this issue up again toward the end of a presentation I gave at the Computers and Writing Conference in 2018. 

So he’s not all wrong. But Carey is spectacularly wrong in other places in this article.  I’ll focus on three of these claims.

Continue reading “Why Kevin Carey is (mostly but not entirely) wrong (again)”

Let’s not throw out all “merit” because of the “Admissions-Bribery Scandal”

My goodness, people have gotten very excited about the “Admissions-Bribery Scandal” that’s involved eight universities and 45 or so kids of very very rich (and frankly not very smart) parents. Frank Bruni finds it both galling and not surprising. John Warner says its a reason to eliminate all “competition” within higher education. Many many folks on Twitter and Social Media are using this story an example of how all college admissions is a crock and based entirely on how much money you have, it’s all corrupt, burn it all down, etc., etc.

As a thought experiment, I thought I’d contemplate some ways in which merit and admission to college in this country isn’t completely broken.

  • Access to education at any level has never been universally fair, and people who are wealthy have always had better access to education. I’m not just talking in the U.S. and I’m not just talking about the last 20 or 50 years. I mean it has never been fair anywhere, it has been that way for thousands of years, and it has been that way everywhere. Sure, there is better access to higher education in some other places in the world, notably European countries with a Democratic-Socialist tradition of funding education as a societal good. Though it is also worth pointing out that in most of these countries, students are “tracked” into a path that leads to either trade school or university in the American equivalent of high school. There isn’t much of a tradition in these places of community colleges or open admission universities.
  • I’m not saying this inequity is justified (it’s not) and I’m not saying we should do what we can to eliminate it (we should). I’m just saying it’s not at all new. The rich have always gotten richer. And as long as we’re talking about access and inequity issues relative to history: don’t forget that 100 years ago in this country, lots and lots of public universities in this country did not admit women or people of color.
  • The details of this particular scandal are pretty gross. The details about the daughter of Lori “Aunt Becky” Laughlin are particularly icky. Olivia Jade doesn’t seem particularly interested in being in college,  though she does seem to like to hang out on a yacht in the Bahamas with one of her friends who happens to be the child of a billionaire who happens to be chair of USC’s Board of Trustees.
  • But paradoxically, the fact that this small group of super rich people (about 50) felt compelled to break the law to get to get their kids (about 45 total) into some selective universities is evidence that the admissions systems mostly works. This is the exception that proves the rule.
  • Let’s also not forget that there are few “selective” institutions in this country. That’s what makes them “selective,” and thus not the way that most of higher education works. In his excellent book A Perfect Mess, David Labaree says of the 4700 or so institutions that count as “higher education” in this country, there are only 191 that are “selective” to the point where they accept less than half of the students that apply. So again, the eight universities involved in this scandal (and more specifically the rogue-operating people at these places and especially the University of Southern California) are outliers.
  • I cannot imagine any scenario where anyone would pay a bribe of any amount to get into EMU, but let’s think for a moment about the idea of rich people giving huge donations to get rich kids into the right college. Let’s take the example of Jared Kushner’s father paying Harvard $2.5 million to let him in. On the one hand, that’s unethical, slimy, and maybe not illegal but still wrong. Especially when we’re talking about a place like Harvard, this is just the rich getting richer. But at least that donation to the university does end up benefiting other students, at least indirectly. And I have to say: if someone offered to donate $1 million to EMU on the condition that all of their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren were automatically admitted to the university, I sure hope we’d take that deal.
  • But yes, people who have resources have a significant advantage in accessing higher education, and that problem is made all the more acute in this country with the dumb way we fund K-12 schooling, mostly with local property taxes. I do not think this is fair either, and it is also why real estate in communities that are known for its good schools costs more– and vice versa. It’s also probably the easiest and most common way for families with modest means to improve the chances for their children to get into a good college: move to a town with good public schools.
  • I live in Ypsilanti, a town with so-so public schools. For reasons too complicated to go into here, my wife and I sent our only child to an expensive private school in Ann Arbor. We did this because education (not surprisingly) is a high priority for us, and we were fortunate/lucky enough to be able to afford it (barely) because of our jobs, because of some help from our families, and because we only have one child. I do feel a tinge of guilt once in a while regarding this decision, but besides the fact that it has turned out well, I don’t think it is at all unreasonable for any parent to try to do the best they can for their children’s education– as long as it’s legal.
  • This kind of access to private schooling was new to me (I went to some Catholic grade schools but mostly public schools), and it revealed a lot about how even a modest amount of wealth can dramatically change the game. The private school we sent our child to had shockingly small classes, highly professional faculty, a progressive curriculum not bogged down by an overemphasis on testing, and extra-curricular experiences for all students regardless of abilities. This school carefully groomed students for elite higher education from sixth grade on, and by the time actually applying to college rolls around, the level of support in terms of writing entrance essays, taking exams, contemplating different schools, meeting with recruiters– it’s all a completely different world.
  • I also saw the extreme anxiety these affluent parents had about making sure their kids got into an elite college. I’ll never forget this event my wife and I went to for parents of kids who would be applying to college the following year. It was a “Q&A” session put on by the college admissions advisors. Among other things, they talked about the need for test prep, for working carefully through those essays, about strategies for taking the SAT multiple times, and about how it was important to apply to eight to twelve schools to get admitted to the right one. All of these rich and super-earnest parents were just so tense, and I just sat there thinking of my own experience of taking the ACT once and applying to exactly one state university which didn’t require anything beyond a simple application. Like I said, a different world.
  • Which, to circle back to this specific cheating scandal, makes this situation all the more bizarre and what I still do not understand. With all of the advantages these rich people have, why did they have to so brazenly break the law to get their kids into modestly elite colleges? I’ve heard the argument before that folks like Lori Laughlin didn’t know any better because she didn’t go to college herself. I don’t believe that at all, but besides that, most of the parents involved with this were business executives, and I presume most of those people had college degrees. Or maybe they cheated their way into college in a similar fashion?
  • Last but not least: if universities eliminated measures of merit as a way of deciding who to admit– that is get rid of all test scores, grades, application essays, whatever else– how would universities decide? We should continue to strive to make the process more fair of course, but shouldn’t the process be based at least in part on merit in the form of grades, test scores, extracurriculars, etc.?

Actually, Higher Ed is Not That Similar to the Newspaper Industry

This week’s Chronicle of Higher Education weekly feature “The Edge,” usually written by Goldie Blumenstyk but this time written by Scott Carlson, is about the “warnings” higher education should heed from what happened with the journalism business. It’s called “What Higher Ed Can Learn From the Newspaper Industry.” Carlson writes:

Newspapers are generally for-profit enterprises; colleges in most cases are not. But the parallels between journalism and academe are striking: We both deal in knowledge and have public service at our core. We have legacy institutions (Harvard, The New York Times) and upstarts (Coursera, Vice Media). Smart, intractable, and often underpaid people — professors and reporters — form the foundation of our industries, taking complex or specialized information and breaking it down for an audience. For many of those people, their academic or journalistic professions are all they ever imagined doing with their lives. To watch their industries crumble is a source of great heartache.

That first point– for-profit versus not-for-profit– is an important difference between journalism and higher ed that unfortunately gets left behind in the rest of the essay. But there are of course other important comparisons. Both journalists and professors tend to think of their mission as a “higher calling” and one that doesn’t necessarily square with everyone else’s views on the purposes of journalism or higher ed. Quoting Jeremy Littau, an associate professor of journalism at Lehigh University, Carlson writes academics think of themselves as discovering and distributing knowledge, when people just want the credential and a job. “We pin our value,” Littau says, “on things that I don’t think the audience is thinking about.” Carlson also cites a CHE report on “Mega Universities” (tl;dr yet)– places like Southern New Hampshire, Liberty University, and Arizona State University– which threaten traditional universities as their enrollments grow to 100,000 or so students, mostly because of aggressive marketing and robust online programs. And so forth.

This is all something I touch on in my book More Than A Moment: Contextualizing the Past, Present, and Future of Massive Open Online Courses, which will (crossing fingers) come out from Utah State University Press in the fall. I think part of what Carlson and (indirectly) Littau is talking about is true. The higher ed “business” is definitely going through a rough time that is comparable to the rough times in journalism and mass media generally. Technology is changing the way both education and journalism are “delivered,” and colleges and universities– particularly the less prestigious ones like EMU– need to innovate in terms of delivery and programs to keep the doors open.  But for me, that’s about where the comparison ends.

I think there were two things that permanently transformed journalism, neither of which has a clear comparison to what’s going on in higher ed. First off, there’s Craig’s List, which I do not think gets enough credit (or blame) for disrupting one of the main sources of income for newspapers, the classifieds. Newspapers– particularly local ones– made a tremendous amount of money from classified ads back in the day. All of those $20 or so a week ads for selling your car or renting an apartment added up. Second, the rapid rise of social media, Google news, and similar forums dramatically changed the way people found, read, and expected to receive news for free.

But beyond that, there are a number of ways in which the “business”/institution of higher ed is quite different from journalism. These are things that I talk about in more detail in the book in relation to MOOCs, but I think it applies to the comparison to journalism as well.

First off, while content “scales,” education and assessment do not– at least not all the time, and not well enough. Certainly higher education has A LOT of content– research, textbooks, tests, writing assignments, etc. But if education was primarily about “delivering” “content” to an interested audience, then the need for schooling– particularly in higher education– would have started its decline with the development of literacy. The real value of higher education comes from the interaction between students and teachers (face to face or online), the assessment of students and their work by experts, and the credentialing of those courses which lead to a recognized college degree. That credential matters a lot. I think Littau is right in that too often, faculty think that our value is the abstract life of the mind, in “discovering and distributing knowledge.” Nonetheless, even if this is what faculty tend to favor and emphasize, we all know students wouldn’t come to universities for the life of the mind and knowledge alone. They certainly wouldn’t pay for it if the credential wasn’t worth something.

Second, I think people who make this comparison to journalism (or who thought MOOCs were going to take down institutional higher education) underestimate the depth and breadth of higher education. In my book, I quote David Labaree (who quotes someone else) about a claim that there are around 85 institutions in the western world  established by 1520 that continue to exist in similar (albeit evolved) ways today. These institutions include the Roman Catholic Church, a few parliaments, and about 70 universities. All of the top 25 universities in the world (as ranked by Times Higher Education) are at least 100 years old, and many much older– Oxford and Cambridge were founded around 1200, Harvard 1636, and comparable “new kids” Stanford and Cal Tech in the 1890s. Lots of universities in the U.S. were founded in the 1800s, including the one where I teach. So why, if higher education is so bad at innovating and if it is an industry “ripe” for disruption or failure, why are so many universities so old?

And then there’s the breadth issue. There are around 4,700 institutions of higher learning in the US– especially if you include all the proprietary schools, cosmetology schools, and the like. That’s almost four times as many newspapers as are published now, and it’s probably more than were published in the 1940s, before the rise of TV and then the Internet.

Third, while most people seeking news don’t like to pay for it, almost all would-be college students (and their families) are more than willing to pay. In the book, I go into some detail about how the cost of attendance has never been the deciding factor new students cite for why they decided to attend a particular college. While COA has always mattered and it matters more now to students than it did in my generation, students still value the quality of the institution and the success of an institution’s graduates more. This is why MOOC providers could not interest traditional undergraduates in taking their courses: even when the costs of taking a MOOC for transferable college credit is dramatically less than taking a course at a more traditional community college or college or university, students didn’t take the MOOC courses in part because the credential wasn’t “worth it.”

Which brings me to my last point for now: as is still the case with MOOCs, the students interested in attending these “mega universities” and other online providers are not the same as the ones interested in attending more traditional colleges and universities. Rather, most (probably a majority) of the students attending places like Southern New Hampshire or Liberty are older students who are coming back to finish their bachelors degree, or they’re starting college later in life, or they’re people who already have an undergraduate degree and they’re now seeking an additional credential or certification. And again, there has always been a lot of “non-traditional” students seeking education or training outside of “traditional” and institutionalized higher education. In the 1920s and 30s, when correspondence schools started to take off in a major way, there were many many more students enrolled in those courses than there were enrolled in institutional higher ed, and a lot of those students were the same kind of non-traditional student interested in MOOCs and online mega-universities now.

The threat of MOOCs disrupting higher education as we know it has largely passed, but more people are enrolled in MOOCs in 2019 than there were at the height of the “year of the MOOC” in 2012. I quote Cathy Davidson’s claim that in 2016, Coursera alone had 25 million students start at least one course on its platform, which is about four million more students enrolled in traditional colleges and universities in the US. My point is the threats to higher education that Carlson and others have identified are not at all new and not actually “threats.”

Don’t get me wrong– there are definite problems in higher education. As has been the case in the U.S. for at least the last 150 years, there will be institutions that will struggle and that will close or merge with others. Regional and opportunity-granting universities– like the one where I work– will continue to face a lot of challenges, things like even further reduced public funding and falling enrollment. Higher education will continue to change. What it means to “go to college” in the 22nd century is likely to be quite different– much in the same way that going to college in the 19th century was quite different from it is now.

But no, higher education is not as similar to the newspaper business. It certainly isn’t as similar as many journalists like to believe.

 

The “Grievance Studies” Hoax and the IRB Process

From Inside Higher Ed comes “Blowback Against a Hoax.” The “hoax” in question happened last fall, and it was described in a very long read on the web site Areo, “Academic Grievance Studies and the Corruption of Scholarship.” In the nutshell, three academics created some clearly ridiculous articles and sent them to a variety of journals to see if they could be published. Their results garnered a lot of MSM attention (I think there were articles in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times). And, judging from a quick glance at the shared Google Drive folder for this project,  it is very clear that the authors (James A. Lindsay, Peter Boghossian, and Helen Pluckrose) were trying to “expose” and (I’d argue) humiliate the academics that they believe are publishing or not publishing kinds of scholarship because of “political correctness.”

Well, now Boghossian (who is an assistant professor at Portland State) is in trouble with that institution because he didn’t follow the rules for dealing with human subjects, aka IRB (Institutional Review Board) approval.

Read the article of course, but I’d also recommend watching the video the group posted as a defense to this on January 5. I think it says a lot about the problem here– and, IMO, Boghossian and his colleagues do not exactly look like they knew what they were doing:


(I posted what follows here– more or less– as a comment on the article which might or might not show up there, but I thought I’d copy and paste it here too):

It’s a fascinating problem and one I’m not quite sure what to do with. On the one hand, I think the Sokal 2.0 folks engaged in a project designed to expose some of the problems with academic publishing, a real and important topic for sure. On the other hand, they did it in way that was kind of jerky and also in a way that was designed to embarrass and humiliate editors and reviewers for these journals.

The video that accompanies this article is definitely worth watching, and to me it reveals that these people knew very VERY little about IRB protocols. Now, I’m not an expert on all the twists and turns of IRB, but I do teach a graduate-level course in composition and rhetoric research methods (I’m teaching it this semester), I’m “certified” to conduct human subject research, I teach my students how to be certified, I regularly interact with the person who is in charge of IRB process, and I also have gone through the process with a number of my own projects. In my field, the usual goal is to be “exempt” from IRB oversight: in other words, the usual process in my field is to fill out the paperwork and explain to the IRB people “hey, we’re doing this harmless thing but it involves people and we might not be able to get consent, is that okay” and for their response to be “sure, you can do that.”

So the first mistake these people made was they didn’t bother to tell their local IRB, I presume because these researchers had never done this kind of thing before, and, given their academic backgrounds, they probably didn’t know a whole lot about what does or doesn’t fall under IRB. After all, the three folks who did this stuff have backgrounds in math, philosophy, and “late medieval/early modern religious writing by and about women,” not exactly fields where learning about IRB and the rules for human subjects is a part of graduate training.

If these folks had followed the rules, I have no idea what the Portland State IRB would have said about this study. The whole situation will make for an interesting topic of discussion in the research methods course I’m teaching this term and a really interesting topic of discussion for when the local director of IRB visits class. But I do know three things:

  • It is possible to put together an IRB approved study where you don’t have to get participant approval if you explain why it wouldn’t be possible to get participant approval and/or where the risk to participants is minimal.
  • If you put together a study where you purposefully deceive subjects (like sending editors and reviewers fake scholarship trying to get them to publish it), then that study is going to be supervised by the IRB board. And if that study potentially embarrasses or humiliates its subjects and thus cause them harm (which, as far as I can tell from what I’ve read, was actually the point of this project), then there’s a good chance the IRB folks would not allow that project to continue.
  • Saying something along the lines of “We didn’t involve the IRB process because they probably wouldn’t have approved anyway” (as they more or less say in this video, actually) is not an acceptable excuse.

I don’t think Boghossian should lose his job. But I do think he should apologize and, if I was in a position of power at Portland State, I’d insist that he go through the IRB training for faculty on that campus.

The Don Rickels approach to campus security

Earlier this week, there were a couple of news stories out about the faculty union at Oakland University (which is about an hour north of here in Rochester Hills, Michigan) buying and distributing hockey pucks to faculty, staff, and students as a defense against an on-campus shooter. I learned about this at nine or ten Thursday night, after a long day and while I was thinking about going to bed. Being a little sleepy and fuzzy-headed, I assumed this was some kind of joke. But no, this is very real.

Then I thought “well, this surly must have been the bone-headed idea of some administrator or campus security person or both.” Nope. The Oakland University faculty union’s executive committee took part in an on-campus active shooter training session, and part of that training is about throwing stuff at a would-be shooter. The Oakland University Chief of Police mentioned hockey pucks as an example.

“We thought ‘yeah, that is something that we can do,'” [Tom Discenna, president of the American Association of University Professors] said. “We can make these available at least to our members and a fair number of students as well.”

So far, the union has spent $2,500 on an initial batch of pucks. Each costs 94 cents to make and they are printed with the union’s logo, Discenna said. They are being distributed for free.

The union began passing out the pucks on Nov. 9. So far, 800 faculty members have them, and another 1,700 are expected to go to students. The university’s student congress has ordered an additional 1,000, he said.

I posted about this on the EMUTalk Facebook group and I was surprised by the number of people who thought this wasn’t a bad idea.  I mean, on the one hand, I suppose this is true: a hockey puck is a good size for throwing and it could definitely do some damage if it connected. (The OU Chief of Police also suggested billiard balls.) A friend/colleague of mine who went through an active shooter training at his synagogue told me that experience made him understand the importance of thinking about strategies for what to do, including fighting back as a last resort. So okay, I guess.

On the other hand, c’mon, really? Have we been so beaten down by the every week or so stories about active shooters that all we do now is shrug and think if I every find ourselves in such a terrible situation, I sure hope I have a nice heavy object to throw? Are we that far away from some version of sensible gun control laws that passing out hockey pucks seems like a pretty solid idea? Thoughts, prayers, pucks? WTF?

I don’t know if this makes things better or worse, but deeply buried in these stories is this:

Separately, the union is hoping the pucks can help bolster a fundraising campaign for interior door locks for university classrooms. Each one has an identification number for voluntary donations to the campaign. The union and student congress each have contributed $5,000 toward that initiative.

That’s the real story– or at least it should be. I’ve never been on campus at Oakland University, but assuming it’s like ever other college campus I’ve been on (including the one where I work), the vast majority of the classrooms do not have doors that can lock, certainly not with the turn of a deadbolt from the inside of the room. And let me tell ya: if there is an active shooter on campus while I’m teaching, the first thing I want is not something hard and dangerous to throw. The first thing I want is a freakin’ lock.

So really, this story about hockey pucks as a defensive distraction against a classroom shooter is actually a clever distraction from the real issue. Universities are not doing enough to make their campuses safe. They certainly aren’t investing in locking doors. If Oakland University (or any university for that matter) was actually serious about making its campus more secure, it’d spend less time promoting the Don Rickels defense and more time on something that might actually work, like a locked door that keeps the shooter on the outside.

Oh yeah, and sensible gun control laws, but I know that’s a fantasy.

 

My recent attempts at social media detoxing/dieting

Who hasn’t thought about ditching their social media accounts? Who hasn’t found themselves wasting way WAY too much time in some kind of nonsense online discussion? And then, in a brief moment of clarity after seemingly hours of fog, who hasn’t thought “this is starting to feel kinda toxic”?

I felt that tipping point a couple weeks ago when something happened on the WPA-L mailing list. I didn’t engage in the discussion there, but I did (rather foolishly) engage in too much of the back-channel conversation on Facebook, ultimately getting into that “why am I doing this toxic thing to myself?” kind of space.

A tangent/some unpopular thoughts about “that conversation” on WPA-L: first, I didn’t think it was so much an example of mansplaining as it was an example of what I described in my dissertation as an “immediate” rhetorical situation, the kind of miscommunication that happens in asynchronous electronic spaces (mailing lists, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) when the understanding of rhetor, audience, and message all become jumbled. I finished my dissertation on 1996, and one of the examples I have in chapter four is from a very similar (though not as gendered) discussion that went off the rails on ACW-L, a now defunct but similar listserv. But of course bringing this up as a possibility of what was going on was impossible. Besides, the conversation turned into one about mansplaining anyway. Second, I think the gender dynamics in composition/rhetoric are extremely complex. This is a field where there are more women than men, and it is a field where women occupy about the same number of positions of power as men in terms of being leaders, important scholars, high profile professors, and so forth. Third, I think the discussion environment on the WPA-L list had been turning kind of bad for a while, maybe because of the rise of other social media platforms, maybe because of something else. I generally don’t agree with the likes of Bill Maher who have complained that college campuses have become too “politically correct” and they can no longer tolerate any sort of divisive speakers or naughty comedians, but it does feel to me like there’s not a whole lot or room to stray too far from the party line on WPA-L anymore. And it also sure feels to me like the general toxicity of the Trump administration has poisoned everything, including what was a generally mild-mannered academic mailing list. We are all being constantly beaten down and made brittle from this disaster of a human who we elected (sort of) president and I am sure it will take us all years to get over this damage– if we ever can ever again feel “right” about trying to engage with people and ideas we don’t agree with. Let me put it this way: I was on WPA-L for a long time (20+ years?), and I do not think this would have happened during either the Obama administration or the Bush II administration.

Anyway, back to the toxicity: I decided I had had enough, and I needed to do something with how I’m engaging (and over-engaging) with social media.

So the first thing I did was sign off of WPA-L, after writing an email that I guess is easy to read as self-serving but I was trying to be sincere in thanking the group for all I learned over the years. Maybe I left too early, maybe I stayed too long (a lot of the backchannel discussion on Facebook consisted of people saying stuff like “oh, I got off of that shit show of a mailing list years ago”), maybe I was part of the problem and it will be better after I’m gone. Though it’s still a public list and easy enough to check in on once in a while.

Then Facebook. I thought briefly about just chucking the whole thing, but I still like it and I feel like I need to keep more than a toe in it because of friends and family, people I know at EMU and in academia, and because I teach a lot of stuff about Facebook and social media. So I went through my “friends” and I decided that my minimal standard for continued Facebook “friendship” was people who I sorta/kinda knew well enough that if I were to run into at a conference or something, I might recognize them and maybe even chat with them in a more or less friendly way. I went from about 650-700 down to about 460.

It was interesting culling that list. I don’t exactly know how the algorithms of who gets listed where on my friend list, but I think it’s people who post most frequently/recently first, and then everyone else in decreasing order of connectivity. I think a lot of my now former Facebook friends abandoned their accounts a while ago, and there were three or four folks on my list who had actually passed away in the last few years. Interestingly, I’m now noticing posts from folks who I hadn’t seen posting in a long time, again I suppose because of how the algorithms for what shows up where in my feed.

For Twitter, I’m kind of doing the opposite: I’m trying to read it a bit more, follow more people, and posting/retweeting more. Don’t get me wrong, I am well aware that Twitter is also kind of a cesspool, but I don’t know, it doesn’t feel quite as contentious? Maybe the brevity of the form, maybe because of who I follow or don’t follow? Maybe it’s because there are so many tweets (I’m following just over 760 tweeters/people/media sources) it feels a lot more like channel surfing than engaging in a discussion? Plus I find more of the links to things more interesting, and a friend of mind told me about realtwitter.com, which (as far as I can tell) shows you real time updates of who I’m following– that is, it apparently skips by Twitter’s rankings and ads.

And Instagram is just fun. Instagram never pisses me off. Maybe I should just be doing Instagram and nothing else.

So we’ll see if this makes things less toxic-feeling. The next step (probably) will be to try to work harder at limiting my time spent in the social media soup.

Semi-annual end of the summer/beginning of the school year resolutions: Time passes, bends, repeats

Thirty years ago this week, (give or take a week or two), I was preparing to teach for the first time as a graduate assistant at Virginia Commonwealth University. I had moved to Richmond in May 1988, shortly after I had graduated from Iowa, and that summer wasn’t exactly great. I could only find work for a few weeks with Clean Water Action, which essentially involved going door to door in various subdivisions within about an hour’s drive from downtown Richmond and asking for donations . Let’s just say the premise of the operation seemed sketchy, the money was poor, I turned out to be not very good at canvasing, and I ate a lot of Cheerios that summer– though fortunately, my old friends Troy and Lisa had actually moved to Richmond too and they fed and entertained me once in a while. In any event, some time in August that summer, I was probably in a workshop for new teaching assistants.

Twenty years ago this week, (give or take a week or two), I was preparing for teaching and work at my second (and presumably final) tenure-track position at Eastern Michigan University. Annette and I left Ashland, Oregon where I had been an assistant professor for two years at Southern Oregon University. People in Ashland thought we were crazy to be moving to Michigan because Ashland and that whole area of Oregon is stunningly beautiful. But there is no way Annette would have ever gotten a tenure-track job at SOU, there are no other universities or colleges within 100 miles of there, and truth be told, SOU was (and still kind of is as I understand it) a basket case of an institution. So in the late summer of 1998, we hired a couple of dudes to do most of the loading up of a U-Haul truck we drove east for four or five days with Will (not yet a year old) in a car seat between us while we sang round after round of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” to keep him from being fussy. In any event, I was probably in some kind of faculty orientation thing some time in late August, a session where I remember meeting my fellow cohort hires, Annette Saddik and Jim Knapp, and where I spent a day I will never get back being “orientated” and learning about insurance. As I understand it, the new faculty orientation has expanded  to almost a week of these meetings.

And now here we are once again with another new (school) year’s resolution(s) sort of post. Time flies and repeats and bends. I visited Richmond (and my friend Dennis Danvers) for a day back in late May and had a lovely trip down memory lane, driving by old apartments and seeing the many ways VCU’s campus has changed. Troy and Lisa (saw them back in March) are now in Brooklyn, and before that they were in Chicago for almost 20 years (with a “stop” in-between for a year in California). I hear once in a while from people who were at SOU, but not much. Annette Saddik and Jim Knapp both left EMU a long time ago. Annette (as in my wife, not Saddik) has been a tenured professor in the department for a while now, and Will is starting his senior year of college with an eye toward PhD programs.

As I’ve written about previously, EMU is in the midst of what I will charitably call “challenges,” a combination of self-inflicted dumb administrative decisions, changing regional demographics impacting enrollments, and a lot of other problems happening all over the U.S. at similar universities. This is a time at EMU where faculty who are able move on to other positions at other universities ought to seriously think about doing so, or where faculty who can’t move on should have a strategy for riding out the storm.

I am in the latter category– not that that’s a bad thing.

I mean, the grass might be greener elsewhere (or it might not be), but Annette and I both have tenured positions and we live in a lovely community. I can’t complain about that. This fall, I’m not involved in any quasi-administrative duties for the first time since 2011, and I am looking forward to being “retired” from that work to focus more on teaching. I’m especially excited about the section of first year writing I’m going to teach where I’m planning on using as Bruce McComiskey’s Post-Truth Rhetoric and Composition and where students will research something in the theme(s) of post-truth and fake news. It’s the most politically charged version of the course I’ve ever taught, but at this stage of my career, I think I can handle/navigate it, and I think McComiskey makes a pretty compelling argument about how we live in a time where teaching students about this is incredibly important. So wish me luck on that front.

Scholarship-wise, I’m beginning the last stages of a book about MOOCs I’ve been working on pretty much since Invasion of the MOOCs. It’s revised title is More than a Moment: Contextualizing the Past, Present, and Future of MOOCs, it’s being published by Utah State University Press/University of Colorado Press, and it should come out some time in 2019. Knocking on wooden things. I had said before that this might very well be my last “hurrah” as far as scholarly writing goes because I want to take a turn toward the more “mainstream” in terms of trying to write and publish more commentary pieces (like this one from Inside Higher Ed from March), and/or some more “popular” non-fiction or even fiction. Then again, I am also going to start putting together the paperwork/legwork for a different project that has the working (and in my head) title “Classroom Laptop Bans are Bullshit.” Plus, with what seems to be an increasing number of proclamations that blogging is “over,” this might actually be the right time to research them again. Stay tuned.

Otherwise, my new school year resolutions are similar to the ones I had last year:

  • Finish the book. Well, “finish.” There will still be production issues and copy editing and indexing and who knows what else, which is to say that the book won’t really be done until it is actually produced. But you know what I mean.
  • Go to the gym more (and generally try to diet, exercise, be healthy, blah-blah-blah).
  • Let it go/stay out of it/unplug from it/let others take it over.
  • Start enough of some new projects so that I can apply for summer and/or fall research support.
  • Blog more, which I realize is at odds with the “blogs are dead now” trend and all of that. But just like everyone else I know, I’m increasingly disillusioned with social media, and I kind of liked when I was blogging “reviews” of scholarly things I had read, in part because it often feels like there is a whole lot more attention spent on making scholarship rather than consuming it/reading it.

Two Thoughts on “Volunteer Faculty”

It must be after the end of the school year because why else would I have the time and/or motivation to write not one but two blog posts in less than one week! In any event:

Just the other day, an associate dean of some sort at Southern Illinois University–Carbondale sent around an email to department heads (available in full in a variety of places, including here on the blog School of Doubt and also via “The Professor is In” Karen Kelsky’s Facebook page) floating the idea of “voluntary” adjuncts to help do some various kinds of academic work for free. Supposedly, this came from the SIUC alumni association, and the renewable “zero-time adjunct graduate faculty appointments” to do stuff like:

…service on graduate student thesis committees, teaching specific graduate or undergraduate lectures in one’s area of expertise, service on departmental or university committees, and collaborations on grant proposals and research projects. Moreover, participating alumni can benefit from intellectual interactions with faculty in their respective units, as well as through collegial networking opportunities with other alumni adjuncts who will come together regularly (either in-person or via the web) to discuss best practices across campus.

I have to say my first reaction to this was “this must be a joke and/or hoax,” because it kind of had the markers of “fake news:” an outlandish story that is also very easy for people to believe, especially people who are already upset about the decrease in tenure-track positions and the rise of increasingly bad part-time adjunct positions. But it was/is real, though, as SIUC tries to clarify here, it’s an experiment not meant to replace teaching faculty and all that.

Needless to say, the response from academics who actually have to get paid to do work was not positive. I think John Warner exaggerates more than a tad when he suggests that we should mark April 24, 2018 as “the day public higher education was lost,” but I get his point. The mere suggestion that the work that faculty (both on and off the tenure track) do can be done as well by eager volunteers was enough to piss a lot of academic-types off, and with some justification. I do this work because I love it, but I’m not a volunteer.

So, toward that end (especially for readers who have already read and thought about these SIUC statements and reactions like Warner’s), I thought I’d offer two somewhat related thoughts:

First here’s an overly optimistic, generous, and forgiving reading of this call for “0% adjuncts”  (and I freely admit this is probably too optimistic, generous, and forgiving). Maybe what the SIUC administration was trying to do was to systematize a way for qualified alumni to “give back” to SIUC, and to do so in a fashion that gives these alum credit for their volunteering. So, let’s say that I had a PhD from SIUC and for whatever reason, I was interested in/being recruited to be on a couple of dissertation committees for current students. I guess if I was a 0% adjunct faculty member, I could then do that. Maybe?

Now, I don’t really know why SIUC needs to go through this rig-a-ma-roll. I mean, I’ve been a reader on a dissertation for another university and I didn’t have to do any kind of appointment gymnastics; maybe it’s different at SIUC. Maybe there are some alumni in some departments who perceive this as perhaps helping them in their current positions and/or to find better positions. But again, I don’t really know.

As a slight and related tangent though, faculty do end up working for “0%” on a lot of different things. People who do review work for journals generally do not get paid for that labor, and people who review books before publication don’t usually get paid very much (if at all). I’ve been paid before to do tenure reviews, and I have agreed to do one this summer for free as a favor. So extending the invitation for this kind of volunteer work to alumni serving on various committees is perhaps a misplaced reading of the next logical step.

Also related (and overly generous and forgiving on my part): perhaps the goal here is to go back to the work adjunct faculty are supposed to be doing. I think in an ideal world, all adjunct faculty in all fields would be professionally active in whatever they do and they would teach a course or two at a university mostly as a way of “giving back” to the profession and the institution. I have a friend of mine who has been a journalist for several decades and he teaches a bit part-time about reporting, and I think this is his view of the value of this work. I am imagining a scenario where a doctor or a lawyer or a similar professional teaches a course at the university, again to give back and to share their “real world” expertise.

Of course, this is not what most adjuncts are now.

Second, I am reminded of the advice I have heard about freelancing: never work for free. I’ve never made any real money freelance writing (though one of my goals in the next few years is to try to make as much money freelancing as I used to make teaching in the summer; we’ll see what happens). But one of the main pieces of advice I’ve read/heard from freelancers is you should not ever agree to work for free. Here’s a long piece about by Yasmin Nair from a few years ago, pointing out that some big organizations (like HuffPo) only pay (at least some) of their freelancers with “exposure.” Maybe that’s useful if you’re just starting out or if you have a message you want to get out to the world; but otherwise, it’s not worth it. And it’s especially not worth writing for free for entities/publications that make money in part by not paying for content.

Now, I think this is easier said than done in a couple of different ways. For one thing and as I already mentioned, academics do a lot of work not necessarily “for free” but for little or no compensation. If we stopped doing not directly (or poorly) compensated work like writing articles, writing books, giving conference presentations, reviewing for journals, editing journals with minimal resources, reviewing tenure cases, sitting on dissertation committees, and so forth– the wheels of the academic machine would grind to a halt.

For another thing, what am I doing right now? I’m not getting paid for this. It’s worth it to me because I write in this space to get stuff out of my head and (potentially) out to interested readers, and there have been many things I have been able to do– some of which even paid me!– as a result of the writing I do here. The same goes for the book I’m working on right now: I’m never going to make any real money from it– at least not directly. But besides personal satisfaction and another item to put into my (already full) tenure and promotion basket, maybe this work will lead to some other opportunities, some of which might actually translate to compensation or even money.

So I’m not saying that there are no reasons to work “for free” in academia, and the line between working for free and not is a lot more fuzzy than whether or not a check is in the mail for that work. Nor am I suggesting that this ham-fisted proposal for 0% adjuncts ought to be read as just “normal business” because it is clearly not that. But I am saying that the conditions and practices of academics doing work for free (or at least not for money) was not invented by this odd email.

What’s even more sad is I am quite sure that there are SIUC alumni with terminal degrees who are so desperate to do something– anything!– to find some way into an academic position, and that includes signing up to be a 0% adjunct.

Miscellaneous End of School Year Blog Post

I haven’t been writing here much lately (obviously). A lot of it has been I’ve been busy. A lot of it has been because I’ve had nothing I wanted to say– at least not here. A lot of it has been intensity of the school year.

The year started before the fall semester with me meditating over the realization (as the result of a “salary adjustment” promotion I earned after being a full professor for ten years) that I’m both getting old and I’m in all likelihood “stuck” at EMU. Also before fall got going, my former department head cancelled a graduate class in the writing program I was coordinating without bothering to tell me. Then this same department head took a different administrative position at EMU, further kicking up the mess of naming an interim department head, someone who is doing a decent enough job but who might also be “interim” for years and years. The faculty union and EMU administration continue to be embattled over various arguments, and, without going too deep into the weeds, I ended up to once again spending too much time trying to argue for courses counting as four credits rather than three, and increasingly, this all feels like it’s all going to shake out in a year or two so that we’re more or less still teaching a 3-3 schedule, which means that all of the arguing about this for the last two or three years will have just been a giant waste of time. My colleague and friend, Derek Mueller, is taking a new job at Virginia Tech, a career move that probably makes sense for him, but a move that will certainly leave a hole for those of us who remain, a hole that will probably take years to fill. More or less out of nowhere, the EMU administration announced in January budget cuts and staff layoffs, including of one of my department’s secretaries, a woman who had been at EMU for around 20 years. The administration also cut a few sports to save money, though there is some debate as to whether or not those savings will be realized, and, of course, the big sports remain untouched. Meanwhile, EMU hired a couple more assistant football coaches, presumably entry-level sports coaching positions that pay more than I make after 20 years and after a “salary adjustment” promotion I earned after being a full professor for the last decade. Oh, and EMU also sold its parking rights to a company with weird agreements in a variety of states, and the money that EMU has earned from this deal (I guess around $50 million?) is likely to be used in large part as collateral to borrow even more money to build sports facilities. I wasn’t teaching in the fall (more on that in a second) and I began the winter term of teaching more ill-prepared than I have been since I came to EMU, and it was unnerving to say the least. The department politics of the semester more or less concluded in another last crazy meeting of the school year, and my school year concluded without any summer teaching– a class I was scheduled to teach (which I am certain would have run) was cancelled before it could be offered.

So it’s been bad, one of the worse school years of my career, the hardest I can recall since my first year on the tenure-track way back when. On the other hand:

I was on a Faculty Research Fellowship in the fall, an award from EMU that bought me out of teaching. While I used (donated?) too much of my time back to EMU to do the quasi-administrative work of being program coordinator, I did “finish” a draft of a book manuscript about MOOCs (another reason I haven’t been writing as much here in the last year). The reviews came back earlier than expected, and while they did not recommend immediate publication without any changes (I assume that never happens), they did recommend publishing and they made constructive suggestions for the revisions I’m working on right now. Liz Losh’s edited collection on MOOCs came out in fall and I have a chapter in it. I quickly wrote and published a little commentary piece for Inside Higher Ed, “Why I Teach Online (Even Though I Don’t Have To),” which even includes a staged photo of me “teaching” “online” while wearing my bathrobe. The only downside to that piece is IHE has still not paid me, nor have they ever specified how much they’re going to pay me. Hmm. Despite a chaotic start, my teaching turned out well enough, I think. I tried to pull off an experiment of a collaborative writing assignment in the online version of Writing for the Web that ultimately (I think, at least) turned out to be not entirely successful but kind of interesting. Among other things, it resulted in this collection of readings and annotations from my students about social media. It is rough rough work, but I did learn a lot about what to do (or not do) the next time I try an assignment like this, and there is a lot here that will be useful for teaching next year. And as an important tangent: one of the things that’s really nice about being an increasingly old fart a senior and seasoned professor is I can try assignments like this and not really have to worry about what the student evaluations might mean to someone or my Rate My Professor ratings or whatever. I can get away with making things “break,” I can be a lot more honest with students now than when I started, and I also know better how to fix things when they break. So I have that going for me.

And just like that, I’m officially done with EMU things until late August (though of course I’m not really done). I would prefer to be teaching starting in May because, well, money. But I have to admit I do like the free time.

The first job (really, the only job) for the next month or so is to finish the revisions on the MOOC book, though I should probably say “finish.” I was talking with my father a couple weekends ago about nothing in particular and I mentioned I needed to finish my book, and he said “didn’t you say you finished that back in December?” I realized that yes, I had finished a draft, but now there is “finished” the revisions, and there will almost certainly be another stage of “finished” after the reviews on the revisions come back that will involve copyediting and Chicago Style (shudder) and indexing and…. Anyway, it really won’t be finished finished until it comes out in print, and that could be a while.

But once that gets off my desk, then I want to turn to other things. I had been saying for a long time that this MOOC book is the last scholarly bit of writing that I might ever do because I want to try to pivot to writing more “popular” things that people might actually read (commentaries on stuff I know about but for the mainstream press, maybe something pitched to a more popular audience, maybe something like the work Steven Johnson has done for years) and/or fiction (which I am under no illusions will find much of an audience) and/or more blogging. Derek and I were just talking about this the other day, that maybe it’s time to go back. Maybe blogging again– as opposed to just posting stuff on Facebook or Twitter or whatever other platform– is like the internet version of a new interest in vinyl.

Some things I haven’t heard reported (yet) about arming teachers and professors

Of course arming teachers is a terrible idea. This is mainly a crazy plan focused on K-12 schools, but there have been shootings on university campuses and talk of arming faculty-types too. So here are a few random thoughts I haven’t seen reported/discussed elsewhere yet I thought I’d share:

  • Here I thought being an academic was the least stressful job there is precisely because they didn’t have the life and death stresses of people who really do need to carry a weapon for their work, jobs like cops and soldiers. Oh, and as if there weren’t enough other reasons why young people are deciding that going into K-12 teaching is a bad idea.
  • There were a few stories after the Parkland shooting of teachers and other “grown ups” fleeing the scene ahead of students, and these stories had a bit of a whiff of “look at those cowards.” I have no idea what I would do in a shooter situation and I hope to never find out, but I have a lot of sympathy for those fleeing teachers. I love and care for my students, but not so much that I’m willing to “take a bullet” for them.
  • It is easy to imagine the headlines in a world with armed teachers. “Professor/Teacher Accidentally shots self (or co-worker or student).” “Armed Teacher Surprised and Attacked by Angry Student; 10 killed.” “Angry Professor Snaps, Shoots Administrator.” And so forth.
  • And the lawsuits, my God, the lawsuits! Suppose a legally armed teacher– one who is encouraged or even required to carry a concealed weapon by her school or university– were to accidentally shoot an innocent student. Suppose an armed teacher or professor fails in protecting bystanders from a shooting, either because he tried to use their gun and missed or shot a student, or because he just ran for cover like a sane person would. Who is suing who?
  • Is this all some sort of long-con plan by the educational technology industry, maybe with some help from some social media start-ups? I mean, one “solution” to the dangers that exist at schools and universities from guns and other violence is online courses, and when everything is online, why do we need those pesky teachers and professors? Does Academic Partnerships have any connection with the NRA?
  •  I don’t think Trump’s “plan” (which I guess he says wasn’t really his plan either) to train teachers to shoot would-be attackers is going anywhere. While the energy and passion we’re seeing in the media from high school students speaking up for sensible gun control laws gives me some optimism, I don’t think that’s going anywhere either– at least not until it’s time to vote, and we all have a way of forgetting these shootings that only make the news when they get into double-digits.
  • But if faculty were encouraged or required to be armed and if there was an increased expectation that the work of educators includes the kinds of duties assigned to cops or soldiers, then I’m out. I’m all for making the university a “safe space,” but I am not willing to risk my life to do that.