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I am, as many of the comments on my blog posts enjoy reminding me, a nobody when it comes to academia. My blog here is meaningless when it comes to academia. I teach off the tenure-track at a university people only vaguely know in part because we upset Louisville in basketball a few years ago. I write in English about authors who write in French. My PhD is old and out-of-date.

I get it.

But, here’s the thing. We make up the majority of academics. Most tenured and tenure-track academics work in anonymous, teaching-intensive, regional institutions, like mine, or community colleges. Same goes for the adjunct and non-tenure-track faculty, who make up an even bigger majority. We make higher education in this country run. We also bear the brunt of the abuse that is heaped onto higher education when it comes to anything from budget cuts to eviscerations in the media. 

We care about educating students. If we didn’t care about our students, most of us wouldn’t be in academia. Most of us don’t have access to research funds to buy out our teaching, TAs, generous course releases, or low teaching loads. Most of us aren’t making six-figure salaries, either. We did not get into academia to get rich, but it would be nice if we could maintain a decent standard of living, especially considering the level of debt many of us graduated with.

We also care about research. If we didn’t care about our research and our subject, we wouldn’t have completed graduate degrees and chosen to stay in higher education. True most of us will never write a paradigm-shifting book or the seminal piece of our generation on our subject matter (almost by definition only a few academics ever will), but we stay current, come up with new ideas, and present and publish as much as our heavy teaching loads and meager budgets allow.

My back gets up when we are accused of being “selfish” as this piece asserts. Never mind that what the author is proposing in the final paragraph is not a MOOC, but a very selective, closed-off distance learning program that only includes students who are already accepted and have access to “elite” educations, including all of the amenities that come with them. The current MOOC movement is premised on the paternalistic notion that the “elites” and the venture capitalists know what’s best for the rest of us, students and faculty alike.

I think we should be willing to give faculty at institutions the benefit of the doubt that they know what’s best for their particular student populations. As put by Susan Amussen of the University of California and Allyson Poska of the University of Mary Washington:

Now, it is true that the most “prominent” scholars tend to teach at the most “prominent” universities, but the skills of teaching are widely distributed – and the difficult job market of the last thirty years has ensured that there are outstanding scholars at many colleges and universities around the country. Indeed, those who teach students who arrive at college or university with less preparation have often spent more time honing their pedagogical skills in order to engage their students and address the challenges that their diverse backgrounds, socio-economic levels, and intellectual strengths present.

(Irene Ogrizek does a wonderful job comparing the current MOOC madness to the Big Pharma madness that infected academia in the 1990s and is where I found the above quote.)

I have taught at an HBCU, a Hispanic-serving institution, and now a rural institution with a primarily white student population. All of these school served what we tend to blanket as “non-traditional” college students (first-generation, lower-socioeconomic status, POC, etc). But each student population was different. I taught Freshman Writing at all three of the institutions, but I would have been a very poor teacher and pedagogue if I had just taught the exact same class each time at each school to each different student population. I learned very quickly, even from my experience teaching as a PhD student at an R1 institution, that I was going to have to adapt.

I am admittedly worried about my job, because of the trickle-down effect MOOCs are appearing to be having, with state governments using it as an excuse to cut further funding from the institutions that serve the most vulnerable students. But I also know that my working conditions are student learning conditions. I am equally, if not more fearful for my students, or the kids who are currently starting middle-school and high school, my future never-to-be students. A video from Harvard doesn’t understand the cultural and socioeconomic differences between students at a variety of institutions.

If I appear to be acting out of self-interest, either through my skepticism about MOOCs or my complaints about inequities, it is because academia has taught me over the years now that it really doesn’t care about me and, as an extension, the students it supposedly serves.

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