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Here, there and everywhere, I have been hard on the spate of “education disrupted” books that cropped up during the early to middle part of the previous decade.

I’m talking about books such as DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education by Anya Kamenetz, The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education From the Inside Out by Clayton Christensen and Henry J. Eyring, College Unbound: The Future of Higher Education by Jeffrey Selingo, and Kevin Carey’s The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere.

There are numerous others. These are the ones that were written in good faith by people who had a genuine interest in the educational mission of higher ed, rather than trying to use higher ed as a vehicle for funneling vast sums of public money into private hands, or to simply kill a sector that they see as hostile to their political project.

My criticism was rooted in a couple of core differences.

First, and perhaps most important, was I had an overwhelming belief that a core shared thesis underpinning these books—that there was a technical revolution coming to fundamentally change teaching and learning—was very obviously incorrect.

Because of my front-line experience teaching the kinds of gen ed courses that still make up a significant portion of the undergraduate experience, and the exact courses that would need to be disrupted if higher education was going to change, I knew that MOOCs and so-called personalized learning were not going to prove an acceptable alternative to traditional instruction without also defining down what should qualify as a college credential.

(The defining down of the credential to meet what the technology was capable of was actually my deepest fear, having seen how the defining down of what makes for proficient writing into the five-paragraph essay destroyed writing instruction.)

My other chief objection was rooted in my dispositional conservatism and my belief that the institutions of colleges and universities as collective enterprises are in and of themselves important for reasons beyond their role as conveyors of credentials. They are what Cecilia Orphan and Kevin McClure call in a recent article in Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, “anchor institutions,” which act as hubs of employment, activity and economic opportunity for the people living in the community.

As I argue in my book, Sustainable. Resilient. Free.: The Future of Public Higher Education, education is properly viewed as “infrastructure,” rather than merely a consumer good. Even if some disruptive technology appeared that provided a good-enough alternative to the current system when it comes to the credentialing function of postsecondary institutions, we should be very cautious about what would be lost should these institutions cease to exist.

I have been somewhat heartened by the recognition of many following the period of COVID isolation that these institutions are perhaps more important than we gave them credit for and are indeed worth preserving and even enhancing. Whether or not we achieve that is an open question, but one hears much less about disruption and higher education these days.

A clear subtext of all of those books was essentially, given that these institutions are not going to change, what else could arise that preserves the educational mission without bringing all the baggage?

But that baggage—the decentralization, the principles of faculty autonomy, the high bar for change—is a significant part of what makes higher education institutions so important and enduring. That baggage is what prevents some really disastrous things from happening, such as the 2012 example at the University of Virginia, when a panicky Board of Visitors dismissed university president Teresa Sullivan because some members of the board felt Sullivan was too slow to jump on the online education/MOOC bandwagon that was pulling out of the station with Harvard and Stanford in the lead. The board specifically cited Sullivan’s “perceived reluctance to approach the school with the bottom-line mentality of a corporate chief executive.”

Pushback from the faculty and broader university community led to the reinstatement of Sullivan, who ended up serving through 2018, guiding the institution through a successful revamp of their general education curriculum that was fully enacted just after the end of her tenure.

While I believe my criticisms of those books have proven well founded, there is one area where I have grown more sympathetic to the big-picture critique of higher ed as institutions that are too hidebound and should indeed consider embracing some methods that may look more like “business” than “academia.”

Don’t get me wrong—the core thesis of Sustainable. Resilient. Free. argues that institutions should be significantly less business/operations oriented around the drive to realize tuition revenue, and much more focused on the mission of teaching and learning. I’m not here to argue that colleges and universities should be run like a business, because that’s what’s already happening, to their detriment.[1]

But … if we reorient the business of institutions away from revenue generation, and towards the mission, we can see some areas where a more businesslike approach would do some good.

One of those areas that could stand to embrace a more businesslike/entrepreneurial spirit is in teaching and learning, where the pace at which (good) businesses can move, and the mechanisms (good) businesses[2]have for identifying and advancing talent and delivering resources to support that talent, are superior to academia.

Let’s start with the later question about identifying talent and providing those laborers the resources to continue to do their best work and innovate.

When we’re talking about teaching and learning, academia could hardly be worse in terms of its structure and practices. As we know, the guild structure of admission to the academy has almost no relationship to the quality of teaching and learning, and with the increasing adjunctification of faculty, has created an arbitrary divide between faculty who have access to the material resources (like time and compensation) that allow for this important labor to be prioritized, and those who don’t. Even worse—yes, it gets worse—those who do have the resources to dedicate to effective and innovative teaching are not judged on the quality of that work.

It gets even worser than worse. In positions where teaching and learning is meant to be the focus of the labor, many institutions deliberately engage in a practice of “churning” the faculty. Consider just about every “visiting” position in the country, or Harvard’s truly mind-boggling practice of limiting their non-tenure-track lecturers/fellows/et al. to a maximum of eight years of employment.

As James Rushing Daniel writes at the Chronicle, “Scholars who reach that threshold, regardless of teaching performance or scholarly achievement, are ineligible for renewal.”

Under the “logic” of business of academic institutions, this makes sense, as leaving positions vulnerable to churn gives schools budgetary flexibility.

But from the perspective of corporate business practices, it is nonsensical to have a standard policy to jettison your most experienced and skilled employees once they’ve hit an arbitrary mark on a calendar.

The labor structures of academia combine the worst of all worlds.

The practice of teaching and learning inside academia is also hindered by not being sufficiently businesslike. This point was driven home to me by Robert Talbert on Twitter, earlier this week.

He wrote, “Higher ed needs to treat teaching innovations like (good) businesses treat innovations: Talk to users, build/deploy a minimum usable product, then iterate. Collect data and adjust on the way. But don’t wait for a critical mass to get started.”

Reading Talbert’s remark, I was struck by an irony that this is actually how I was able to run my own courses, as a continuous, semester-to-semester experiment in improving my pedagogical practices, primarily because I stood outside the academic guild as a non-tenure-track instructor.

Modesty thrown out the window, the pedagogy embodied in The Writer’s Practice is a superior approach to teaching writing than any other resource I encountered in the entirety of my nearly 20-year teaching career. The pedagogy is further improved when employed by an instructor who has the freedom to alter and adapt the material to their student constituency.

If I was in the academic guild, I know I could design a study that would satisfy peer-review parameters and demonstrate the efficacy of the approach, and had I not been one of the casualties of churn, I might be doing exactly that.[3]

But to Talbert’s point, this should not be necessary, nor in the realm of teaching and learning is it desirable. In another tweet in the same stream of thought, he says, “I think people in higher ed, mostly coming from scholarly backgrounds, are hesitant to do or saying anything until there’s a comprehensive lit review and several published studies validating it. That’s OK in some spheres but it’s way too cautious for teaching” (emphasis mine).

I know that my writing pedagogy works for me, and it works for others who come from a similar place in terms of underlying values. That peer-reviewed study I could do in theory is not necessary when the proof of efficacy is right in front of my face in terms of the work students produce and what they articulate about their own experiences.

Anyway, it’s frustrating. There’s tremendous energy around innovations in teaching these days, but that energy is tamped down by the academic atmosphere it inhabits.

That said, when it comes to how higher education operates, if I had to choose between the binaries of a business culture of “move fast and break things,” and the much slower-to-change nature of status quo academia, I would hold on to the status quo.

I’m just not sure why we have to choose from those binaries when we know other possibilities exist in the world. Many instructors are defying the constrictions in order to do great, innovative work—Robert Talbert among them.

How do we create an academic structure that elevates and disseminates these ideas for the benefit of students?

[1] The problem is that the business (tuition revenue) is incongruent with the mission (teaching and learning). These things are at constant war.

[2] Let me emphasize the “good” part of good businesses here. I’m well aware of the damage that businesses do to their laborers in the name of profit, but good, sustainable businesses do exist. I’m talking about the differences in structure in how these issues are handed in academia versus business.

[3] I know almost exactly what it would look like, as a matter of fact.

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