Essay on whether online education will make professors obsolete

When’s the last time an ice deliveryman visited your home? Have you ever talked to a telephone switchboard operator? Thanks to new technologies, these once-common occupations passed into history many years ago now. Bank tellers and travel agents are not completely obsolete, but substantially fewer people are employed in these lines of work than in the past for similar reasons.

Will new developments in Internet-based communications technology do similar things to college professors? Perhaps people like me will face the same trouble finding employment that newspaper reporters or piano tuners face nowadays. Or perhaps MOOCs will eliminate the need for professors almost entirely, allowing students to flock to courses offered by a smattering of "super-professors" while computers, graduate students and adjuncts do all the grading that once occupied so much of an analog instructor’s time.

I don’t know whether the Internet will make college professors obsolete, but then again nobody else does, either. Yet this fact has not prevented the rise of a cottage industry of pundits who gleefully suggest that faculty in every department of the modern university are somehow headed for the scrap heap. Some of these pundits seem to welcome that possibility because they expect that the cost of a college education will decrease with fewer professors collecting what they perceive to be hefty salaries, and they think that’s good for society. Some of these people seem to welcome this possibility because they just hate college professors. We are perceived as elitists, and everybody likes to watch elitists get their comeuppance, except the elitists themselves.

While countless people try to predict the future of higher education based on the technologies of the present, less interest exists about the effect of all these predictions on higher education today. While reading the online educational technology press for the sake of my blog, I sometimes feel like that old man in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" who has to tell the guy clearing out the bodies of plague victims that he’s not dead yet.

To my mind, this feeling is no accident. As the saga surrounding Teresa Sullivan’s presidency at the University of Virginia has clearly demonstrated, faculty are capable of mounting fierce resistance to unwanted technological changes under the right circumstances. The e-mails leading up to Sullivan’s initial firing demonstrate that U.Va.'s Board of Visitors was steeped in press clippings that treated the transition to online education as an inevitability. That attitude goes a long way toward explaining the board’s now legendary heavy-handedness. They wanted to ride the crest of a wave that supposedly well-informed people were all telling them is already coming.

For technology companies that stand to profit by disrupting higher education, treating the transition to an online future as a fait accompli serves as a very effective business strategy. By continually reinforcing the idea that traditional higher education is way behind the times, they gather public support for costly online initiatives that might not otherwise go forward.  Equally importantly, this kind of rhetoric infects faculty with a sense of learned helplessness. Why try to fight the inevitable when we have so much else to worry about in our busy lives already?

Personally, I go back and forth between optimism and despair about the future of my profession. Sometimes I think that enough support exists on enough campuses that the kind of teaching I do now will persist well past my retirement because students will still value the personal touch that proximity makes possible. Sometimes I feel like I’m living inside of Frank Donoghue’s higher education classic, The Last Professors. Donoghue’s primary concern in that book was the corporate culture of the modern university. The jargon employed by U.Va. board members suggests how well the maturation of online education complements the destruction of traditions caused by that ideology in other aspects of campus life.

Perhaps my somewhat schizophrenic attitude toward the possibility of my own obsolescence comes from the fact that whether the Internet makes college professors a thing of the past doesn’t depend upon the professoriate. It depends upon students, and to an equal extent it depends upon society at large.

Nobody can dispute that online education has advanced far enough that it is now possible to learn a wide range of subjects at home in your pajamas through your computer. The question is whether this kind of learning will be acceptable to most students in the future, and perhaps more importantly whether it will be acceptable to the people who’ll employ them. I used to think that someone on the other end of a computer screen could never teach history as well as I can in person. I still think that’s true, but as Clayton Christensen has argued, an online education doesn’t have to be superior to the status quo in order to make my current job obsolete. The bad can drive out the good under certain circumstances, such as when the price of the higher-quality product is too expensive for most consumers to afford it.

Whether you’re an enthusiastic booster of online education or an informed skeptic like me, there is no question that faculty need to understand developments in the educational technology industry, if for no other reason than for their own self-preservation. If transformational change is indeed inevitable, faculty should assert their prerogative as teachers in order to make sure that the quality of higher education is not seriously degraded by this metamorphosis. By doing so, maybe they can carve out a place for themselves in a more efficient future. If transformational change is not inevitable, then for heaven’s sake don’t let the vultures who want to profit from picking at the corpse that was once your career destroy it without a fight.

I can tell you from personal experience that following developments in educational technology can be thoroughly exhausting. I’m sure plenty of you who’ve tried it yourselves would prefer to never encounter the word MOOC again in your entire lives. However, living in ignorance is probably the worst thing you could do. No matter how the Internet impacts higher education, we faculty need to play a role in the debate over its strengths and weaknesses for the sake of our students. If we happen to save our own jobs in the process of doing so, then that’s all for the better.

Jonathan Rees is professor of history at Colorado State University at Pueblo. He blogs about educational technology, labor issues and American history at More or Less Bunk. His book, Industrialization and the Transformation of American Life: A Brief Introduction will be released in September by M.E. Sharpe.


Essay on faculty fashion

Writing a column on faculty fashion is no small task. Indeed, the first thought that comes to mind is, "Faculty fashion? Isn’t that an oxymoron?"

It’s no secret that faculty members are famous for dressing poorly, outlandishly or, even at their best, in styles that lost popularity a decade or two or even more ago (the length of that time lag is dependent primarily on the year the professor in question entered graduate school). What is it about academia that seemingly produces an inability to pay attention to dress and hair styles — styles that are a ubiquitous presence in the media and our daily encounters with normal people? Does graduate school somehow produce the superpower of resisting the conformity pressures of society? Or, as we like to say in the social sciences, perhaps this really is the result of a selection effect: academia doesn’t produce the fashion faux pas tendency; rather, people with a stunted sense of style are somehow inordinately drawn to the profession of teaching and research.

My favorite explanation: Perhaps we just aren’t paying these people enough and so they have to continue wearing the subsistence sweatshirts from their grad school days.

Really, I don’t think it’s any of these — and particularly not because they can’t afford a trip to Hermès, Gucci or at least T.J. Maxx or the outlet mall. These people, contrary to what a casual observer might infer, are making conscious choices about what they wear, and those choices are intended to convey something. Now they might be mistaken about what message the viewer of their outfits receives, but we are all, professors included, constantly and purposely sending messages to others through the way we present ourselves.

What message might academics be trying to send when they flout the dictates of fashion and good taste, and ignore the color-clash pain they inflict on others? Well, it flows from the same reason we drive beat-up cars (rust-buckets that are still only automobiles in the academic sense) and refuse to edge our lawns. These choices are rarely driven by financial necessity, but rather because we take some kind of perverse pleasure in conspicuously displaying our disinterest in the material world. We wish to demonstrate that we just don’t care about these kinds of mundane trappings because we are so engrossed in the ethereal, all-consuming life of the mind.

Ah, it’s a lovely image, isn’t it? So taken with our own deep thoughts, we don’t even notice that our pants haven’t fit for 10 years, our belts don’t match our shoes, our collars aren’t buttoned down and maybe even that our shirts are inside-out. As long as we don’t get arrested for indecent exposure, well, then, that’s just good enough. The slobs, in fact, sometimes look down their noses at those who do dress more fashionably, as if to say that anyone who actually coordinates their shirt, pants and socks couldn’t possibly be very serious about their scholarly work.

Now that I’m spending more time doing administrative activities, I’ve encountered a different set of messages sent by clothing choices: Efficiency and formality conveyed by the suit — an industrious and hardworking demeanor reinforced when we take off the blazer and roll up our shirt sleeves, and, my favorite, the loosened-tie look that seems to say, “I had to dress up for something important today, but it wasn’t you!”

The question, though, is whether the messages sent are in fact the ones received. I'm afraid in the case of university faculty (who, it has been proven, can be pretty clueless about social interaction and norms) this often is not the case. It won’t surprise anyone to hear that students are considerably more fashion-conscious than their teachers. And believe me, they notice what you are wearing. I’ve heard many a snarky observation by students traipsing out of other people's classes and have even had comments written on my teaching evaluations about how that student's other professors dress! (Really, the half-page tirade I once received about some misguided soul who wore the same outfit — a red sweater and black slacks — to class every day was something to behold.)

Their reaction, by and large, is not, “Professor Doffsweater must be brilliant!” More likely it’s, “What a schmo” or “Wow, is she out-of-touch.” Or more pointed and problematic, “He doesn’t even care about himself — he clearly can’t give a second thought to me.” One thing is certain: While they are labeling the prof as a dweeb in their heads, they aren’t likely to also be thinking, “This person is just like me; I want to be just like her when I grow up!”

And let’s not leave us administrators out. When we refuse to stoop to even business casual, the message to our colleagues can often be something different than efficiency and industriousness. More likely, distance and inappropriate status display are inferred, neither of which is likely to help produce a genuine or productive interaction.

What to do to correct all of this? We’ve got a long way to go, judging from the sartorial sensibilities displayed at the most recent faculty gathering I attended. But before we call in Joan Rivers to critique what happened last week, ask Professor Blackwell to create a worst- and best-dressed list at the annual President’s Dinner, or create a hot-or-not voting website to accompany course instructor feedback evaluations, we could just start small. Spend a few moments thinking about what kind of reactions might result from the following small set of faculty fashion flops. Then go, and sin no more:

Twenty popular faculty styles **

1. I’m not an Oxford professor, but I play one at Notre Dame.

2. This outfit worked at IBM in 1957, so why not wear it every day?

3. Why tuck in my shirt? I’ll just have to do it again tomorrow.

4. Bow ties say “intellectual,” are not the slightest bit nerdy and, as a bonus, they emphasize my growing midsection.

5. Versace Monday, Armani Wednesday: I’m sure to get a red hot pepper on

6. I don’t have time to iron. I was up all night changing how we understand the fundamental building blocks of the entire universe.

7. That hole burned by 18 molar hydrochloric acid isn’t that bad. Why waste a perfectly functional pair of pants?

8. If you can get it at Sears, it’s still in style.

9. Suspenders and a belt. I teach security studies after all.

10. No one will notice I’m wearing black tennis shoes with this suit.

11. I need those elbow patches. Reading is hard work!

12. Polyester is the new black.

13. My gigantic glasses from 1987 are still in perfectly good shape. I think I’ll just replace the lenses.

14. Peace and love. It’s still the ’60s, isn’t it?

15.This leather jacket will let them know that I’m cool, man... I mean, dude.

16. I’m a low-level administrator, but I really, really, really want to be a high-level administrator.

17. I wanna wear jeans! But I’d better make it formal by adding a blazer.

18. It’s not that dirty. It was on the top of the laundry hamper.

19. My black pants aren’t too short. How else am I going to show off my new white socks?

20.To tweed or not to tweed? That is the question. And the answer is: To tweed!!

**Fictional composites of well-known stereotypes — any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. However, if you resemble one (or more) of these descriptions, you might want to reconsider your fashion choices.

Daniel J. Myers is vice president and associate provost for faculty affairs and a professor of sociology at Notre Dame. This piece appeared first in Notre Dame Magazine.

Essay on why academics need to protect their health

Tyro Tracts

The life of the mind requires a healthy body, writes Nate Kreuter, and there are ways even for frugal graduate students to get medical care.

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Essay on faculty members forced to leave by administrators

I attended a group dinner this May to say goodbye to five faculty members who are leaving the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Four of them are among my closest friends, people with whom my partner and I have maintained professional relationships and socialized with regularly for years.

Of course faculty members lose friends to outside offers, retirement departures, or negative tenure decisions all the time. Sometimes we are able to sustain those relationships at a distance. Inevitably, students we care about leave town every year. And friends die or grow apart. We may not like it when some of these things happen, but, like others throughout academe, we attend these farewell dinners and adjust.

This dinner was different. Our friends this time were leaving under duress. Two took very early retirement. Two took outside offers. They all cited the same reason. They could no longer tolerate working under irrational and malicious administrators. After years of faculty protests being ignored, they were seeking the only relief available to them: getting out of town by any means possible.

For most faculty members, the impossible administrator is usually a department head. I always advise colleagues confronted with an incompetent or destructive head to bide their time. Do not protest too early. Let frustration build to mass discontent. It usually takes three years. Once a dean is confronted by a faculty rebellion against a chair, he or she will feel sufficient political cover to act. Even a dean cannot hold the ground against a campus tsunami.

This time, however, it was not a department head who was the problem. The head in question feels equally beleaguered. The sources of frustration were administrators further up the ladder. One was irrationally and incompetently destructive. One was consistently dishonest. And two were using their administrative positions to carry out personal vendettas. Complaints had been made, and ignored. There was no recourse, no mechanism through which to seek justice. The collective response to their departure interviews: "You’re leaving. You’d say anything." One of these friends who is known to be extremely judicious said this at the dinner about the administrators in question: "They’re rotten to the core."

That is not what he would say about every failed administrator. The University of Illinois just lost a president to a forced resignation. He foolishly squandered his good will and pretty thoroughly alienated the faculty in the system and finally even the Board of Trustees who hired him, but I certainly never considered him a monster. But universities do have monsters in high places. At a local American Association of University Professors chapter meeting this month it was acknowledged that our failed president was hardly the most wantonly destructive administrator. Yet the faculty members who gave formal presentations
pronounced shared governance alive and well on campus, and advocated greater collegiality — rather than structural change -- as the way to strengthen and maintain cooperative bonds among faculty, administrators, and the board. How many careers have to be damaged or ended by rogue administrators before faculty members will admit broader reforms are needed?

Toward the administrators who were an invisible presence at our dinner, faculty discontent has a long history. But nothing comes of it. The university administration’s daily functioning is grounded in both line authority and line loyalty along the administrative chain of command. Administrators will not challenge that protocol unless they feel they have no choice. With administrators who hand out rewards to select faculty, universal rebellion rarely coalesces, though in some of the examples I am referencing it has come pretty close.

Can anything be done? Under collective bargaining faculty usually have stronger grievance procedures and thus access to procedures not in the hands of senior administrators complicit in misdeeds throughout the chain of command. But nothing would prevent a campus like my own from instituting good grievance procedures even without collective bargaining, nothing, that is, except those faculty members and administrators who benefit from and prefer the status quo. Which means it will not happen without collective bargaining and unless faculty members take a cold collective look at conditions campuswide.

Meanwhile, my friends are leaving. There was no component of sweetness for most of us at the dinner. Sorrow dominated. Along with the sense that those of us remaining on campus are serving on poisoned ground. Unchecked administrative abuses undercut morale decisively and convince faculty members it is a mistake to think of themselves as members of a community.

Cary Nelson is national president of the American Association of University Professors.


Essay suggesting that academics apply the terror index to budget cuts

Around this time last year, I noted with interest -- via that late-night bastion of (t)reason, "The Colbert Report"  -- that the color-coded terror index, which has been an ongoing but perhaps absurd part of our recent lives, was being retired.

That index, which charts the level of terror threat, painted a fairly redundant rainbow of fear from green (mild -- having a cup of tea with radical groups who have given up all thoughts of violent protest) to red (extreme -- hunkered down hoping to be somewhere just outside the blast radius, gripping a bootleg Kalashnikov in case Al Qaeda knocks on the door).

The index had a largely hostile audience among many commentators and the American public, because it seemed to do little other than engender, if I might borrow some words from WB Yeats, a “terrified, vague” panic. It wasn’t particularly informative or functional. To select Green would have been an act of folly, a kind of professional or political hubris no career could possible survive if anything went wrong. Red, on the other hand, was little more than an admission of blind, hand-wringing panic. That left an elevated, cautious alert, the familiar yellows and oranges of our recent years, as the wise and inevitable response to a pervasive and undisclosed terror threat. And who needs a color chart to encourage that?

I grew up in Britain during the Irish Republican Army terror campaigns of the '70s and '80s, and I was only really made aware of my innate wariness when I moved to the United States in the '90s, and discovered a society largely unaware of the implications of terror in the domestic space.

But that has now largely changed by virtue of experience. The American public is largely schooled now in the anxieties of terror, by spectacular instances of it, whether home-grown in Oklahoma City, or international in New York or via the ever hungry cable news cycle.

And, unfortunately, because of those experiences, it has been forced into becoming an old hand at watchfulness.  So, the terror alert, practically redundant, seemed largely an object lesson in the mass-marketing of anxiety: ultimately inducing elevated panic, some have posited, as a form of control.

Stephen Colbert’s thought-provoking suggestion noting the paralyzing effect of fear-mongering was that the retiring color code be updated and changed simply to "Quiet," or "Too Quiet."

But while those terror charts are now a thing of the past, a relic of older ways of thinking, destined to gather dust covertly in some office space, now otherwise empty because of austerity measures, or perhaps to swim peacefully in the quiet back waters of a frustrated think tank, I think there is a way for us to recycle, reuse and restore them — in higher education, and particularly in the liberal arts.

I think there is a place for them in the halls of academe, where we can mount the charts prominently close to office and teaching spaces. Of course, they should be edited for context. While academe has often played out as a context for personal or political terror, it seems more appropriate if the new fear index should be financial (and, paradoxically, thereby intellectual).

Green could read "low or no risk of financial exigency," though of course those days, if they ever existed, are long gone. I read about them, as a doctoral student in England, in David Lodge novels about the academic Promised Land in America, as one might read of the unicorn. Blue, a relaxed but guarded watchfulness, would mean that the conference expenses are still covered, but we might, collegially, forego dessert on the expense report. Elevated yellow tells us that it's time for faculty to tighten their belts, and forget about cost-of-living raises, or bold capital investment. Orange, that dreaded state of high financial exigency, might indicate furloughs, lost tenure lines, or even disappearing programs. Of course anything is possible, plausible or permissible when it hits “severe” red.

I can imagine that there are institutions and administrations all over which would gladly jump at the opportunity to place these prominently on display because of the chilling effect of fear, and the “terrified, vague” paralysis in which it often results. It would be a strong, visceral reminder that faculty should be quiet and grateful that we have our jobs.  It would keep us meek while critical inroads are being made into faculty governance, academic standards, tenure, and full-time instruction.

It would stymie protest while traditional and essential parts of the academy like philosophy, history, literature and languages revert to a service function for a notional "liberal arts" core while students otherwise pursue their vocational certification in nursing, or air conditioning repair, or increasingly popular faddish pseudo-subjects like leadership.

As an industry we would put up with the growth of adjunct instruction, the increase in class sizes, the loss of civility in discourse, even the loss of discourse itself, along, of course, with the loss of instruction and instructors, to inanities like third-party computer software — as though something that belongs in the university were little more than checking off the boxes in a defensive driving class.  Why, with one of those charts on the wall, we could replace entire language departments with Rosetta Stone, and entire English departments with carefully selected PBS programming. Why, even biology departments could be lost to interactive screenings of "Shark Week," and no one would be willing to say a word.  Such is the effect of terror.

I don't mean to downplay the realities of the need for austerity as a response to real financial urgency. Just like the terrorist threat, it's out there, but it’s often not everywhere it seems to be.  No doubt all of it would be easier to bear, however, if we had those advisory charts on our walls — even the steady gains of both administrative salaries, and administrative support staff, even in the midst of a profound state of financial exigency. After all, we want the very best to lead us out of this kind of financial crisis.  And we all know, except in cases of faculty, of instruction, of academics, and, of course, of education in general, if you want the very best then it’s going to cost you.

David Mulry is chair of English and foreign languages at Schreiner University.

Essay on the frustrations of having too much to read

Thomas Hobbes said that if he had read as much as others he would be as ignorant as they. Today most university faculty lack Hobbes's aplomb, and everyone complains that there's simply too much to read. The flood of books, articles, and blog posts never stops. (And here's one more!) Academic norms require that scholars "engage the literature," but the potentially relevant literature is enormous, especially for those who aspire to some kind of interdisciplinary approach. And at many universities, declining budgets and increasing administrative duties threaten the little time left for reading.

To make matters worse, academic culture seems carefully designed to maximize worries that one hasn't read enough. The convention of obsequious citation ensures that everyone thinks others have read more than they have. And now some journals are trying to raise their impact factor by pressuring authors to pad their articles with superfluous references — pressure experienced by one in five academics, according to a recent study.

How many times have you heard someone publicly admit to not having read a key book in their field? Never. Perhaps you know the game "humiliation" from the David Lodge novel? If not, just nod and smile in feigned recognition, then secretly go look it up. Of course, those with more cultural and professional power may be able to afford admitting they haven't read something — "You know, believe it not, I've actually never read Hamlet" — but by breaking the norm, they reinforce both their status and the norm itself.

There are no simple fixes, but here are two basic approaches to managing the overload of "must read" publications: demarcate and associate.

The first approach separates necessary from unnecessary reading, good from bad. Some handy demarcation criteria appear in the philosopher Harry Frankfurt's charming book On Bullshit. (It was all the rage during the Bush administration, but it's still worth reading, especially since it's extremely short.) Frankfurt says that bullshit is not the same as lying. Bullshit is speech or action that reveals an utter lack of concern with truth (presumably in areas where some kind of truth matters and can be discerned through established criteria, which is more problematic than Frankfurt admits). Frankfurt thinks that mass democracies are especially prone to bullshit, because they encourage every citizen to say something about every subject. Another source of bullshit is our confessional culture of personal authenticity and sincerity, based on the mistaken assumption that it's easier to understand yourself than the world. And although Frankfurt doesn't discuss it, one of the most fecund sources of bullshit is the doctrine of publish-or-perish, which fosters concern with professional status rather than saying something true and important. Other things being equal, cutting the bullshit from your reading list probably entails avoiding publications that are so obsessed with their own narrow disciplinary concerns (we've all been there) that they never get around to addressing other people or things.

You might object that you need to read at least some of a book to know that you don't need to read more, which leads to the second approach: association. Rather than focus on separating good from bad, try to see how good, bad, and everything between fits together. Learn how in Pierre Bayard's How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read. The title sounds like a guide for bullshitters, but Bayard challenges common assumptions about what it means to read a book in the first place. He notes that everyone interprets books differently, and the moment you finish reading a book you start forgetting it. What's most important about a book is not the details of its content, but its place in a cultural discourse. So a person who's recently heard about a book, maybe read a review and skimmed a few pages, could have more to say about it than a person who read it cover-to-cover a few years ago. Bayard uses a refreshingly humble citation system: UB: unknown book; SB: skimmed book; HB: heard about book; FB: forgotten book. And yes, to repeat every reviewer's joke: I actually read Bayard's book, whatever that means.

Maybe I could have skipped to the last chapter, where Bayard argues that, for the critic, books should fulfill the same function as nature for the writer or painter: "not to serve as the object of his work, but to stimulate him to write." He says that "what is essential is to speak about ourselves and not about books, or to speak about ourselves by way of books." Maybe so, in part. But then Bayard writes, "In the end, we need not fear lying about the text, but only lying about ourselves." Even for a literary critic, that sounds like the sort of narcissism that would drive Frankfurt nuts.

So, no surprises here: the answer must lie in both identifying what's worth reading and learning how it fits together with everything else. That may help one find an appropriate balance between reading and writing, between understanding the world and expressing oneself.

Enough said. Now I have some reading to do.

Mark B. Brown is associate professor of government at California State University at Sacramento.

How should faculty deal with classroom disruptors

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A viral video of a student losing it while an instructor tried to lecture raises the question of how professors should deal with disruptions.

Essay on spring in the academic year

Tyro Tracts

Spring is an unusual time of year in academic careers, writes Nate Kreuter. While nature is blooming, projects and degrees are being wrapped up.

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Essay on frustrations of faculty life

Running 'Round the Ivory Tower

Terri E. Givens considers some of the frustrations of faculty life.

Essay on similarities between starting as a parent and a professor

Afshan Jafar considers the similarities between starting a family and an academic career.

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