Everybody knows.

As cynical as I try to be, I just can’t be cynical enough. Here’s what I’ve learned so far in our first week back to class at Baa Ram U.:

  • Departments across the university are offering online classes taught by grad student and adjunct labor in order to fund research and professional travel for their regular faculty and grad students.
  • Instead of “unethical” or “scandalous” or “a shocking abrogation of professional and moral values,” this is called “entrepreneurial.”  The money generated by teaching face-to-face classes doesn’t count for anything–the regular faculty have to become drummers and middle-managers of an expanded exploited class of laborers, in addition to doing our regular teaching, research, and service.
  • Apparently, the administrative class at my uni have adopted the values that bankrupted the banking industry:  sell something of dubious and unproven quality or value just to make a buck.  To hell with intellectual or educational values–we’re all about the money, honey!
  • The administrative class here are engaging in bubblethink:  Dow 36,000!  $500 for a single tulip bulb is quite reasonable–after all, the market will expand infinitely!  Go head, take out that $450,000 mortgage with zero down and an annual salary of $35,000!     After all, there is an endless supply of potential students we can rook with online ed!  Go ahead, hire more regular faculty with the money you make through online courses–the pie can only grow, never shrink!
  • After a summer of endless e-mails from the president of my university celebrating the sesquicentennial of the Morrill Act, it’s crystal clear that Baa Ram U.’s administrative leadership has zero commitment to public higher education.  They do not believe that taxpayers in my state should be persuaded to support higher education–from now on, online dupe$ and $ucker$ will fund our operation$.
  • The administrative class here now sees our peer universities as Kaplan and the University of Phoenix.  We are not a research university, no matter the number of Ph.D. programs we offer–Ph.D. students are the means by which we staff the online courses, and then when they graduate they can adjunct for the same courses ad infinitum, producing more revenue with which we can recruit more Ph.D. students who will teach online courses producing more revenue with which we can recruit more Ph.D. students, and so on!  (It’s like that old joke:  we feed the rats to the cats, and the cats to the rats, and get the skins for free!)

Private universities are frequently portrayed as elitist and exclusive, with some justification.  But I’ve come to think that they might be the only places that can afford to preserve true intellectual and educational values.  Like the European monasteries that preserved classical texts and kept the lamp of learning alight through the barbarian invasions, they might be higher education’s last hope.

There I go again:  not cynical enough!  When will I learn?  Everybody knows.


29 thoughts on “Everybody knows.

  1. The administrative class here now sees our peer universities as Kaplan and the University of Phoenix.

    Yikes. Have they said that explicitly or are you inferring it from their actions? (Not doubting you here, just wondering how brazen they’re being about abandoning the role of the university.)


  2. P.S: My institution started online classes (taught by principal faculty) this summer. You should have seen the chaos that ensued after I asked in the college meeting before class started, with all innocence, who keeps the intellectual property rights of the materials uploaded on a university server for an online class. Nobody knew!!! And the professors who taught the classes hadn’t even thought about it! *Facepalm*


  3. That’s just one of the excellent questions that our failed administrative class everywhere in higher ed has never considered, Spanish Prof. Here are some others: how can we ensure that the work submitted by online students is truly their own work? What is the mechanism for evaluating/assessing online classes (considering how they crawl up our asses about assessment for F2F classes)? Are online courses transferrable to F2F degree programs? Etc. But I’m thinking that they don’t care, so long as they get the credit card numbers and/or GI Bill/Pell Grant/GSL money from the dupe$!

    Frogprincess: no one has explicitly said this, but I think it’s clearly implicit: they’re trying to draft the regular faculty into creating a model to rival the for-profit degree mills. But seriously: what’s our incentive to write books or articles, given the absence of support for our research and the feeding frenzy for online ed now? Why should I *deny* tenure to anyone who hasn’t met our alleged standards, when it’s clear that the uni has abandoned our mission as a generator of new knowledge?


  4. I sometimes teach an online class and am confident a few students are paying and/or otherwise convincing someone else to do the work for them. The one thing I can do is force them to take their exams at the testing centers (they have to show id and be on my roster). It is obvious when a student does really, really well in discussions and then bombs my midterm and final that they probably weren’t the one writing the discussion posts. Proving that is another thing altogether though, so I just get to deal with it and make my exams worth more than the discussions…


  5. Wow, this is really almost stupifying. What is the context of the “in order to fund…” part? Is this what the permanent pigeons, I mean faculty, in the affected departments are saying it’s for? Is this a dispersed initiative of resource-starved “ilands of exillence” at the uni, or did it begin with a roll-out, donuts, and gauzy powerpoint from a vice president for cashing-in? Not only are the grad students involved being suckered, as you suggest, in that the ceiling of their advancement will really be that of permanent adjunct, but the big hitters will find themselves quickly swept aside after a few more iterations of the model. Better enjoy those research days in the South of France.

    On Spanish Prof’s intellectual property question, our union makes the claim, at least, that *all* faculty-generated pedagogical materials remain the legal property of the actual creators. Who knows where that claim would go in a firefight. during our quadrennial chicken games about “maybe they actually *would* strike,” we are advised to strip offices of everything that might be useful to replacement workers, which if meant literally would involve emptying the bookshelves as well as cabinets. But, of course, push always comes to snooze.

    Ugh. Until some consensus emerges among faculty nationwide and perhaps worldwide as to whether online is “evil incarnate aimed directly at faculty autonomy” or “something that really could work, although there are a lot of problems with it,” no effective resistance is likely to be found.


  6. p.s. The spectacle of a prophylactic pre-strike faculty “move-out” day–which would involve hideous labor, vehicles muddying landscaped building aprons, probably run-ins with campus security people, and the inevitable attraction of media–at a big university three weeks into a semester, is one that I would love to see happen, even risk a hernia for. It would offer great content for the “visual learners” in the undergraduate body about the “who owns the tools” question that underlies many of the relations of power that we usually take for granted when we play with “our” toys in “their” offices, or do “our own work” on “their own time.”


  7. I keep coming back to the question of public knowledge: sure, the public rhetoric is currently heated about how lazy we professors are, blah blah blah. But then when these same people send their children to college, they want their children taught by actual professors. I hate to pile on to our tasks, but at some point, we have to find a way to translate these larger trends into concrete and personal terms: i.e. here’s what your specific child’s education will look like…


  8. The big argument in our system on online education is intellectual property. In theory the university owns property in our existing courses, but frankly, what they have for F2F courses is our syllabi. And that’s not worth much. But for online courses this is a bigger problem, and the faculty senate is arguing this one…


  9. Our chancellor argued to our faces during our pre-school meeting this year that U. of Phoenix and the rest were actually the *superior* model, the model we needed to shift our teaching toward. Why? Well, partly it was because of their enviable ability to generate funding.
    And partly it was because of their assessment techniques, which he claimed far outstripped those in our conventional universities.

    And he spouted on about how the huge class sizes at Phoenix allowed them to run giant assessment models, that were so much more reliable than anything we were doing; and how they had “perfected” the teaching of service courses through these assessment models — you would have sworn he believed what he was saying.


  10. Geez, this is depressing. And terribly, horribly spot-on.

    As for your last comment: I just switched over to a private after being at a public state university for 9 years. I hope you are wrong, but fear you are right. And, truth be told, I had exactly this sort of checklist in mind when I decided to leave my old job.


  11. Back in the Stone Age, when I was studying at one of those elite private universities, yes, it was very much a place full of the excitement of knowledge and learning. Even for the undergrads who wanted to make the effort. But that was a million years ago, so it’s a useless data point now. Who knows what they’re up to now. Except they were so snooty, I doubt they’d ever take UofPhoenix as a role model, even if things got to the point where they should.


  12. I actually wanted to comment on the main point. Online ed is neither useful not useless by itself, any more than slates or textbooks. Teaching is a very special and high level skill. Give *teachers* the tools and let them do their thing, then online ed will be useful.

    Anything else, and we’ll have the proverbial monkeys hammering at keyboards. Maybe, especially with spell check, they’ll wind up producing an encyclopedia. But I wouldn’t hold my breath.


  13. I agree that some online teaching can be useful and productive. But that’s not the kind of teaching that my uni is selling, when it’s being done by grad and adjunct labor as a moneymaking scheme.

    But that’s the truth that the administrative class doesn’t want to hear: classes are not infinitely “scalable,” contrary to delagar’s chancellor’s claims. Unis are in a rush to sell their birthrights for a mess ‘o pottage.

    I wish some in our administrative class had some kind of humanistic background, some kind of historical or pedagogical perspective, but alas: they’re mostly from the Natural Sciences or the Vet school! (Is this why our students are being treated like cattle led to the killing floor?)


  14. Ah, you see that the key difference in the model here as opposed to there? We don’t get any funding for the online classes: all of that’s credited to our continuing ed department who’s constantly annoyed with us for not authorizing more courses so that they can offer a full online degree. . . .


  15. That sounds fucken horrible, Historiann. And yes, as far as I can tell, my private university is not even considering doing any of those things. We have almost no adjunct faculty, and graduate students really do only TA and don’t teach courses. And there will never be on-line courses for credit.


  16. …yes, we are competing with Kaplan et al., I know, they keep telling us. To teach online here you sign paperwork to the effect that the University holds the rights to the “content.”

    So, in effect: teach the standard survey and you have signed away your rights to ever teach it anywhere else, ever again … or so it seems!!!


  17. It’s small consolation, but your uni is hardly unique. The ever-eager-to-slash legislatures have little room for state universities to do anything other than try to compete with the for-profits for every last tuition dollar. I think that many inside and outside the academy don’t actually realize just how pervasive online classes have become.


  18. Yes. Our entire culture is splitting into those at the top (high-level administrators, bankers, etc.) and the rest of us. Although I write, my day job is teaching, and here in California, presidents of universities keep getting phenomenal salaries at the same time that more and more classes for students are being cut.

    That’s the way it is now.


  19. I thought “a shocking abrogation of professional and moral values” = “entrepreneurial” these days? As a product and true believer in public education (primary – post-secondary), I only applied to grad programs at public R1s. (Of course, this is if you’d consider a uni that gets the tiniest fraction of its budget from the state and has among the highest out-of-state tuition rates “public.”) But I think you’re right about those elite, private institutions being the last reserve of intellectual values. Heartbreaking.


  20. A depressing post, but totally believable. It’s the culmination of trends in education (higher ed and K12) that’ve been going on for decades.


  21. Your last point reminded me of a great book- you may enjoy it. Have you ever read A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller? It’s post-apocalyptic novel from the 1950s where a group of monks have tried to preserve all the writing that’s left in the world after society has decided that intellectual pursuits are dangerous. I’m actually assigning it in my Apocalypse class this semester. Which coincidentally is on-line (and I’m tenure-track at a public university).


  22. Ugh! ugh! ugh! ugh! ugh! ugh!. In some ways, this strikes me as just being an extension of what was happening already, at least at my state R2-that-wants-to-be-an-R1 (and develop a “world-class” reputation — that was actually the board of trustees’ stated goal a few years ago). At least in my department, one effect of winning a 2/2 load for most tenure-track research/teaching/service faculty about a decade ago (all new hires come in as 2/2, and most mid-career folk have switched, with a few established faculty — mostly those who’ve spent decades carrying the bulk of the service teaching and department-level service/administrative work, and carrying it well — choosing to keep their traditional 3/3 loads, and the more modest research expectations that went with them) was a rapid rise in the sort of position I hold: non-tenure track, 4/4 teaching-only load, starting salary about 2/3 of the entry-level TT one (and much slower to rise, not that anybody’s salary is rising much right now). As the university and department have grown, and especially as the university has been striving for R1 status, inequality among faculty has definitely grown. In fact, TT faculty leaves have gotten even cheaper than they were before, because now the department needs to hire adjuncts to cover 2 classes, rather than 3, per semester of leave. Service burdens, of course, have gotten heavier; that’s the main place the TT faculty, especially the more conscientious associates, are feeling the pinch, and for those who take good departmental citizenship seriously, it’s canceling out some of the benefits of the reduced load (which is too bad, because several of those people are also among our most exciting scholars).

    My department is also in the process of creating some new Ph.D. programs. It hasn’t been done thoughtlessly; they’re in quite specific fields for which there is substantial demand outside the academy, and/or in which TT job openings do, in fact, outstrip demand, at least at the moment. However, in the case of the largest program (rhetoric and composition), the TT jobs which our graduates will fill will probably be at least partially administrative ones, and will involve supervising adjunct and/or grad-student exploited labor,which raises some questions about where the exploited labor is going to come from. MFAs in writing are one answer; we produce a lot of those (and consider that degree a terminal one, eligible for tenure in TT slots, but also,like the Ph.D., nice to see in holders of non-TT slots when accreditation and/or ranking time comes around), and tend to trade graduates back and forth with a couple of other local programs when in comes time to hire contingent labor. I suspect that the rhet/comp Ph.D.s may eventually end up in a similar position, with the expectation that they’ll have tenure-track jobs available well into the future another example of bubble-think. While at the moment our Ph.D.s in rhet and comp may indeed go out into TT jobs that involve supervising adjuncts and/or other grad students, at some point those positions are going to be filled, mostly with relatively young people, but the university will still need grad students to teach classes (and the faculty our program and others have hired will need students to teach — and rhet/comp scholars don’t generally want to teach 4 sections of freshman comp themselves; it gets old after a while, and, besides, it interferes with their research. Like scholars in other fields, even those who are dedicated to teaching core courses also want to teach advanced undergrads and grad students). So I suspect that, despite all good intentions, our rhet/comp Ph.D.s will, in a decade or two, be swelling the contingent labor pool.

    The one piece of good news, as you point out, is that students looking for online classes have far fewer geographical constraints than those looking for traditional ones, so the competition among programs will be fiercer. Maybe market forces will actually work in favor of quality, or at least a more distinct separation between high-quality programs and online diploma-mills? I’m not going to get my hopes up, but that certainly would be nice.


  23. P.S. The intellectual rights question is a very good one (and I need to ask it; in fact, it’s even more crucial for contingents to ask it, though we may have a harder time doing so). However, as far as I can tell, it’s not relevant for online classes in many non-humanities disciplines, because departments/programs/faculty members are simply adopting pre-packaged courses — essentially souped-up textbooks — created and owned by one of the members of the educational-industrial publishing complex. It’s probably a question mostly of interest to those in the humanities (and perhaps the more pure/theoretical sciences) — and yes, we need to ask it.

    Pre-packaged courses also make assessment of some kinds (i.e. assessment of course materials and what they “deliver”) easy, since, like textbooks, they’re created and regularly revised to meet whatever standards are out there (whether or not those standards particularly aid learning). Of course, if the standards are complicated enough, that will create additional pressure for those of us who prefer to create and regularly revise our own courses to give up and join the army of drones shepherding students through the pre-packaged product (or, I suppose, join the other army of drones creating said product; somehow I doubt the bulk of that work pays, or will eventually pay, much better, or be much more interesting, though I’m sure it will be touted as another “opportunity” for un/underemployed Ph.D.s to use their talents).

    As far as I can tell, the only solution to the problem of not being sure who’s actually taking the class is the one nicolec mentions: include some exercises administered in some sort of face-to-face testing center, and make them worth a significant amount of the grade. That’s not ideal for writing classes, but I could make it work (e.g. give them some source materials they haven’t seen before and a basic citation guide but no access to the internet, and require them to write a well-structured essay properly incorporating/citing the materials). Of course, even that approach isn’t foolproof (witness Ted Kennedy’s adventures as an undergraduate). Though I realize the value of universities’ certifying role, and the need for it not to become totally debased, I’m a bit of a cynic when it comes to impersonation: if students are going to cheat themselves out the education for which they’re paying, I’m not sure it’s my job to prevent them doing so.

    And, from the limited evidence I have (an alumni panel in which I participated at my Ivy-League alma mater a year or so ago), I’d say thefrogprincess is right: the executives at the for-profits (I met two, including a president) espouse an odd combination of idealism, entrepreneurship, and noblesse oblige, and seem to actually believe that they are bringing education to the masses. However, I didn’t get the impression that they were planning to send their own children to their own institutions. Some of the profits from the for-profits will undoubtedly go to sending junior to hir parents’ ivy-covered alma mater, or, alternatively, a SLAC that caters to hir particular needs and interests.


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