February
1st 2009
He’s a fake, and he doesn’t know the territory!

Posted under: American history, jobs, unhappy endings

That Professor Harold Hill! What a scamp. (I have a big affection for Robert Preston, who looks a lot like my late Great Uncle John.) This is the coolest musical number in a musical that’s got a lot of memorable songs and dances–very cutting-edge, for 1962. (Does anyone else think Salesman #1 looks like Vince Vaughan?)

More seriously: I sometimes feel like some of the conversations about the current academic job market make it seem like my job is just as “gone with hogshead, cask, and demijohn, gone with the sugar barrel, pickle barrel, milk pan” as that of the turn-of-the twentieth century traveling salesman. (You can talk, you can talk, you can bicker, you can talk, you can bicker bicker bicker…) I don’t think that on-line courses will ever take the place of in-person instruction and mentoring, but I’m not sure what the analog to my job will look like in 40 years. Perhaps like other things in recent U.S. history, after a relative leveling of opportunity in the mid-twentieth century, higher education will become more stratified, with a few private universities retaining a faculty that is well paid and given time to conduct research, but most large state unis, second-tier directionals, and community colleges, will shift ever more (and perhaps all) of their classes on-line, with the F.T.E.’s outsourced to private vendors around the world, to whomever can produce them most cheaply. And diplomas from those institutions will be discounted heavily, compared to the rich, private unis and SLACs that will educate the wealthy.

At least, that’s where it looks like we’re headed, absent a massive shift in taxpayer support for higher education. Oh well, never worry about your line–time to dally, gather, pluck, and shine, friends.

9 Comments »

9 Responses to “He’s a fake, and he doesn’t know the territory!”

  1. Erica on 01 Feb 2009 at 1:37 pm #

    Where would all those state university students go — since college is not only a place for education, but a place where parents can feel relatively non-guilty about their children living now that they’ve finally gotten them out of the house? “kid’s getting an education, that cramped little dorm room and communal bathroom situation is just fine…”

    Two courses I am taking this term are videotaped and later broadcast to the distance-learning students. While both they and the on-campus students get to see the same lecture and use the same textbook and so on, the main difference between us is that I get to ask questions. This is particularly important in the advanced thermodynamics course and the prof makes an important sign error that totally changes the meaning of an equation and the students (who are following) can all say, “Uh, shouldn’t that be…”

    And while I don’t know this from personal experience, that interaction is important for professors as well. Not only can they be corrected if they misspeak or miswrite, but they are able to LOOK at the students and see whether most heads are nodding and looking enlightened, or frowning and looking confused and worried. If most of your class looks baffled, there’s a chance you need to rethink your approach. You don’t get that visual feedback via distance learning; knowing whether the class gets it or not is shown entirely through homework and test scores, at which point it may be too late to fix the confusion.

    Of course, in 50 years we may all have the technology to enable virtual classrooms, and the professors CAN see their students and answer questions live. The barrier to that progression is (1) technology, and (2) affordability. (To a minor extent, (1b) professor’s ability to use the technology and therefore agree with a shift in university policy towards more distance learning will also influence the change. Students are always more likely than their teachers to be comfortable with new gadgets.) So when everybody has a virtual reality enabled home computer, then large-scale distance learning might be feasible. In its current technological state, I don’t think it is except for a very small minority of students.

  2. Historiann on 01 Feb 2009 at 3:08 pm #

    Erica, thanks for your comment. You’re very correct that getting non-verbal cues from a class is really important–it helps when lecturing with your pacing, and it also helps in classroom discussion so that you can direct everyone to revisit a point or ask further questions along the same lines. I think faculty should be very, very reluctant to let themselves be replaced in the classroom by technology (or to let the classroom be replaced entirely by on-line communication.) This goes back to the advice from Stanley Fish in his most recent book:

    “Do your job, don’t try to do someone else’s job and don’t let anyone else do your job.”

    Makes sense to me.

  3. Matt L on 01 Feb 2009 at 3:13 pm #

    Hmm. I don’t know Historiann. I am not sure that even faculty at fancy schools will be given more time and resources to do research. One way to improve productivity is to make salaried people work more hours and not pay overtime. So I think that the tenure bar will be raised raised gradually every year. At my school its now required to have a publication for tenure, even though that is not spelled out in the contract and it certainly was not the case ten years ago. We are a teaching institution, but the bar for junior faculty is being pushed higher by the very faculty who received tenure under different circumstances.

    Looking at my own campus, I think the four year state schools will shrink enrollments and become more vocational in the medium to long run. There will be plenty of FTEs for the colleges of nursing, education, engineering and business, but the ones for the college of liberal arts will stay static or decline. Traditional disciplines like history, political science, and foreign languages will be rolled into neubulous interdisciplin-niffty programs like Global Studies. The stated rationale will be to save costs by reducing overhead, but in reality administration will use a global studies program to squeeze more general ed classes from a shrinking number of faculty in the humanities.

    My state college system has already decided to open more on-line classes because they see Cappella University in their rear view mirror. Administrators also believe that “on-line” courses will be a future source of revenue. And they have to look for more money to sustain the traditional campuses, since they won’t be getting it from the state. So they will run a bunch of on-line courses about accounting, vague job skills, and resume padding, using adjunct faculty to cash in on all those free govmt job retraining grants and student loan money that is in the pipeline.

    At this point educational outcomes are secondary to the financial incentives.

  4. Historiann on 01 Feb 2009 at 3:50 pm #

    Matt, excellent points. What I want to know is, who is teaching these on-line courses? I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who is doing them. They don’t have a presence on campus as faculty, and they don’t represent a community or constituency. That is I suppose a large part of the point: universities don’t have to provide space, pay utilities, buy furniture, etc. for these on-line teachers, and their very job requirements mitigate against them forming an interest group, a caucus, a council, or a union.

    There probably are a lot of fine people teaching these classes–I should emphasize that I’m not trying to draw invidious comparisons between regular faculty and on-line faculty. My concerns are with institutions and administrators. I guess my suspicion is that this is what will happen with adjuncts and “special” faculty when they seem too expensive…I’m tenured, and you’d better bet that tenured folks are clinging to their jobs now and won’t let go until their TIAA-CREF accounts recover to 2004 levels, at least, so we’re not going away any time soon.

  5. Satsuma on 01 Feb 2009 at 9:41 pm #

    This was a very scary article Historiann. It’s getting just as bad in corporate settings with the eternal power point, tiny charts with numbers you can’t read in the back row. They used to provide workbooks to go along with the lectures, but now no longer have them.

    Then there is the infamous “video-link” lectures that are so drained of humanity, that that kind of study is unwatchable. What do I do? I get the overview, then call the wholesalers to meet with me personally to explain the strategies and economics and products! Wow, a good old fashioned one-on-one conversation, who’d have thunk it! But there is more incentive, because if I do use the products, the companies make lots of money! Oy

  6. Matt L on 02 Feb 2009 at 11:24 am #

    Hey Historiann,

    Yes, I know some people who teach on-line or weekend courses for the likes of Phoenix University and Thunderbird (A business school). Many of them are regular PhDs and have other jobs, especially in business education. I think the on-line and weekend courses have caught on in B. School because the students generally cannot take off a lot of time from work to earn an MBA. The instructors often have regular tenure track jobs, but teach on the side or for several schools to earn extra dough.

    I have a colleague at another university who teaches an on-line state history class in the summer as part of their load. For a while his/her dean wanted him/her to come into the office to teach on-line! Needless to say, that didn’t stick, but it certainly give us all a taste of the academic working conditions of the future. Hello cubicle land and florescent lights!

    By the way, my colleague reports that students were satisfied with the class and happy to do it all on-line, they did not think it was an impoverished experience. I suspect they were happy with it because they were not required to put in the face time with the instructor, could do the work (or not) at their own pace and it satisfied a gen ed. They got their money’s worth. Whether they got an education is another matter.

  7. Tom on 02 Feb 2009 at 11:49 am #

    While I agree that video-conference technology is unlikely to duplicate f2f classroom experiences (it’s also important that students see and interact with one another, including outside the classroom), my real concern about shifts in higher ed have to do with the issues of tracking, which are just as prominent in Historiann’s dystopian vie of the future.

    Already, states and universities are trying to standardize general education, so that the first two years of a college experience can be completely portable. Thus, “majors” or focus areas, limited mostly to junior and senior years, become ever more like vocational training–in part because they now become (ideally) subsequent to broad, general education, rather than an integral part of it. In short, a four-year degree becomes two sequential two-year degrees.

    And, of course, to the extent that broad training is less vocationally focused, the supposedly “important” part of one’s degree is in the hands of specialists. From the consumer (i.e. student) point of view, the logic is clearly that the first two years of college are like two more years of high school (and should be purchased as cheaply as possible), and the last two years are where you should spend the real money.

    Institutions, therefore, will probably soon start making adjustments depending on which track (they believe) they serve best, and only the best-funded schools, and those with the best academic names, will be able to insist on a four-year educational experience for their students. More students will track themselves into educational choices based on financial concerns, and the institutions most students choose (or can choose) will “track” themselves to serve their core populations. Departments at “four year” (= junior and seniior year) schools will be expected to “pay the bills” more with majors than with Gen Ed courses (which will be trouble for “service programs” like English, Mathematics, and maybe even History, where surveys generate large FTE, paying for comparatively smaller cohorts of majors). Switching majors will become harder and less rewarding. Tracking choices made early will be harder to undo. Faculty will be tracked, too.

    One might well ask how many faculty currently teach primarily at either the junior level and above or else primarily at the sophomore level and above. Unless you do a good bit of both, you may already have been tracked.

    Apologies for yet another rant, Historiann!

  8. Indyanna on 02 Feb 2009 at 4:38 pm #

    I’m too late to catch up to this thread. We got snowed out. But could that opening number on the train be described as an early root of rap music? In I-oway?!? And what’s a demijohn?

  9. Historiann on 02 Feb 2009 at 9:52 pm #

    Indyanna–here’s a demijohn. (I had to look it up myself, although I do have a clearer picture in mind when talking about hogsheads, firkins, and milk pans!)

    Tom, I think you’re right–as you know, Colorado is well on its way to tracking institutions. “Portability” of courses and credits earned is the holy grail here between and among 4-years and CCs.

    And Matt and Satsuma–it’s all about the Benjamins, right? (And about maintaining centralized control of some kind over the work force.) I don’t know–those on-line courses just feel depressingly like rats pushing a bar to get a food pellet. But I’d probably do it if it were my only way of making a living.