December
6th 2012
That time of the year: empty brains, embodiment, Bartleby, and the mooks pushing MOOCs

Posted under: American history

This is a cross-section of my skull right now.  Last classes are tomorrow.

I am grateful to MOOCs and to the specter of online courses for something:  they have made me grateful for the “residential instruction” classes I teach and the embodied human students who enroll in them.  I’ve had a particularly great group of students in both classes this term, and I’ve had fun writing new lectures and inventing new writing assignments for them.  I think we’ve had some fascinating conversations, too, about the new books we’ve read together.

I will admit that those embodied students are sometimes problematic.  A few of them have gotten pregnant this term–both of them happily so, fortunately.  One of them has unhappily suffered from complications from a brain surgery and a botched root canal.  Others of them have been called to jury duty, to custody hearings, or to funerals for their formerly embodied family members.  One even served as a delegate to the Democratic National convention.  Perhaps I delude myself in thinking that in coping with our mutual embodiment together as we read about life in North America in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, that we can learn something about the joys and frustrations of both the life of the mind and the life of the body.

But, universities are not just places where students can learn.  Universities are also generators of new knowledge, a fact that is entirely overlooked by the desire to automate teaching and turn it over to Professor Pushbutton.  I think it is important to continue to resist the online migration, not just for the benefit of our students and the dignity of our profession, such as it is, but also in defense of the idea of the university.  We are not university educators unless we are continuously engaged in reading and writing new scholarship.

Others may be eager to use their students as guinea pigs for the development and exportation of American community college-style education to China, India, and the Middle East at Ivy League prices.  I know the administrators at my uni are all for it.  As for me?  Call me Bartleby.  I prefer not to.

21 Comments »

21 Responses to “That time of the year: empty brains, embodiment, Bartleby, and the mooks pushing MOOCs”

  1. Jonathan Rees on 06 Dec 2012 at 9:53 am #

    “Universities are also generators of new knowledge, a fact that is entirely overlooked by the desire to automate teaching and turn it over to Professor Pushbutton.”

    Darn straight, Historiann. Of course, part of the exercise might be to destroy scholarship that can’t fund itself because businessmen don’t want to pay the taxes needed to keep it going. It’s the fact that other scholars forget that too that continually drives me crazy.

  2. Historiann on 06 Dec 2012 at 10:05 am #

    That’s a good point, Jonathan, but I’m wondering what scholarship actually “funds itself?” All of those people over in the sciences, med schools, vet schools, and the like are living off of federal government grants! The people in my department who are getting grants are getting grants for public history projects that are funded by the NPS and the NFS (National Forest Service). Don’t get me wrong–I think it’s great that the feds fund pure research, and I wish they funded more of it. But this hardly counts as a self-funding research machine, an idea that is as far out as a perpetual motion machine or cold fusion.

    I suppose there is the ethically dubious practice of turning your lab over to Monsanto or to Big Pharma and letting them pay the bills, but that’s the exception still, not the rule.

    We–state and U.S. taxpayers–should fund pure research BECAUSE IT’S WORTH SOMETHING.

  3. Indyanna on 06 Dec 2012 at 10:16 am #

    Totally right-on about this one! Pushbutton hasn’t reviewed a book since the days of the incunabula, and ze got most of those reviews wrong too. I’m going to try the term “residential instruction” courses in our meeting in a few hours. I just want to puke when I hear the term “podium” courses or “platform” courses, which confers by reverse parallelogram a kind of instant legitimacy on the other kinds of content transfer that they’re not. This is how they got rid of those reactionaries back in the days when administrators decided to take classes “indoors.” They started calling the existing competitor model “vine-and-fig-tree” courses, or “sandals-in-the-garden” courses, and with that dismissive slight, bricks and mortar were off to the races.

  4. Contingent Cassandra on 06 Dec 2012 at 10:22 am #

    Universities are also generators of new knowledge, a fact that is entirely overlooked by the desire to automate teaching and turn it over to Professor Pushbutton. I think it is important to continue to resist the online migration, not just for the benefit of our students and the dignity of our profession, such as it is, but also in defense of the idea of the university. We are not university educators unless we are continuously engaged in reading and writing new scholarship.

    Another vote of agreement for this one, with the caveat that c. 70% of the faculty nationwide (I’m not sure of the percentage in universities per se, but it’s still high, especially in core courses) doesn’t engage in research as part of their jobs (though they/we may do it on the side). It’s also important to note that many of us don’t get the chance to engage in the sort of local pedagogical research that goes on in committee meetings and through other faculty service work, because that isn’t part of our jobs, either.

    Even if the possibility of online learning were taken off the table tomorrow, we’d still have a huge existing problem to solve if we’re to return to anything resembling the ideal you describe. I’m not sure every faculty member needs to do original scholarly research (though I think the academy is significantly strengthened when we do, and that goes for the instructors of “basic” as well as advanced courses), but I’m certain that engaging in an ongoing local pedagogical conversation that is the primary shaper of the institution’s curriculum should be part of every faculty member’s job. That’s not optional, it takes significant time and effort, and it needs to be built into the time/pay structure of any job that lasts, or is likely to last/be renewed, for more than a year.

    P.S. I’ve heard our Provost admit that “funded” research actually costs the university money, especially if you take into account the ever-increasing administrative support not only for grant administration (which is usually, at least nominally, covered by the grant) but also for grant-getting. And then there are all those PR people busily informing the world of the university’s achievements. None of that is bad, mind you, but it’s all ancillary to the actual work of doing and disseminating scholarship.

  5. Historiann on 06 Dec 2012 at 10:39 am #

    CC, you are exactly right. We on the regular faculty opened the door to this erosion of the faculty by accepting contingent faculty into our departments.

    I would say that there is a difference between hiring adjuncts who have an office, a telephone number, a university-provided computer, and who engage in residential instruction versus an online adjunct that we’ll never meet. This is not to disparage online adjuncts, mind you, but it seems to me that the regular faculty can (should they choose to) engage in mentoring and in bringing the embodied adjunct into the department in ways that are impossible online. In any case, we can visit their classrooms and observe their teaching and the quality of their interactions with the students.

    Online teaching can be “monitored”–the lectures can be viewed, the discussion boards surveiled, the student assignments reviewed–but that’s not the kind of observation that’s likely to lead to a conversation about teaching, research, or anything really human.

  6. koshembos on 06 Dec 2012 at 12:35 pm #

    Desperately looking for anew argument in this discussion that started way back. If anything, creation of knowledge seems to be a new emphasis. Typically we create knowledge by research that is mostly unaffected by teaching.

    In my fields, most knowledge comes out of doctoral work. Either one on one, prof/student, or one on many, students/prof when projects are involved. As far as I know, doctoral work is not the core drive of online teaching although although such degrees are known to exist.

    Sponsored research, mainly NSF/DARPA/DOE/NRL/ONR – government money, is an important source of funds for the university. The university gets about 50% of the grant no question asked. If students are on your grant, your 50% pays their salary/stipend, benefits and equipment. Don’t listen to the argument that it doesn’t pay.

  7. Dr. Crazy on 06 Dec 2012 at 4:36 pm #

    “Typically we create knowledge by research that is mostly unaffected by teaching.”

    I actually whole-heartedly disagree with this. I do think that the work that I do in the F2F classroom fundamentally participates in a project of creating new knowledge, and having taught online, I can say that I do feel like (for me) that is what is lost online. I will include this caveat: this *need not* be what is the case in an online platform, but if and only if faculty are really given MORE time and FEWER online students, and not the reverse.

    Online education as a panacea for the ills of higher education is all about reproducibility – that you just migrate the platform from one semester over to the next semester without many changes – it is, actually, the equivalent of reading out of one’s book or from reams of yellowed pages to a captive audience, a model of teaching that is all about the “sage on the stage” and not about “interactive, student-centered” learning. If you don’t do online education that way (and again, I know not everybody does), then it actually is MORE artisan-dependent rather than less, and it actually requires MORE knowledge on the part of the instructor (specifically, tech knowledge in addition to content-area knowledge) rather than less.

    In creating new courses, or in adapting the courses that I teach in my field, I explore new ideas, I ask new questions, and I enter into new conversations in my field. My dissatisfaction with teaching online is that it is much more time-intensive and labor-intensive to develop a new course, or to adapt an existing course, than it is in a F2F environment. So when I’ve taught online, I’ve been reluctant to do that VERY IMPORTANT intellectual and scholarly work.

    I realize that not all fields are identical, and perhaps it is the case that research and teaching really are totally disconnected for some. But this is certainly not the case for me in my intellectual and scholarly work, and it is not the case for colleagues of mine in computer science, the hard sciences, business, or the social sciences with which I’ve discussed these issues.

  8. Dr. Crazy on 06 Dec 2012 at 4:38 pm #

    Oh, and I teach at a university whose primary student population is undergraduates, so for me the “only in teaching doctoral candidates does research and teaching combine” argument doesn’t convince me.

  9. Historiann on 06 Dec 2012 at 5:05 pm #

    Thanks, Dr. Crazy. In our fields at least, if your teaching and research don’t inform and support each other, U R doin’ in rong, in my view. (At least you need to make some serious changes in your teaching.)

    (And that kind of education is not infinitely reproduceable or scalable.)

  10. Comradde PhysioProffe on 06 Dec 2012 at 5:35 pm #

    Bartleby The Scrivener is one of my favorite Melville pieces. If I didn’t become a scientist, I could have easily ended up a Melville scholar. In fact, for some bizarre reason, I have the intense desire as I sit here typing this comment to get a PhD in English working on Melville.

  11. wini on 06 Dec 2012 at 5:58 pm #

    If by teaching you mean in the classroom, then I guess in a lot of disciplines (at research institutions) creating knowledge can be separated by teaching. But, in my experience as the spouse of a scientist, graduate and post-graduate mentorship and guidance in a lab is very much a form of teaching. Leading a lab is very time intensive, and many of the best scientists also make time to be great teachers in the lab.

    That said, the “overhead cost” arrangement is way overstated by the sciences. For starters, these are ” facilities and administrative” or “indirect costs,” in other words costs that are difficult to assign to one single project but instead are pooled at the organizational level. I can’t tell you the number of conversations I’ve had with people who seem to think that the money the school pulls from their grants is merely “extra” money. And, while schools tell you that they have “overhead rates,” many grants have limits on indirect costs, or expect specific calculations, or even refuse to cover them.

    Deep breath. This relates back to the topic at hand because… there is an ongoing attitude at my research institution that because XYZ departments pull in bigger grants that students in their classes deserve functioning AV, free reading packets, more TA support (not just in the lab classes), more comfortable rooms, etc. When, in reality, ScientistX get big grants because her research is expensive.* My students and your students pay tuition, and the state kicks in a shrinking amount each year. Humanities tuition at many schools funds the majority of the indirect costs at the schools, even as we do our research for “free.” I passionately believe that the lab experience that students get are essential for the creation of knowledge, but so is the experience my students get in a classroom with a broken chalkboard (whose idea was it to put moving parts in chalkboards!?!?!).

    * And if Scientist X successfully gets expensive research funded, than no one begrudges her large merit raises (or the course releases and a dedicated administrative assistant her grants pay for).

  12. Historiann on 06 Dec 2012 at 6:48 pm #

    Comrade: you could host a chapter-a-day read-a-thon of Moby Dick on your blog. I’d participate in that (and fortunately, Melville’s chapters are really short!)

    wini: Do you teach at Baa Ram U.? Just asking, because our institutions sound quite similar. I feel your pain, and your resentment on behalf of your students. The *majority* of students major in the Liberal Arts college, and as at your uni, their tuition is kited to support dying departments that are part of the *historic identity* of the institution.

  13. Susan on 06 Dec 2012 at 9:57 pm #

    Oh, I just want to sing a song of praise to my students. They have lives, they are complicated, but they are such good people. (Most of ‘em; I’ve had my duds.) I’m sure you can open doors in similar ways online, but I know it’s much harder work.

    And teaching not only feeds ideas for teaching, but also for research. Hmmm, I say to myself. Wonder where that will lead.

    We are undergoing program review this year, so my colleagues and I met for two hours today and agreed that in a perfect world we would institute undergraduate seminars for majors, but we don’t yet have the staff to do it. Our U not only gives semi-security (three years at a stretch) after a certain number of years as a lecturer, but it also has a category of lecturers who have tenure. They teach twice our load, and are evaluated on their teaching, not research. So we are thinking about this, but as H’ann notes, in this context, the lecturers are clearly our colleagues…

  14. truffula on 06 Dec 2012 at 10:32 pm #

    I too disagree with koshembos’ assertion that teaching, classroom or orherwise, does not inform research in science. Figuring out how to communicate both fundamentals and obscure details can change the way you think about them, introduce connections you had not appreciated, drive you down new topical avenues that circle back to your own work, it goes on and on. What a dreary thing teaching would be if it did not ignite creative sparks in the teacher.

    Also, “residential instruction!” Brava.

  15. Comradde PhysioProffe on 07 Dec 2012 at 6:27 am #

    Comrade: you could host a chapter-a-day read-a-thon of Moby Dick on your blog. I’d participate in that (and fortunately, Melville’s chapters are really short!)

    Thatte’s a very interesting idea! I’m gonna think about itte!

  16. Historiann on 07 Dec 2012 at 6:29 am #

    “Residential instruction” is just what my uni calls classes that meet F2F in a classroom with both embodied students and an embodied instructor.

    I think it’s sad that we have to call it that, rather than just “a course.”

  17. Susan on 07 Dec 2012 at 7:57 am #

    Oh, I should have said we’re talking about lower division seminars, not undergrad ones…

  18. Shane in Utah on 07 Dec 2012 at 9:26 am #

    “I’m wondering what scholarship actually “funds itself?” All of those people over in the sciences, med schools, vet schools, and the like are living off of federal government grants!”

    A lot of them, yes. But in addition to the pressure to win grants, there’s also pressure in the sciences and engineering to invent technologies that can be patented and can bring revenue into the university. (The guy who invented the formula for Crest toothpaste was a researcher at Indiana U, and they’ve been dining on the proceeds there ever since.) Frankly, I find the competition for government grants less insidious than the competition to engage in public/private partnerships for profit…

  19. undine on 07 Dec 2012 at 1:21 pm #

    “Who’s going to fund research?”–exactly. I keep fretting about the economics of MOOCs (or did, until another self-imposed posting hiatus about them), because even if questions about the quality of instruction aren’t gathering any traction, questions about economics would get the attention of administrators and businesspeople, or so you’d think.

  20. Historiann on 07 Dec 2012 at 1:29 pm #

    So you’d think. But I think many public American universities are happy to become the Community Colleges of the world. Private unis might be like medieval monasteries–the places of last resort that keep the lamp of learning (through research) alight.

  21. Research isn’t part of Professor Pushbutton’s job description. « More or Less Bunk on 10 Dec 2012 at 8:59 am #

    [...] – Historiann, December 6, 2012. [...]

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