Rage Against the Machine


Over at Adjunct Rebellion, a scathing assessment of MOOCs:

While the last 20 years of academia have seen these two destructive practices aimed at the professoriate, it hasn’t been until lately that the threat is driven by the internet — in the case of academia, in the form of MOOCs that are now looming enormous, casting monstrous shadows over the college campus. The MOOC model, from the standpoint of the professoriate, is an entirely exploitative one.  The professor designs a class, has lectures and other media support shot and “canned” — and then the university, or the MOOC itself owns that material.  It OWNS the intellectual property of a professor who has trained for, on average, a decade for advanced degrees, who has taught for years and developed skills and abilities.  And, once that particular area of scholarship is canned — who needs the professor, ANY professor, anymore?

This is an example of the rhetoric of crisis I discussed earlier, and let me be clear that I don’t always think that’s a bad or un-useful thing–it just depends on what your goals are.  If your goal is to wallow, then it works great.  If your goal is to get tenure, you’re barking up the wrong tree (these two goals, incidentally, are espoused by the folks over at the Philosophy Smoker Blog, a nest of nattering nabobs of negativism, which openly admits that its focus is to “bitch about” trying to make it in academic philosophy).  If your goal is to make a living, then just quit and do something else (and you CAN do something else).

But if your goal is to change the structure of higher education–specifically, to roll back the adjunctification of the university, a key part of its corporatization–then that rhetoric can be useful if it is channeled constructively.  I happen to think that this is the final, and only, solution for adjuncts:  that they should unite, schedule a nationwide walkout, compile a petition signed by thousands who will submit the same declaration, 95 theses-style, to their chairs and deans, and simply quit–and let the chips fall where they may.

As a former adjunct myself, I am torn about the tenor of the piece.  I know how hard it is not to let your emotions and the grind of relative poverty skew your judgment, and I can’t help but read that post and think that some of that is going on; too many “global” assertions and the whiff of conspiracy theory thinking and radical politics:  a nefarious, greedy elite preying upon the noble spreaders of light.  I know how this feels: higher education becomes a tyrannical Death Star, and you become the Rebellion, and all you want is to destroy it all…it’s the only way you can justify the state of affairs.  I was fortunate to be able to transition out of adjuncting after graduate school and secure a full-time teaching position, so that of course informs my judgment.  But I detected in my own earlier thinking the siren song of that convenient and seductive mythology.  But, as Obi Wan Kenobi, himself thrown into the impossible situation of having to deliver George Lucas’ dialogue, says, “Only a Sith deals in absolutes.”  Or as Ra’s al Ghul counsels a young Bruce Wayne, “Your anger gives you great power, but if you let it, it will destroy you.”

This is the kind of psychology and culture that is generated when you have a dysfunctional system: the different actors and parties start distorting and blaming each other, when in fact they are just behaving rationally given the structure of the system into which they find themselves.  Harvard legal scholar Lawrence Lessig brilliantly illustrates how this dysfunctional logic has sabotaged our political system in his book Republic, Lost.

Nietzsche says that human beings can endure suffering, but what they cannot endure is meaningless suffering.  The Myth gives adjuncts meaning.  But the reality is just a matter of economics.

One of the great points in the above post, in my view, is the application of Jaron Lanier’s recent manifesto to higher ed.  More on Lanier’s essential work to come…

(image found at hdwpapers.com)

2 Replies to “Rage Against the Machine”

  1. Good piece, David. You articulated, much better than I could have, my feelings about the Homeless Adjunct’s post.

    As a former adjunct, I know it’s difficult not to feel screwed over, and that activist fervor is front and center in the piece. However, at the end of the day, it’s counterproductive. As you correctly point out, the goals of activism and a future in academia are not co-extensive. Far better to leave and devote your energies to making a career elsewhere.

    I also think that bemoaning digitization is a poor use of intellectual and emotional resources. Rather than wait to be one of the intellectuals who is victimized by digitization, far better to find a way to leverage it to your advantage. The successful artists, journalists, and intellectuals will be the ones who ride the wave rather than be swamped by it.

    Thanks again for taking on this subject. I thought about writing on it myself, but I have written about adjuncting so much already that I don’t won’t to belabor the point. I’m glad I passed the baton.

    1. The second last line should obviously read “I don’t want to belabor the point.” It would be nice to have an edit option for comments!

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