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).

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After a prolonged hiatus–due almost exclusively to the interminable demands of the mad campaign of the academic job market–I am finally returning to blogging.  Over the next several weeks, I’ll be exploring the supercluster of issues orbiting education, technology, and the rapidly evolving relationship between them (so-called “EdTech”).

Along the lines of education, I’ve been working my way through several of the most recent screeds on and exposes of higher education.  I’ll be trying to sort through issues such as the following:

  • Corporatization of the university
  • Adjuncts
  • The future of tenure and the nature of academic freedom
  • The very idea of a public intellectual in the 21st century
  • The so-called “skills gap”
  • For-profit universities
  • online education and “MOOCs” (Massive Open Online Courses)
  • The role of Big Data in higher ed
  • Student loans and the prospect of a higher ed “bubble”
  • Changing student demographics
  • The psychology and culture of academia

One of the most fascinating things I’m coming up against in this research, again and again, is how ignorant many academics, particularly humanists, tend to be about the conditions of their labor (as well as their reluctance to recognize what they do as labor), about how the university works, about the macroeconomic forces operating, as Hegel might say, “behind the back of consciousness.”  Our reflexes dictate that we bemoan the corporatization of the university, and scoff at the conservative critiques of tenure, intellectuals, and academia in general, yet we often fail to consider whether these positions have a kernel of truth.  What the research suggests–what students and the public suspect, and what more self-aware academics know–is that the university is not what it seems to be.

In much the same way that we continue to refer to something called “the middle class” in America, despite the radically changed and changing economic landscape of the last few decades, and especially the last five years, we continue to cling to a conception of the university that arose in a very different era; it is part of our “social imaginary” and is deeply bound up with our understanding of what it means to be a successful, middle class American; which, for many of us, sadly, is more or less equal to what it means to be a full citizen and, like, an actual human being.

On the technology front, I will be exploring recent critiques of the micro- and macro- roles and effects of technology:  in our personal lives, and in our political economy and culture.  Jaron Lanier, a founding father of virtual reality and early web, has emerged as one of the most perceptive and, given his tech chops, authoritative, critic of digital culture.  Lanier’s most troubling claim is that Web 2.0 and what he calls the worldview of “cybernetic totalism” is not only making it more difficult to be an actual person, but is accelerating the erosion of the middle class set in motion decades ago.

The great danger, he thinks, is that cultural creatives–musicians, journalists, and the like–are canaries in the “data mine”, but the first wave of middle class professions that will be rendered “redundancies” as more and more jobs are made obsolete by robots, computers, etc.  To this list, we can add professors.  As Lanier has it, a democracy is not possible without a middle class, but a middle class is not possible unless a society is structured to provide sufficient opportunities for most of the people to amass more wealth than the infinitesimally small number of people at the top.  The symbolic numbers of Occupy Wall Street point toward what Lanier considers the barely distant future:  In our new technopolis, there are the Lords of the Cloud, and the digital peasants.  Digital technology, the child of a democratic society in which prosperity was widely shared, is coming to undermine the bulwarks of the society that spawned it.

While Lanier focuses more on the political, economic, and social dimensions of tech, Sherry Turkle, MIT sociologist, zeroes in on how tech might be harming our psyches and our relationships.  Her central concept–that in the new, hyperconnected world we are always and everywhere “alone, together”–points to the dark side effects of technology, and the ways in which we have become addicted–like the incubants in the Matrix, or the prisoners in Plato’s Cave.

And that, it seems to me, is what connects these two great themes of education and technology:  they so pervasively define the contours of life in today’s world, yet their recent pasts are so unknown, their present effects are so hard to pinpoint, and their likely futures are so difficult to predict.  They constitute such a crucial part of our contemporary Cave.    The great task, then, is to patiently, persistently grapple with them.

(Image courtesy of gasparandmichelle.com)

The AUdacity of MOOCs: “These are people who just want to learn”

In the last two posts, I broached the question of what long-term, structural effects online learning will have on higher education.  At Thanksgiving, I spoke a great deal with my two nieces, who are getting ready to go to college next year, and their parents, about the myriad dimensions of the process.  Like health care, college has become one of the most complicated, and most anxiety-inducing, pieces in the puzzle of modern life, not least because they are the sectors in which costs mock inflation.  Indeed, with the election over, I’d wager that families discussed these issues more than maybe any others.

As we’ve seen over the last decade, industries we considered staples of life in the modern industrialized world–music, journalism, and retail–were radically disrupted and transformed when the world became Flat.  This year, the New York Times has declared 2012 the Year of the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), with 3 flagship online universities pioneering the new platform:

I want to follow up and throw into the mix two other perspectives I’ve come across in the meantime:

  • Robert Koons, a professor of philosophy at University of Texas at Austin.  Though Koons does not explicitly discuss online learning or MOOCs, his scathing, Closing-of-the-American-Mind-ish critique of the modern university–which he considers the most corrupt institution in modern society–casts light on spiritual, intellectual, moral, and economic weaknesses in the status quo that make the university vulnerable to the digital disruption.
  • Clay Shirky, NYU new media guru, one of the closest things we have to a public intellectual.  Essentially, Shirky seems willing to bet his tenure that early MOOC platforms like Udacity are tantamount to Napster, and that over the long haul online learning will indeed to to higher education something like what the mp3 did to music.

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