What I learned at COCAL XI

August 13, 2014

[FYI: I had planned to write about COCAL already, but my union, APSCUF, asked me to write a piece for their blog. This is the piece I wrote for them, which will cross-post there. If you follow the APSCUF blog and want to talk about any of the issues here in terms of internal union discussions, let's have that conversation there. --SK]

First, a loud thank you to APSCUF for sending me to New York City August 4-5 for the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor’s 11th biennial conference. If you’re unfamiliar with COCAL, the organization has emerged since the late 1990s as a–if not the–central venue in which adjunct activists collaborate to develop strategies and tactics to win better working conditions for contingent faculty. COCAL brings together contingent/adjunct activists from Canada and Mexico (both of which have hosted conferences) with their US counterparts, understanding contingency as a globalizing phenomenon.

I learned a lot at this conference, and before getting into the details, maybe the most important lesson is something I already realized (perhaps the most forceful statement of it by and for adjunct faculty comes from Keith Hoeller) but had reinforced more palpably than I could have imagined–

Lesson #1: While tenured and tenure-track faculty should and can be helpful advocates/allies for adjunct faculty equity, the real push for equity comes directly from adjunct faculty. I’m not sure how many other tenured/tenure-track people were there (I recognized a couple but expect there were some I just didn’t know), but the energy, talent, and commitment in the room were almost entirely adjunct-driven. If I could bring anything back to APSCUF from this conference, it’s a dose of that commitment for all adjunct members of the union; we know the talent and energy are here. The struggle for equity is everybody’s, including yours. 

Other people have covered the conference’s proceedings. This post from the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Vitae section offers a coherent overview of events. Inside Higher Ed’s coverage of the opening plenary session addresses the need to take direct action, including strikes (Stanley Aronowitz argued strongly for wildcat strikes; Cindy Oliver, president of the Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of British Columbia, contended that any public employee besides emergency responders has a moral right to strike) and better to articulate the (academic) labor movement in terms of non-financial issues. Other panelists and audience members considered tactics available to faculty in non-union states. The second plenary, which I’ll say more about below, focused on specific strategies and tactics (mostly in union environments) for gaining and protecting contingent faculty power. The third plenary focused on linking arguments about contingent academic labor to issues of contingency in other labor sectors.

At that second plenary, called “Inside the Academy: The Cutting Edge,” I learned about a variety of efforts that I think translate pretty directly into possible APSCUF positions/actions:

Lesson #2: We need to support in every way we can SEIU’s Adjunct Action campaign, along with similar AFT and USW metro organizing efforts, even in areas that don’t directly affect our members. USW has been working in Pittsburgh, and AFT is organizing across the Philly metro area as well as one campus in Pittsburgh. While APSCUF adjunct faculty are members of our bargaining unit already and won’t be targets of those efforts, there’s no reason that we can’t and shouldn’t offer support–to the extent that it’s welcome. Not only are better conditions for contingent faculty an obvious good, but often APSCUF adjunct faculty work at multiple institutions, and we’re benefiting them by working to improve those institutions. 

Lesson #3: Genuine adjunct equity goes beyond compensation. Donna Nebenzahl, representing the Concordia University Part-time Faculty Association (CUPFA), described their successes on two important fronts. In their last contract, they negotiated a $240,000 (Canadian dollars, but still) professional development fund specifically for part-time faculty. The dollar amount aside, the key concept is the commitment the union and university have made.  I strongly call on APSCUF to make a similarly strong commitment to our adjunct faculty, as members of our bargaining unit. Likewise, Condordia part-time faculty have (to borrow Nebenzahl’s words) “permeate[d] the governance of the university” by winning representation on hiring committees, curriculum committees, and other governing bodies. APSCUF permanent faculty members need to support our adjunct colleagues in this regard–there’s simply no good reason not to. 

Alternating with the plenaries, the other major events at the conference were three breakout meetings of “interest groups” focused on specific strategic problems: working with media; negotiating equity; legal issues (Affordable Care Act; discrimination issues; etc); building a national agenda (working with unions and other organizations across institutions and regions); and organizing (with) students. The charge for the interest groups was loose, but the gist was to develop a short strategy statement, and if there was time to develop whatever tactical recommendations we could in order to operationalize the strategy. I joined the student group, learning at the beginning of the first session that organizers expected us to stay in a group for all three (I had planned on attending the media and national agenda groups as well, but deferred to the preference of the people who had done the work of putting the conference together).

I wasn’t able to attend the closing session at which all five groups presented their final results, but (with the permission of our group members and facilitators) I can share what the student group developed, and one member of the national agenda group has already blogged theirs, a project they call the Democracy Index. That group is undertaking an effort that resonates with and builds from what many contingent labor activists have been trying to do for years–develop a method for praising institutions that do well by their adjunct faculty, and just as importantly, calling out institutions that do wrong. There have been attempts in my field (Composition/Rhetoric/English) to push our professional organizations (MLA, CCCC, NCTE) to censure departments/programs with bad labor practices, and the response has always been that bylaws (and, they argue, laws about non-profit status) prevent them from censuring/punishing anybody. The Democracy Index doesn’t call for censure, specifically, but instead proposes to publicize rankings and reports on institutions’ treatment of adjunct faculty: compensation, but also access to professional resources, academic freedom, and shared governance (see Lesson #2, above).

Lesson #4: Throughout the conference (and certainly in other adjunct activist venues), one of the common tensions is over how to prioritize compensation vs governance and professionalization issues. Is it more important to make sure everybody can pay their rent and buy food first, even if that comes at the expense of governance rights, or do we establish governance rights first in order to demand compensation equity more effectively? The answer to that is largely local, of course. APSCUF does reasonably well in terms of compensation, particularly for full-time adjunct faculty, but adjunct access to governance rights and professional development is inconsistently supported. We must do better. 

The interest group on organizing with students produced a statement of Core Principles and Practices (click this link to download the file, which we saved as Student Strategy Document). Our conversations focused on the need to balance the ethics of democratic organizing (not coercing students into supporting adjuncts), the common issues that students and adjunct faculty face, and the needs of adjunct faculty.

Lesson #5: The work we did in the student group reinforces the need for our Student-Faculty Liaisons, at both local and state levels, to be involved in efforts for faculty equity of all statuses, including adjuncts. Many of our students already work contingent jobs. Many will graduate and, without a tectonic shift in the economy, find other contingent jobs. We can fight contingency in unison, without exploiting students to do it, if we’re careful and attentive to the ethics of what we ask for. 

Again, I’m very grateful to APSCUF for sending me to New York, and I’m grateful to all the organizers and participants at the conference for their welcome, their energy, and a commitment I hope I can share across the union and with adjunct activists and sympathizers everywhere.

I’ll end with this request, a campaign I’m involved in that garnered some attention and support at the conference too. A few weeks ago, the good folks at State APSCUF posted a piece I wrote about this petition to David Weil at the Department of Labor , calling for signatures from faculty at all ranks/statuses, managers, staff, students, parents/guardians, families, anybody with an interest in quality higher ed. As of August 10, we’re approaching 6800 signatures. Please sign and share.

 


About that job satisfaction survey…

August 2, 2014

Once, maybe twice a year, I get an email survey from somebody or other (the Chronicle of Higher Ed is one of them) asking me to help determine whether my university is one of THE BEST PLACES TO WORK! I always answer them for a couple of reasons. While I don’t expect my individual feedback to be taken terribly seriously, I feel compelled to offer it. And because one of my academic specialties is research methods, I rarely turn down an opportunity to take a survey just so I can study it.

It hadn’t really occurred to me that I never see the results of those surveys (and that’s not an accusation) until yesterday, when I saw this article (press release, really) from the University of Arkansas touting their results from the 2013-2014 COACHE survey out of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.

The good news is that tenured/tenure-track faculty at the University of Arkansas by and large seem to like their jobs. Just a snippet of the happies:

The broad category of “teaching” was a main area in which the U of A faculty satisfaction levels ranked in the top 30 percent of institutions. In response to specific questions related to the effects of enrollment growth, 81 percent of the faculty reported being either satisfied or very satisfied with “the portion of your time spent on teaching;” 79 percent were satisfied or very satisfied with “the number of courses you teach;” and 69 percent responded that they were satisfied or very satisfied with “the number of students in the classes you teach.” U of A faculty also expressed satisfaction with the university’s senior leadership, again placing in the top 30 percent of of the participating universities in this area.

If you’re wondering why I’ve highlighted the fact that only tenured/tenure-track faculty responses seem to have mattered, then you understand how I felt when I read the article. Every time an article or report specifies or emphasizes the working conditions of non-contingent faculty, I can’t help but wonder (therefore, I’m doing your wondering for you if you didn’t already) two things: (1) How would contingent faculty responses to this survey change the results? and (2) How much of the job satisfaction enjoyed by non-contingent faculty happens because contingent faculty do what they do?

The article makes the point, twice, that contingent faculty are excluded from the results, at least the ones being reported here. The survey went to all faculty including contingents, and I’d love to know more about what they said. Apparently someday those results will be forthcoming.

In the meantime, I want to ask some questions about the non-contingent faculty responses. If you’re an individual non-contingent faculty member who feels like I’m accusing you of something by asking these questions, I have mixed feelings about that; if you’ve already decided I am, then we should have a conversation about why.

1. When “81 percent of the faculty reported being either satisfied or very satisfied with ‘the portion of your time spent on teaching,'” how much time are they spending? I realize this piece is posted by a university on its own website, so the audience is (ostensibly) people who already know or wouldn’t care, but I’m curious. More specifically, I’m curious about how much of that time spent teaching is defrayed/deflected onto graduate student workers in fields that employ grad students as actual teaching assistants. Your teaching work is a lot easier if somebody else is grading your papers/exams and answering emails for you.

2. I also wonder about the kinds of courses. If the University of Arkansas is like most flagship state universities, non-contingent faculty probably aren’t teaching many lower-division courses. I won’t rant (here) about my loathing for faculty at any rank or status who complain about teaching general education, but I expect it’s a lot more happy-fying for non-contingent faculty to teach two or three upper-division and graduate courses than for contingent faculty to teach almost if not all gen-ed (for the record, I should clarify–while I get mad at people who complain about teaching gen-ed courses, I don’t think anybody should ever have a job that mandates they teach nothing but). Or put (OK, you got me) somewhat more accusatorially, how much of that happiness is because low-paid contingent faculty/grad students are teaching the courses the non-contingents are happy not to be teaching?

3. About the number of students in classes: See #2. Also, I don’t know if this is true at Arkansas, but it’s true in some places that contingent faculty have higher course caps for the same courses as non-contingent counterparts. So a tenured faculty member may have a cap of 21 in a general education writing course, while adjuncts get 26 in the same course. Like I said, I have no idea if that happens at U of A, but ever since I started hearing that it happened anywhere I always have to ask.

I can already hear some of the responses to this post–not the questions, particularly, but the tenor and push of it:

“But the contingent faculty don’t have to do any research or service, so they should teach more.”

“But what am I supposed to do about it, even if I think it’s unjust?”

“But I need to teach the courses in my specialty area because it’s my specialty area.”

And so on. I have some things to say (surprise!) about all of those and the rest of the predictable litany, but those will have to wait for another day. I’m sure the suspense will keep you awake.

While you’re awake, here’s some homework for you. :)

Sign this petition to David Weil at the Department of Labor calling for an investigation into adjunct faculty working conditions at US colleges and universities.

Sign this petition to the Department of Justice calling for an investigation of corrupt contingent faculty employment practices.

Sign this petition to the Department of Education calling directly for better adjunct faculty pay.


The worst thing about contingency is contingency

July 26, 2014

Prompted by a very interesting conversation this morning on my Facebook over this blog post, which contends among other things that:

Though peo­ple are loath to admit it, the tenure-track posi­tion is the most scru­ti­nized and pressure-packed of fac­ulty posi­tions when talk­ing strictly about pro­fes­sional expec­ta­tions. This, of course, is because exist­ing depart­ment and insti­tu­tional bylaws require more reviews, paper­work, hoop nav­i­ga­tion, and file pro­duc­tion from this employee class than any other. Hav­ing suc­cess­fully nav­i­gated the tenure process twice now in two dif­fer­ent insti­tu­tions, I could go on for months here. As a mat­ter of fact, one of the things I did before leav­ing my pre­vi­ous insti­tu­tion was to help change our depart­ment bylaws in order to make life less ridicu­lous, bur­den­some, and puni­tive for those on the tenure track. (For exam­ple, there is no need for your 2nd year reten­tion file to be 300 pages by require­ment, is there?)

I didn’t react well to the claim, even though it is “strictly about professional expectations.” As what some people might describe as a rabid activist for adjunct labor equity, I immediately and strongly contested the author’s allocation of institutional power, which says that pre-tenure tenure-track faculty aren’t very powerful either, and that the commonplace adjunct rhetoric claiming that tenure-track faculty could just fix it all if we wanted to is wrong-headed.

The conversation on Facebook got a little testy, as many of these conversations do, but it got me thinking about some things I wanted to say in more detail than the Comment boxes invite.

One of the points I was trying to make is that I fully agree about how stressful it is to be a junior tenure-track faculty member. Every single thing you do or say feels monitored–and sometimes is. As tenure-track positions become rarer, the stakes go up. It’s common to get bad advice–sometimes from people who mean well, sometimes not–and difficult to know what’s what as a new person navigating an unfamiliar institution. And so on. I think the author of this blog post gets all that right.

I think he’s right too when he says that the generalized animus towards tenure-track and tenured faculty is misplaced. Not many of us are as active in pursuit of labor equity as I’d like for us to be, but very few of us are as actively willing to see contingent faculty suffer as many contingent faculty seem to think we are. Or put another way, there are lots of us trying to do at least some of the right things. It’s not enough, and I’m not saying that calling out complicity in an unjust system shouldn’t happen. I am saying generalizations like “All tenured faculty are happy to have adjuncts doing their work for them” are incorrect and unhelpful. I’ve come close to throwing it in a couple of times when faced with an onslaught of that animus; there’s only so many times you can hear yourself accused before you walk away.

In fact, I would go even further in contesting some of the common wisdom about the differences between adjunct and tenure-track positions. He doesn’t address the “We do the same job ” trope, for example, which makes me crazy. Yes, there are adjunct faculty who do research and service to the extent their positions afford it, but those are rarely requirements (I would be fine if they were–this isn’t an argument about qualifications). Even as a tenured full professor, I can get fired if I stop doing them–and rightly so. It would take a long time and I’d get lots of chances to fix it, but the fact that my position requires it and my adjunct colleagues’ don’t makes my job different. Before you respond that they teach more than I do, no they don’t–not in my system, where the full-time teaching load for both contingent and non-contingent faculty is 4/4. I had this argument early this summer on a national listserv of adjunct activists, and it didn’t go over very well.

So I’m willing to concede that I overreacted to the author’s position, given that I’m agreeing with his major points and adding to them. With that said, I’m not fully satisfied with the tension he leaves unresolved and think this next part needs saying loud and clear.

Are tenure-track faculty under a great deal of pressure? You bet. I’m in my professional teens as of this year (starting my 13th year out of grad school), so it hasn’t been that long since I was untenured. And I was untenured in a place where the politics surrounding tenure and promotion aren’t nearly as vicious and capricious as they are in many (Union Yes!).

But, and this is the point I was trying to make originally on the Facebook post, the pressure on tenure-track faculty simply isn’t comparable to the stress on contingent faculty whose jobs may shrink or disappear without notice or explanation; whose benefits, if there are any at all, are often tied to their teaching loads in such a way that losing a course could cost them much more than simply the lost salary (which already sucks); if you’ve read this much of this post already, you know this litany already. In practical terms that risk is not as prominent for some contingent faculty as for others, but it’s never not there. Pre-tenured faculty at most institutions can, I realize, lose their positions in the first two or three years without cause, the risk of which is horrifically stressful, but even then–during the academic year, they’re guaranteed full-time work, full-time benefits, and full-time pay.

As long as contingent faculty jobs can be changed or taken away for any or no reason at all, their employment situations are worse than mine. No matter how complicated an institution or a political dynamic, I just can’t see that any other way right now.


Why you should sign a petition calling for the Department of Labor to investigate contingent faculty working conditions

July 14, 2014

If you’re a Facebook friend or in my G+ network, you’ve seen me post a link to this petition calling for the Department of Labor to investigate the working conditions of contingent faculty in the US.

If you haven’t already, here’s why you should do this–

If you’re a contingent faculty member, it may (should?) benefit you directly. I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t sign it, especially because your local administration should never know that you did. It’s safe, and it’s potentially very helpful.

If you’re a faculty member who isn’t contingent, there are several reasons to do this. First, it’s an obvious act of solidarity with our contingent colleagues whose positions are untenable; even contingent faculty with the best salaries and benefits and access to governance and all the rest of it are still contingent. Second, if you believe that “we” need to be taking action on behalf of contingent faculty but don’t have faith in our professional organizations, unions, etc, this petition opens up another avenue for action. Third, there is simply no good reason not to call for this. I can’t imagine the world in which the conditions of contingency that our adjunct faculty work in are reasonable.

If you’re an academic administrator/manager, a successful petition to the Department of Labor may help alleviate the pressure on you to make changes, especially without any guidance from the law. At the very least, a successful petition will clarify what the rules are, and I don’t know any administrators who aren’t happier knowing that.

If you’re a student, or the parent/guardian of a student, you may not know how many of the faculty teaching in American colleges and universities are contingent, meaning they have mostly short-term (one semester, mostly, sometimes a year, very rarely longer than that) contracts, usually are compensated very poorly (the petition has plenty of the numbers if you need to see them), often don’t have access to reasonable offices or equipment or libraries or the resources all college faculty need to do our work. Individual adjunct faculty work against daunting odds and conditions to serve you well, and can only do better if they’re supported reasonably well. You can help make that happen–again, at no cost or risk to yourself.

If you’re anybody else, especially if you’re also a contingent (temporary, term, contract, freelance, etc) worker in any other field, you should sign this petition as an act of solidarity with contingent colleagues, and as a way of helping to build the network of contingent workers that can respond en masse to the exploitation happening everywhere.

As simply as I can put it, there is no good reason not to sign.

For those of you who are interested in the larger adjunct labor movement, I would also argue supporting this campaign is important because it opens up yet another new approach to fighting for equity. We’ve seen creative approaches growing and intertwining at a lively rate in the last few years: Josh Boldt’s Adjunct Project; SEIU’s Adjunct Action campaign; the New Faculty Majority; more recently the #mlademocracy campaign, which has successfully put forward a slate of contingent and contingent-supportive candidates to run for the organization’s offices; the AFU’s petition to the Department of Justice to investigate Higher Ed writ large for denial of civil rights and collusion, and Ana Maria Fores Tamayo’s petition calling explicitly for better pay for adjunct faculty.

Those efforts, of various sizes and scopes, have met with varying degrees of success–just like any efforts do. I’ve supported or been involved (more or less tangentially) in all of them , including this one, and believe that supporting this petition campaign is important not only because it’s a good idea, but also because it represents another possible path to equity–and against the alternative, which is to do nothing, it’s a path well taken.


What I Didn’t Spend at Wal Mart

November 19, 2012

For years, I’ve been contending that people who boycott aren’t maximizing their impact if they don’t make clear what the boycott is costing the target of the boycott. And in this era of crowd-sourcing on teh Internetz, it’s not terribly difficult to do. So as a first step in attempting to aggregate sales Wal Mart is losing to companies that, um, don’t act like Wal Mart, I invite people to post evidence of purchases you chose not to make at Wal Mart: photos of items (with prices), receipts (make sure your credit card # isn’t visible!), order forms (again, make sure your private info isn’t visible), etc.

Here’s my first entry!

Your Zazzle Order

Hi herecomestrouble1208@gmail.com,

This email is a confirmation of your order 131-22945560-1437350. You can track the status of this order at the Order Status Page.

Right now, our team is hand-picking your custom products and preparing them for production. We will be sure to let you know as soon as your order is ready for shipment.

Thanks again for your order. We’ll be in touch soon!

Order ID: 131-22945560-1437350
Order Date: 11/16/2012

Billing Summary:

Seth Kahn
276 Canterbury Dr.

West Chester, PA, 19380
United States

Subtotal: $22.52
Shipping: $5.99
Tax: $0.00
———
———
Total: $28.51
Paid With  
Visa (…xxxxx): $28.51

Shipping Info:

The following item(s) will be shipped to:

Seth Kahn
276 Canterbury Dr.

West Chester, PA, 19380
United States

via Standard – with tracking Shipping (4-7 Business Days After Manufacturing)

Defend Public Education in PAzazzle_shirt
by RagingChicken

Basic T-Shirt, White, Adult XL

Qty. Price Discount Subtotal
1 $20.10 -$10.05 $10.05
Share This! |  Facebook  Twitter  Wordpress  Blogger


Class Warrior t-shirt WITHOUT back graphic zazzle_shirt
by RagingChicken

Basic 3/4 Sleeve Raglan, White/Black, Adult 2X

Qty. Price Discount Subtotal
1 $24.95 -$12.48 $12.47
Share This! |  Facebook  Twitter  Wordpress  Blogger

If you can’t post in the Comments section, send me the info and I’ll post it for you.

 


“I don’t know”

September 12, 2012

Although most of my blogging these days happens on the blog I contribute to for our faculty union local, every once in a while I have to say something higher-ed related that I can’t publish under the auspices of the union. This is one of those…

In the last month-ish, on two occasions high-level managers on my campus have answered questions that seemed extremely important to know details about with rather off-handed “I don’t know.”

The first time, our state-level boss, the Chancellor, encouraged (in some way we don’t exactly know the details of) the Provosts of all 14 schools in the system to sign contracts with a for-profit company called Learning Counts. If you don’t have the time/energy/stomach to click through, Learning Counts invites students to submit portfolios describing “prior learning experiences” (professional, military, etc) that Learning Counts converts into recommendations for college credit. That is, they believe what people do out in the world should earn them course credit at colleges. I’ll set aside my dispute with that claim (for now–it’ll get another post soon), and instead focus on a different problem. In our system, the evaluation of students’ petitions for course credit (via transfer, or a process some departments have called Credit by Exam, or by AP/CLEP) is done by faculty. Not only is it work that we’re better suited to do (because we’re the ones who write and understand our own curricula, not to mention all sorts of things about teaching and learning because we’re [bleeping] professionals), but in our system it’s also work faculty get compensated for. So, the system has asked Provosts to sign an agreement that hands off faculty work to people who may well do worse at it.

At a periodic face-to-face meeting the union local has with management (called Meet and Discuss–I’m not sure how common that term is in other unions), we asked the Provost some questions about this agreement after learning that she’d already signed the contract. Most evocative of the problem here, we asked, “What do you know about Learning Counts’ process for evaluating courses, or their criteria? How does this work?”

“I don’t know.”

WHAT?

Understand that I’m not attacking the Provost personally here. I have no idea what was happening in her head, nor do I know what kinds of demands were made of her and her fellow Provosts, or any of that. But I’m very distressed that she, anybody, would sign onto an agreement that has severe implications on faculty work, curriculum, and the quality of our institution’s degrees and brands, without knowing how that agreement gets executed.

Second (and I did post something about this on our union chapter blog last night–click here for background). I had an email exchange with the WCU VP responsible for answering Right to Know requests about National Educational Services’ use of the term “internal research” as the rationale for their information request. This morning, the VP told me that he doesn’t really know what they mean by the term, but once they have the information they can pretty much do what they want with it.

So. Anybody can make a Right to Know request and offer only the vaguest excuse for wanting the information. Then, once they have it, they can do anything they want with it even though that use has nothing to do with the request for asking.

So why bother vetting those requests at all?

Gee. I don’t know.


Resistance to change

July 21, 2012

Two seemingly unrelated bits of context/scene-setting here–

1. Way back in 2004, my officemate Juanita Rogers Comfort and I were on a panel with a grad school mentor of mine, Rebecca Moore Howard, at the Rhetoric Society of America conference. Becky’s paper for that panel, which I read for her because she couldn’t make the trip, was called “Balancing Institutional Expectations and Disciplinary Expertise.” In short, Becky contends that as members of institutions, our own disciplinary knowledge about how students learn to write, what “good writing” entails, etc only buy us so much leeway in resisting the demands our colleagues in other disciplines (sometimes even our own) and administrators put on us, even when those demands reflect a clear misunderstanding of students, rhetoric, and writing instruction. She doesn’t recommend caving, either, and the paper ends before she could articulate that balance very fully–and even if she could have, it would have been different for every school and time anyway, so…

2. Over the last couple of years, as the public debate about online education (primarily higher ed, but increasingly K-12 too) has heated up, the refrain “You people who resist online education are just resistant to change” appears quite frequently. The argument, apparently, is that because we’re not willing to leap on a bandwagon (or accept the “new normal” or [insert neo-liberal phrase here]), we’re just too attached to our own bad selves to get with the program (pun intended).

The connection between these two points is, I hope, kind of obvious.

But just in case–

There are, as far as I can tell, 3 versions of the pro on-line education argument.

1. Online courses/programs give college access to students who couldn’t get it otherwise–because of geography, schedules, life issues…  That is, if you can’t get to college any other way, you can do this. I know very few professional educators who have a complaint with this notion.

2. Online courses/programs are just as good as conventional brick and mortar programs because they offer all kinds of advantages that mitigate the disadvantages. Or, the more disingenuous version I’ve seen occasionally (but not made by any professionals), because you can’t prove that online courses aren’t as good as face-to-face courses, they must be, so there.

3. Online courses/programs are better. The most recent iteration of this argument is about MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses)–that MOOCs feature the very best faculty, using the very best technology, emphasizing the very best content, and offering it for the very best price (free).

Here’s the thing.

I’m actually not at all opposed to putting college content online, or the notion that online material can provide positive learning experiences for college students. I’ve spent the last three years on a team, funded by a National Science Foundation grant, that’s developing interactive science ethics education modules for upper-level undergraduate and graduate science students. The rationale for our project is that we’re able to provide experiential learning opportunities to students anywhere on the planet (as long as they read English, for now), without the expense of having to build, stock, or travel to labs (or the danger of conducting experiments with real machines and chemicals!). Clearly, my work on this project should demonstrate that I’m not opposed, in principle, to making college educational opportunities available on the Internetz.

But.

As Mark Edmundsun argues in Friday’s New York Times, college education is, at its heart, dialogic. That means “interactive” if “dialogic” sounds too pretentious. His version of dialogue, that teachers can’t teach well unless we get direct, immediate, palpable feedback from students doesn’t go far enough even for my taste–I’d argue that true dialogue entails students teaching me as much as I teach them, but that’s a debate he and I should have between the two of us:)–but the point is important. Even the best professor, once he/she has recorded a lecture and posted a series of exercises that he/she never looks at students’ responses to, isn’t engaging with the students. That is, access to information does not equal education in the rich sense of the word that professional educators mean it.

As I’ve been interviewing faculty members (so far, two in the US and one in New Zealand) who have beta-tested the SciEthics Interactive modules we’re developing for NSF, one of the very clear themes emerging from those conversations is that the modules are great, but they don’t do much without the support of a faculty member contextualizing and debriefing the students, and they do even less without the students having an opportunity to debrief and reflect on their experiences together.

That is: even a module that’s designed, from beginning to end, to be interactive and experiential doesn’t work as well as it could if the students just complete it individually and never engage other students or teachers about it.

As online technologies get better at allowing real-time, face-to-face interactions over long distances (Skype, Google+ hangouts, videoconferencing technologies of other kinds), the possibilities for authentically interactive/dialogic education will improve. And I’m fine with that. If I could do what I do anywhere I wanted to be as long as I have internet access, I’d probably like that–at least sometimes. But we’re not there yet.

And for ed-tech advocates to accuse me of refusing to get with the program because my long experience as a teacher and researcher gives me quite solid grounds for resisting is mistaken if not dishonest. Most of the people advocating hightech willy-nilly have either not taught, or have financial attachments to hightech concerns. And pardon me for putting it so bluntly, but I think I know better than the first, and my motives aren’t as corrupt as the second.


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