Inequality, MOOCs and The Predator Elite

It’s been too long since I’ve written here on The Homeless Adjunct blog, but I am back and ready to move forward.  The silence was caused by a particularly hard year of never-ending job searching.  Two of my three adjunct teaching jobs disappeared, leaving me with barely 30% of what was already a poverty level income.  I suspect that this has had something to do with my outspokenness on the issue of adjunct labor abuse, but as those of you working on contingency contracts all know far too well — there is simply no way to definitively prove such retaliation.  And after a year of falling victim to the severe trauma that we adjuncts are always facing, I have gotten myself back up, and have determined that I won’t let myself be silenced by poverty, or fear.  While it has certainly proven to be an effective tactic, it can only be effective if we allow it to take our spirit along with our income.  It’s pretty clear that this is a Braveheart moment, where I either continue to fight against tyranny — and the corporatized university is a tyrannical institution — or I let them win.

And thanks to the Scottish warrior blood in my veins, I choose to fight.

Since many people have kindly asked, I should also say that my co-producer, Chris Labree, and I are putting together a fundraising campaign shortly, to help us raise the money we need to get the remainder of the film shot, and into post-production.  So, you’ll be hearing a good bit on these pages about how that’s going.  You’ll also be reading about some of the people we’ve already interviewed, and the issues we’ll be addressing in the film and in the book.

So, since my last article, what’s been happening in higher education?  Tuitions are continuing to increase.   Student loan debt is continuing to increase.  Administrative jobs are continuing to increase.  Use of low-wage adjuncts is continuing to increase. Presidential salaries are continuing to increase.  But the quality of education is plummeting.

Yes, more people are talking about the terrible situation in academia.  But the focus still seems to be skewed.  The myth of the “lazy tenured professor” still gets bandied about by too many people as if it were a truth.  For profit “information delivery” methods are on the rise.  MOOCs proliferate, despite plenty of research that points out the serious flaws in
this “model”.  The game plan seems clear – destroy the teaching profession, then blame those educators still struggling against all odds to teach, hold them responsible for the systemic failures.  Then replace a system which focused on the social good of education with a for-profit model run like an edu-factory.  There is a reason that billionaires like Bill Gates have bought into education – and its the same reason that Gates owns over a half million dollars worth of Monsanto stock.  Factory farming and factory-ed have the same goal: profit.  And not for you or me.  Certainly not for our children.  But for Rupert Murdoch and Bill Gates and the other 1%-ers who have muscled their way into ownership of the “education industry”.  And, I will say it until I’m blue in the face (and yes that’s another Braveheart reference):  Education is NOT a for-profit endeavor, any more than medicine should be.  It is a social good, and must be treated as such.  Teachers are professionals and know more about the complexities of educating individuals than the “Instructional Designers” and curriculum technicians who are doing their best to take over.

An article from outside of academia caught my attention the other day.  It’s an interview from with Jaron Lanier, long seen as an internet visionary.  Lanier has grown more than a little concerned about the ways in which the internet has become a driving force for inequality and, sees it at the root of the destruction of the middle class.  He points to several professions – artists, musicians, journalists – whose livelihoods have all but disappeared.   His new book Who Owns the Future continues his war on digital utopianism and his assertion of humanist and individualistic values in a hive-mind world. But Lanier still sees potential in digital technology: He just wants it reoriented away from its main role so far, which involves “spying” on citizens, creating a winner-take-all society, eroding professions and, in exchange, throwing bonbons to the crowd.”

The idea of this erosion of professions is what caught my attention the most.  He warns that internet technology has been destroying the middle class by destabilizing jobs – by both shrinking the pool of possible jobs, and then creating instability in the few jobs available.  Instability comes in two ways: job instability (part-time, contract work has been replacing full-time work) and the low wages and lack of benefits that go with such part-time jobs.
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?

Lanier talks about what happened when digital photography overtook the old style of photograph development.  He uses Kodak as an example.  At one point they employed over 140,000 workers.  Instagram, at the point it was sold for….about a billion dollars was it?….to Facebook, had 13 employees.  THIRTEEN.

Digitizing does away with the need for the human.  In the case of MOOCs, it is a scholarship killer. Education, at the university level especially, is the outgrowth of ongoing scholarship by the faculty.  A lifetime of research, writing, speaking, engaging with other scholars in your field, produces not just the articles and books of each scholar’s work, but the classes – NEW classes, exciting never-before-given classes, which provide a furtherance of study and scholarship in a given area.  By MOOC-ing college classes, an illusion of higher education is created.  Nothing more.  It’s “virtual” education in all the worst ways.

Remember when SAG and AFTRA did bloody battle with the film studios and TV studios in the early days of VCRs?  When a whole new way of distributing the work of the actors and crew on films and TV shows offered tremendous increase in revenue….but not for THEM?  Well, that’s what the MOOC model does in academia.  The owners of the MOOC platform, the universities under contract with the MOOC companies — those are the beneficiaries of all this digitized “information delivery”.  The shrinking career of the professor just got diminished even more.  And, unlike the members of SAG/AFTRA, we have no union capable of providing significant pushback.  The traditional educational unions have been nearly worthless – they haven’t been able to stop the casualization of the majority of university professors in the country, for instance.  They’ve been notoriously short-sighted.  Who is there to fight against the already-impoverished professoriate being MOOCed?

Lanier talks about the social contract that is being broken by the casualization of more and more areas of labor — he calls it the “informal” economy of our current employment situation. “We kind of made a bargain, a social contract, in the 20th century that even if jobs were pleasant people could still get paid for them. Because otherwise we would have had a massive unemployment. And so to my mind, the right question to ask is, why are we abandoning that bargain that worked so well?”

This observation is certainly relevant to what he sees happening in the creative industries, and in journalism.  But it is just as true in academia.  The idea that if a person loves what they do — even if it takes a lot of work and dedication to do it — they don’t deserve to be paid a middle-class salary to DO it — is part of what fuels the disappearance of the scholar as a professional.

The problem is, as Lanier points out, that we are not living in an informal economy, simply suffering with the income of an informal hiring system.  This informal, casualized labor situation puts far too many people, across all professions, into a terrible situation when they crash up against the formal economy we actually LIVE in — that’s the economy where you must still use cold, hard cash to pay for your housing, your utilities, your food, your healthcare.

“It was all a social construct to begin with, so what changed… is that at the turn of the [21st] century it was really Sergey Brin at Google who just had the thought of, well, if we give away all the information services, but we make money from advertising, we can make information free and still have capitalism. But the problem with that is it reneges on the social contract where people still participate in the formal economy. And it’s a kind of capitalism that’s totally self-defeating because it’s so narrow. It’s a winner-take-all capitalism that’s not sustaining.”

Think about the writing-for-free model that has taken over journalism.  His point can be supported by the millions made by Arianna Huffington, while many of her writers worked for little or nothing.  Yes, writing is one of what Lanier is calling the “pleasant” jobs — as is teaching (I didn’t say easy.  But dedicated writers and educators alike see what they do as rewarding and important work.)  Why should journalists or educators be working for little to no money, living at the edge of poverty, while the people at the top of this sort of economic structure are reaping enormous fortune?  According to Lanier, this is a conscious breach of the all-important social contract that not only provides what he calls the “hump” of middle class citizens — that middle area surge on the economic chart where the majority of people fall — but that large, sustained middle class keeps the rest of the system going.  Without it, the economy fails, as does democracy itself.

“We don’t realize that our society and our democracy ultimately rest on the stability of middle-class jobs…The way society actually works is there’s some mechanism of basic stability so that the majority of people can outspend the elite so we can have a democracy. That’s the thing we’re destroying, and that’s really the thing I’m hoping to preserve. So we can look at musicians and artists and journalists as the canaries in the coal mine, and is this the precedent that we want to follow for our doctors and lawyers and nurses and everybody else? Because technology will get to everybody eventually.”

Technology will get to everybody eventually.  Well, it’s already more than started in the professions he lists.  Internet diagnosis and the silo-ing of medical treatment.  Lawyers’ duties being unbundled, with online document reviewers being outsourced to other low-wage countries.  Scholars being reduced to migrant status, teaching conveyor-belt classes with “common syllabi”.

We’re all screwed.  And we’ll stay screwed if we keep struggling as individuals, or as separate classes of professionals.  We’ve got to come together and rise up together – all workers, across all platforms and industries – and put our talents and our multiple intelligences to use for our own benefit.  Stop giving our talents and abilities away to the Predator Elite, and start working together to figure out how to use our talents for each other.  If all exploited journalists stopped writing; if all exploited artists stopped creating; if all exploited educators stopped teaching — what would these exploiters have?  A great big bunch of nothing.  No articles or news stories.  No music, theatre, film, visual art.  Empty classrooms and campuses.

The most exploited are the most necessary.  We can never forget that.

About junctrebellion

'Junct Rebellion was established to raise awareness of the corporate colonization that has taken over our U.S. universities, beginning in the 1980s and growing more and more dire with each decade. Our state universities used to be free, or very low-cost; they used to employ full-time faculty; they were run by faculty for the purpose of disseminating scholarship, to fellow academics and students and to society at large. Now, stratospheric tuitions and crippling student loan debt have been normalized, 80% of faculty across the country are hired on "adjunct" contracts, usually lasting one semester at a time. Classes are designed and overseen by administrators who have never taught. Administrators outnumber both faculty and students on most campuses across the U.S. In short, our academic system has been hijacked by for-profit "business models" and corporatist values. Education is a social good and should be seen, valued and supported as such. It is not a commodity. Our students are not sacrificial lambs. Our scholars are not untouchables, to be starved out of existence. Please join us in our efforts to restore high-quality academia to American society.
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24 Responses to Inequality, MOOCs and The Predator Elite

  1. VanessaVaile says:

    Reblogged this on As the Adjunctiverse Turns and commented:
    After far too long an absence, the Homeless Adjunct is back! Spread the word and share like there is no tomorrow. Dancing on tables encouraged. You know what else this means? The ‘Junct movie is back on track too, coming your way.

  2. VanessaVaile says:

    There is more to say about this post, but speaking of Gates, just yesterday I came across an astute observation on Google+ that needs sharing and I wish I had made. Reflecting on a Gates statement about how we need more math and date analysis in gov’t, planning and decision making ~ how like Robert McNamara Gates is.

  3. The issue also plays out in the Open Access debate (see: Closed access is very costly and legally dangerous commoditization of intellectual outputs. And while I’m all in favor of Open Access, it won’t benefit all equally. For example, Google will do just fine serving ads against open (or closed, doesn’t much matter to them) access research.

    Without taking on neo-liberalism (our current brutal form of capitalism), we’ll continue to strip mine the public good and destroy the institutions and people that give us capacity to grow and learn.

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  8. insigniff says:

    Interesting perspective on MOOC’s. It changed my mind, i used to think they were almost unambiguously beneficial (but as a student and not a teacher, i’m clearly biased).

  9. Thank you for this spirited post. I know the struggles and indignities of adjuncting firsthand, and I will definitely keep an eye out for the movie! Maybe that can catalyze a mass movement, a strike of sorts that give the corporate university pause. For my part, I quit adjuncting a couple of years ago–I think it’s the only solution, both individually and collectively.

    I’m not sure I’m on board with characterizing the MOOCers, or the 1%, as a Predatory Elite. That is a conspiracy theoryish tic of radical politics that, I think, is not only off base but is counterproductive, since it sends the oppressed into a woe spiral of victimization. As Lanier himself points out, most of the the Lords of the Cloud that he knows are deeply decent people–the problems are predominantly structural.

    But JL’s point about the unsustainability of 1% arrangements applies to higher ed as well–sure, in the near future you’ll have the elite rock star professors featured in MOOCs, but once you have a MOOC for a “classical” subject like Medieval History, or Intro to Philosophy, or whatever–a subject in which the content doesn’t really change–then why bother creating a new one? In other words, the rock stars can die out but their supreme content will live on, and we won’t need any more rock stars.

    (I applaud your use of Lanier in this discussion; I’m working my way through his new book as well. I think he is one of–and may well be remembered as–one of the most profound thinkers of our times, and I’d like to hear more of your thoughts on him.)

    I’m also not sure about a claim you made about the companies owning and keeping all the profits from a given MOOC. I recall reading an article recently which explained that the any profits from a MOOC used at a particular university would be divvied up between the host school, the company providing the MOOC, and the prof who designed it…

    Have you read “An Avalanche is Coming?” It’s a white paper report/forecast on the future of higher ed. Though it is motored, I think, by a neoliberal disruptivism you might find troubling, it doesn’t paint an entirely doomsday picture–and challenges your claim that “digitization does away with the need for the human”. An excerpt below:

    [Nothing, we argue here, should stand in the way of the study of profound elements of the cultural tradition. We agree with Helen Gardner who quotes CS Lewis in her wonderful tour de force, In Defence of the Imagination, that ‘we read because we want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations and feel with other hearts’.77 Our argument does not imply that these areas of study are doomed, nor because they are not immediately relevant that they should be given lower status or less priority. It does imply that, as with all aspects of study, they will have to change as the world changes – online and blended learning approaches are as relevant to Ancient Greek as they are to modern engineering, for example. It does imply, too, that the advocates of these areas of study need to make the case for them not just to government, but to future students and the public.

    This should not be hard – we live in an era when future businesspeople and bankers need ethics more than ever; when being taught to think clearly and argue forcefully is as important as ever; and when the ability to distinguish wisdom in the sea of information may be the quality above all that marks an individual out from the crowd. Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Happiness Hypothesis, which beautifully connects ancient philosophy with modern psychology in a guide to life, is a case in point.]

    Thank you again for your post!

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  11. Linkmeister says:

    You might find this article in this week’s Sports Illustrated germane: it discusses the expansion of non-coaching staffs at the big football schools. Alabama had 24 of these jobs and paid them $1.6 million last year, according to the Tuscaloosa News.

  12. therealprof says:

    While David’s point of superstar professors teaching the basics is rock solid, there is always a need for new material in most all arenas of higher education. Because of this, there will always be a need for new blood, superstars, to start and carry new discourse and contemporary thought. On another note, it might be a good idea to throw out a few possible solutions for the problem at hand. MOOCs are not going anywhere and the “predators” are at the forefront of all new technology because of their money-grubbing motivation, it might be time for the academics to put their money where their mouth is and be, well, smart. The proposed film will do much in the way of bringing the topic to the table, which is half the battle in most cases, but I would love to see a few theories on how to actually fix the issue. Long before I found this blog I was having this type of discussion with my fellow graduate students, with the mind to realize what was happening, and even a few adjunct instructors. While I later found out that it was not common for an adjunct to express displeasure about the workings of the system with a student, I realized that the reason for this transgression was directly tied to the severity of the issue, which spurred my own brainstorming on how to fix the issue, which your blog has helped me understand a bit better. In my experience, about 30% of students have an inkling that their education is not good enough, and of them only, 10% actually care, the rest are just going to college because they are “supposed to”. The key is inspiring that 10% to take action to try to improve the situation and while I dont have any numbers to back me up, I am pretty sure that name calling and political/economic class polarization isn’t the best way to garner support. In closing, I would like to thank you for doing what you do and wish you luck on the film.

  13. Beth says:

    just started reading a few of your posts, had no idea how grim higher education teaching could be. would love to learn about any colleges or universities that are trying not to fall prey to corporatization, maybe a blog post in the future about this when you’re less burdened by your own survival? thank you for all of your hard work to move this issue forward. i wish you the best of luck in your job search.

  14. Ed Hamilton says:

    The big con infests America, see here:
    The ‘establishment’ are responsible, by definition.
    SO, expose this status quo, forcefully! Vacancies in the establishment result, making room for adjuncts.

  15. “but once you have a MOOC for a “classical” subject like Medieval History, or Intro to Philosophy, or whatever–a subject in which the content doesn’t really change–then why bother creating a new one? In other words, the rock stars can die out but their supreme content will live on, and we won’t need any more rock stars.” – I have to respectfully disagree with David on this point. This is precisely what is wrong with the logic behind MOOCs: the idea that the content “doesn’t really change.” When I taught as a TA and then an adjunct years ago, my Intro to Af/Am Lit. classes and my intro to Amer. Lit. classes looked very different from those of my peers. It wasn’t that any one of us had the “right” way to teach a given subject–we just all brought our own new scholarship and perspective to bear on the subject–enriching it in the process of teaching it. A canned version of any subject will bankrupt it. The very idea of higher education to me implies a nuance in knowledge. It is through the variance, the contradiction and the disagreement that we learn to think.

    I do however agree with David about quitting. I quit 7 years ago because I saw it as my best avenue to resist. As you say in this post: what if all the writers, teachers and artists stopped producing?

    On a final note, there is another way to look at the digitization of work–without capitalism, it could set us free. Let the machines do the mundane work freeing humans to do the creative work. It’s a utopian view I know. But why not explore it? Off the top of my head I’m thinking of Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time for a sci-fi peek at what that might look at. Just a thought.

    And on a final final note: thanks for a great post! glad I stopped by to see if you were posting again!

  16. Reblogged this on "Women's Lit?" Gender, identity, writing 1800-2013 and commented:
    I’m reblogging this entry, because it’s so insightful and disturbing. Anyone involved with higher edu should be thinking about these issues.

  17. Ro Lauren says:

    The idea of recording ones thoughts and ideas for prosperity has always been the cornerstone of scholarship, not the destruction of it. I don’t see how creating a MOOC is much different than publishing a book. As a student I don’t see MOOCs as the same as school by any stretch of the imagination. The interaction school relies on fundamentally missing from MOOCs.

    You say…
    “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?”
    Just because I can check a book out of the library on a topic, which someone spent a life time developing the expertise to write, doesn’t mean professors are not needed on that topic. The same is true with MOOCs. Creating a MOOC just adds the recorded chest of human knowledge in a way some people find more accessible than a book or a video.

    The thing about real scholarship is that is can’t be “canned”. The nature of real scholarship is dynamic, it’s about learning new previously undiscovered things.

    The problem is how our economic system works. As machines take over more drudge work, our society needs to change to value the things machines can’t do, like creating art, music, and new ideas. The problem is the economic system that prevents that.

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  19. FIGHT THE POWER says:

    Keep up the fight, but we must organize and the key word is FIGHT. Our system is based on conflict. The “other” side understands this and is winning because we have been complacent.

  20. nufio says:

    I tend to agree with Ro Lauren here. I actually find MIT opencourseware really good. In fact I learn more from it than I did at the corresponding classes that I took in university. Why is that a bad thing?

    • VanessaVaile says:

      Dear Rufio van Winkle, where have you been?


    • The MOOC model often lacks the personal/mentoring component that research consistently shows to be essential in real learning. For self-motivated learners, there is a lot to be gained from online materials. But the drop-out rate of the MOOC courses is astonishingly high – in some cases more than 80% of the registered students don’t finish the course. The other problem is how it “cans” education — which, if we’re talking about real academia, depends on the continuing, on-going research and scholarly work of the faculty – offering new ideas, rethinking older ways of teaching a topic, etc. Without that, you don’t have real academia – you have something frozen-in-time, non-interactive. The online model is a supplemental model, to my mind, which requires the lifeblood of real scholarship, and the person-to-person component of mentoring and group discussion. MOOCS are a place to start, or a place to supplement or augment — but they are not reflective of real, living, ever-developing academia. As for learning more from MIT OSW than in your university classes — perhaps that is because our university classes these days are so woefully designed (often by administrators), taught by overburdened, underpaid, overextended adjuncts who are living at the poverty line…and which are frequently now over-filled as the administrators constantly raise the maximum number of students in each class, thereby cutting down any real interaction with the faculty.

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  22. Robert Vogel says:

    I blame Republicans for most of our problems: government dysfunction, privatization of education, deindustrialization, concentration of corporations including media, regressive policy that leads to income inequality, climate change denial, unlimited population expansion, shredding of the social safety net, the new round of nuclear weapons, the endless (religious) wars. Projections are they will take over the Senate in a few weeks, so expect the worst.

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