Sunday, February 15, 2015

Careers on Spec – Job Description Creep, Bait and Switch

Over the past two weeks a series of articles have appeared at the Chronicle of Higher Education online site regarding the changing reality of what used to be higher education. Three articles in particular have brought these changes and their impact on faculty and students alike into focus.

The Anti-Professor

Inaugurating a series of articles on the emerging role of entrepreneurship in higher education, the shot across the bow was fired Feb. 2 by Jeffrey Young in an essay entitled “Here Comes Professor Everybody, The ‘sharing economy’ meets higher education.” [i]

Young detailed the rise of the “anti-professor,” the creator of online instructional sites such as Udemy, a populist version of the MOOC (massive open online courses). Where MOOCs employ academic experts and frequently operate out of venerable institutions such as MIT and Stanford, Udemy is open to anyone with enough time on their hands and access to a mobile device to create content, upload it and run their sites.

The “anti-professor” is personified in the example of Nick Walter, a recent graduate with a newly minted information systems bachelor degree who began to cast about in search of a living:

Walter had no experience teaching, no affiliation with a university or accredited educational institution, and—by his own admission—no particular gifts as a computer-science student. But that doesn’t matter to Udemy, or to any of a number of similar platforms that have emerged in recent years. Walter’s thin credentials didn’t bother his students, either. They’ve signed up in droves.

Young makes the case that clearly there is a market for services offered by people like Walter. “Like any good entrepreneur, Walter identified an untapped need.” While it is unclear whether this is actually a need or merely a consumer demand that is being met, there is certainly a market. But is it a market for education?

Your Whole Career on Spec

The first response to Young’s Professor Everybody came a couple of days later in “The University is Just Another Client,” an essay by Katie Rose Guest Pryal, a non-tenure track associate professor of law at UNC-Chapel Hill:

As a contingent faculty member, you work your whole career on spec. Every class you teach, every grant you write, every article you publish—they’re all on spec, because you have no job security to back you up if a project doesn’t pan out. You work and work, hoping some person in authority will give you: (a) more money, (b) more job security, (c) more job respect, or some combination of (a), (b), and (c).

Spoiler alert: It doesn't work. As those of us who've been at this for a while know, giving administrators your work for free does not inspire them to reward you. More often it backfires and inspires administrators to turn your previously volunteered work into new job requirements. Suddenly what you did as a favor becomes a rigid job expectation.

Pryal’s advice to contingent faculty who find themselves at the corner of Damned If You Do and Damned If You Don’t is to come to terms with being freelancers. Among her tips for making this transition is to think in terms of marketable skills, converting one’s academic CV into a quick read resumé and joining communities of freelancers for support. She ends her essay with these words:

Remember that moving into the mindset of a Freelance Academic does not mean that you give up your job teaching on a campus. It just means that you approach your relationship with your institution differently. You no longer belong to them: They belong to you. Once that shift happens—and you’ll know when it does—there’s nothing more empowering.

Maybe. Frankly, that all sounds just a little too glib to this contingent faculty member. There is nothing remotely close to an even playing field here upon which such arms-length bargaining could take place. In all honesty, I doubt this writer has ever had to live off what she could make as a freeway flyer.

But I’m Not an Entrepreneur 

It’s into this context that the final of the three articles appeared. Author and visiting instructor John Warner responded to Young’s article on Professor Everybody with a poignant essay entitled “What If I Don't Want to Be an Entrepreneur?”

Warner argues that at some level, the move to an entrepreneurial economy can be exciting. “A ‘sharing economy’ where anyone with a phone can earn extra money driving others, or where a college graduate (or non-graduate for that matter) with a knack for explaining something others want to know how to do can become a “teacher” without having to take the time or suffer the expense of additional training or jumping through regulatory hurdles looks to be efficient and empowering.”

Of course, as Warner notes, competition rewarded by ratings of consumer satisfaction rarely says much about quality of performance. Warner confessed that even if he proved to be a “superstar of the medium,” that may well say more about his customers than his teaching. Moreover,“[W]hat about my vanquished competitors? They’re probably still pretty good teachers – not as awesome as me, but pretty good – what are we going to do about them?”

But it was his concluding words that really spoke to my own experience of a changing academy:

And really, I don’t want to be an entrepreneur. I want to teach and write. I like the work. I’m pretty good at it. Every moment I spend selling myself and competing in the marketplace is a moment not spent doing the things I enjoy most, and which convey the most benefit to others.

Precisely. It’s the duties that are increasingly pushed upon all of us that we are ill-prepared to resist or to handle in addition to our actual jobs that make our careers in academia harder and harder to endure. As Warner notes, every moment we spend on these unsolicited additional tasks on our own nickel is a moment not spent on doing the jobs we were hired to do.

It’s hard to love a job with an infinite job description creep.

Unarticulated Expectations

Marketer - Last semester when one of my courses failed to make, I was told that I was not doing sufficient marketing. Of course, I was not hired to be a marketer. I have no background in marketing and I’m not particularly good at it. And in all honesty, I’m probably not the only faculty member who feels that this is an incredibly misguided approach to offering classes by departments and for choosing classes by students.

College courses should not be marketed, they should be taught and taken. If students don’t want to take the classes offered as the result of careful consideration by departments of their academic value, they should not be in college or at least not in that college. Perhaps Udemy is calling them.

Marketing classes pits one-time colleagues against each other in a desperate struggle for FTE numbers (thus, dollars) to survive. This is the stuff that destroys collegiality. It also appeals to the lowest common denominators – low workloads, high grade anticipations, sexy course descriptions, and, of course, fun, fun, fun ! Such marketing is mediated by consumer reviews, both those conducted by the university and those at commercial online sites. Lost in the shuffle is anything remotely related to learning.

Facework - I’m also not terribly expert at computer science. The only course I have ever taken in online technologies was the introductory course for teaching online I took 11 years ago for a system we no longer use. Ironically, the course in how to teach online had to be taught and taken in person – go figure!

I spend enormous chunks of time these days dealing with technology problems, recreating files created for previous courses but not working in subsequent versions of the same courses, relinking attachments and images that become unattached in course transfers (usually after 40 urgent emails arrive just before quiz and assignment deadlines telling me the link isn’t working). I spend hours trying to figure out why the steps the system’s “help” function has said I must follow to accomplish a given task at the site simply isn’t working. And I’ve come to accept that no matter how problematic the technology might be, the cause will always be attributed to the user by the “help” desk.

At least half of the email I get from students involves technical problems at course online sites. Many take the form of frantic messages from students dumped off online quizzes or submission sites for assignments at 2 AM, all with the presumption that their instructor is somehow available to them 24/7.

A majority of these problems I simply cannot resolve even if I knew how because the ability to make the changes in technology required lies in the hand of the IT department.  I can’t even update Adobe and Java programs on my own office computer without calling IT to come to my office to provide the permission needed to download to my computer. Thus I must refer students to a very overworked help desk team who may or may not get back to them within a day.

These interactions are often the stuff of negative comments on student ratings at the end of the term. While it is completely unfair to hold instructors responsible for technology over which they have very little control and whose failures are often as much a surprise and source of frustration to them as to their students, it is perhaps human nature to blame the convenient nearby representative  for the failings of the system they represent. Indeed, under the circumstances, it’s fairly predictable.

Twenty five years ago social theorist Anthony Giddens observed that in a society where human beings must increasingly interact with nameless, faceless abstract systems, human agents must stand at the intersection of the individual and the system to provide what Giddens called “facework,” an encounter with a live human being that allows the interacting individuals the ability to trust the system. Not surprisingly, when the system proves untrustworthy, users often blame the facework agent at hand.

Technocrat - I think I’m a pretty good teacher, adviser and mentor, the jobs I was hired to do. But I confess to being a lousy technocrat. I have no background in administering or interpreting standardized testing nor do I share a blind allegiance to this approach to education or the control issues that underlie it.

I am hardly alone in seeing little of value that comes from assessment data that is increasingly demanded of instructors and increasingly provided by those same instructors in the most contrived of manners. Truth be told, given the time and attention needed to go back and garner detailed information from classes already concluded and the inutility of that data to our work as instructors, most of us simply make up what we are required to report.

This obsession with producing empirical evidence of learning that is but one of many pathological results of the corporatization of the university ultimately tells instructors very little about what their students may or may not have learned. It tells their instructors even less about what their students might understand about it. It is, in the final analysis, a major waste of time. Worse yet, it is uncompensated.

Not My Job, Man

 Each of these aspects of instructors’ lives are little more than annoyances in themselves. What is troubling about them is that while all of them are demanded of instructors without recourse and play increasingly central roles in their consumer ratings - and thereby one’s faculty evaluations - each year, none of these job duties are ever mentioned when faculty are hired. And none of them appear on the contract faculty actually sign.

I am currently serving on a search committee for two permanent instructors. The carefully crafted ad for the positions require Ph.D. in hand, one year teaching experience with preference for introductory and online teaching, evidence of teaching effectiveness and commitment to interdisciplinary research and teaching. It drew 81 applicants for these two positions from around the world whose files we are now beginning to laboriously plow through, all the time knowing that successful candidates will likely earn less than local first time public school teachers.

So what’s missing?

First, there is no mention that they will be required to market their classes and compete with their new co-workers for market share. While online teaching experience is required, there is no mention that the system the instructor will be using is unpredictable and flakey on a good day, requiring them to be the facework agent who will bear the brunt of consumer ire for its shortcomings. There is also no mention that at a factory which mass produces degrees and admits more customers than it can seat, online services will frequently be overloaded thus making accessibility to their work site unpredictable.

Finally, there is no reference to the requirement that one will be required to produce the assessment data that allows anxious technocrats to sleep at night. Worse yet, there is no suggestion that the chances are that newly hired contingent faculty will probably be saddled with the responsibilities of overseeing this process, attending endless meeting, creating and recreating assessments, gathering that data from other instructors, analyzing and reporting it to the satisfaction of technocrats. And they will not be in a position to refuse.

At a very basic level, this is little more than a bait and switch. If the ad to which our current applicants are responding is truthful, these new faculty faculty members are not being hired to be marketers, to handle trickle down managerial duties or outsourced technical roles. They are hired to teach, advise and mentor students. They are hired to conduct scholarship and report their insights through publication and presentations, both within the confines of the academy and for those of us engaging public scholarship, outside of it as well.  That’s what our contracts say and thus what is reasonable to expect in terms of performance.

But our time is increasingly claimed by things we were not hired to do even as management gladly pronounces “this is part of your job.” Worse yet, our performance is increasingly judged by duties we had no idea we were assuming when we were hired.

Warner concludes his essay with these words:

I think some of these institutions that allow us to concentrate on the work, rather than the marketing, institutions that shelter us from unproductive competition are worth not just preserving, but strengthening.

I worry that my side is losing that argument, though.

Indeed. But I fear that it is not just his side that is losing here.

[i] While I usually provide the link to the stories I cite in my entries here, this article is behind a pay wall at the Chronicle site. I encourage you to read the original article at the Chronicle site

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Asst. Lecturer: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
Osceola Campus, University of Central Florida, Kissimmee

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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