Saturday, December 12, 2015

Fair-haired Boys Discover the New Normal

When my humanities classes had occasion to discuss the Transatlantic Slave Trade, I often used the disturbing segment from Stephen Spielberg’s filmAmistad  depicting the Middle Passage to illustrate the concepts we were studying. While US textbooks often back away from the horrors of a slave trade that brought between 11 and 20 million human beings from Africa to the Americas (a current Texas high school text refers to them merely as “workers”), Spielberg, as he did in Schindler’s List, makes the horror of the historical event at hand unavoidable.

My goal in using that segment was less to teach the historical facts of the immediate case history as to allow students to get an experiential taste of the slave trade itself and the way it dehumanized slaves and slavers alike. Based on a true story, the film’s African protagonist, Cinqué, is responsible for a bloody mutiny on a Spanish slave ship and taken into US custody when the ship strays into US territorial waters. Faced with a question of whether the Africans are wrongfully enslaved or property of their Spanish slavers, the US Supreme eventually declares the slaves to be legally free.

In preparation for the trial, Cinqué is asked to recount the story of his brutal capture and deportation to Cuba. That story begins in his village in Africa where he is ensnared by Africans from a nearby village, sold to the Portuguese slave traders and loaded into the hold of the Tecora bound for a new continent.

My students often questioned why Africans would have helped Europeans enslave fellow Africans. That reason is not fully revealed until the end of the film. The Portuguese, with their superior weaponry and military force, had cut a Devil’s Bargain with their African collaborators: Either assist us in taking the next village into captivity or your own village and family will be enslaved.

At the film’s end, Cinqué, having won his freedom in the US courts, returns to Africa. What he finds there is shocking. The remainder of his own family and village been taken away. But, so, too, are all the remaining Africans of the region including those who had cut the Devil’s Bargain with the Portuguese. In the end, even their collaboration had not saved them from the fate they had helped the Portuguese impose on the others.

The New Higher Ed Normal?”

I hadn’t thought about all that for quite a while until last week. It was brought to mind by a blog essay at the online journal Inside Higher Education entitled “Is Understaffing the New EdTech Normal?” Dartmouth educational technology (edtech) advocate Joshua Kim relates conversations with edtech workers at “a diverse set of institutions” this way:

These conversations often end up at the same place. Everyone seems to be worried about understaffing. Everyone says that nowadays it is normal for 2 people to do jobs that normally took 3 people to accomplish. Everyone says that the amount of work has grown much faster than headcount. Everyone says that demands are higher than ever before, but budgets for hiring full-time permanent professionals have never been tighter. Is this the reality that you live in?  Is your departments (sic) too thinly staffed for the work that you need to do?

In actuality, this is a very familiar conversation. It’s also hardly a recent concern. I’ve been hearing this pattern of conversation that Kim reports now happening in edtech departments for a long time:

·         understaffed departments trying to keep their heads above water
·         workers with their own job duties plus part or all of one or more coworker’s duties when they leave and are not replaced
·         ever increasing demand for services with a staff that has not kept pace
·         budget cuts that include increasing part-time job lines while full-time lines (with benefits) decrease

Kim goes on to note that this pattern is occurring among workers who are “working amazingly hard and efficiently to compensate for the lack of depth and redundancy” and remain “commit[ed] to offer world-class service.” But their efforts face the “twin whims of legislators and stock markets” and come in the face of “worrie[s] about burning people out… that folks will not be able to spend time in preparing for what is coming next, as everyone is too busy managing the daily onslaught of tasks…”  

Kim concludes with this question: “Is edtech (and other department) understaffing the new higher ed normal?”

A Taste of Their Own Disruptive Medicine

I have to confess to a bit of malicious glee in reading those comments. These are the exact same comments that academics have been making at colleges and universities across the country for the past two decades. We have seen our budgets cut, our staffs shrink, our job duties expanded along with our class sizes, particularly those of us in the humanities and social sciences. We have seen dedicated educators committed to offering world class service to their students (and in the case of public colleges and universities, the public they serve) burn out and walk away. And we have been told that this was the “new normal” with which we must come to terms as a condition of ongoing employment.

What is different about this lamentation is that it comes from edtech staff members. For the past two decades, edtech has been the fair haired boy at most universities and colleges, charged with saving cash strapped state institutions money.

Online classes and MOOCs burst onto the higher educational scene just after the turn of the 21st CE with promises of “delivering” college courses to students now seen as consumers. They were relieved of the obligation of ever having to attend classes. In turn, universities were relieved of their obligations to find lighted, climate controlled classroom space for the masses they had admitted in a scramble to replace diminished public funding with tuition dollars and student fees. Online sections could be as large as colleges chose and cheap adjunct labor could be used to “deliver” the classes.

The onset of the digital age in higher education was also heralded by no small amount of self-aggrandizing hype from the edtech quarter. Under the guise of“disruptive technology,” a term invented by a Harvard business professor, edtech cheerleaders began to predict the demise of teaching altogether with flesh and blood instructors in classrooms relegated to onsite edtech specialists whose primary job would be simply to ensure the technology is running correctly.

What these purveyors of hype failed to foresee was that the human users of these systems might well not find them conducive to learning. The original MOOC (massive open online course) proved quite sensational in providing access to viewers around the world. But less than 2% of the “students” who signed up for classes offered by MIT and Stanford actually completed the courses.

The same has been true for online courses. While nearly one in three college students today are taking at least one class online (often because it is the only means available to them to complete their degree programs) the same ratio of students in those online classes fails to complete their classes. The reasons cited by students range from lack of self-discipline to meet class requirements to lack of human interaction. Students often report from their experience of online courses that they need the structure of regular class attendance with real live teachers and classmates to thrive in a class.

The other main reason that students fail to complete online courses has much to do with the hype used to market the courses to student consumers. Online programs and classes are often sold to would-be consumers under the rubric of convenience and comfort. Taking classes in one’s pajamas from the convenience of one’s room is the image regularly used by the mega-university where I once taught to market its online courses. Such marketing takes its cues from for-profit degree factories whose advertising consistently uses minimalist language: Just six weeks, only two hours a week, etc. The use of minimalist selling points has now crept into the ads for even respectable liberal arts colleges and once venerable state universities.

What is effectively communicated by such advertising is the sense that online courses simply won’t demand much from the student. As such, students often schedule far more class hours than they can possibly complete given the existing demands on their lives from work and family obligations.

Not surprisingly, when students find they are unable to meet the demands of the courses they have taken - even when instructors have been careful to lay out the requirements of the course up front and indicate the time needed to complete them – they routinely blame instructors for assigning “excessive work” and creating “unreasonable” course requirements. After all, “it’s just an online class.”

For too many students, they discover too late that the courses they have taken really do have requirements that really are going to require the investment of their time and energy. They then become prime candidates for the 1/3 of the enrollment of each online class on average who withdraws from the course or, having already stopped visiting the class site out of frustration, miss the withdrawal deadline and fail the course entirely. Bear in mind that for a student already destined to be burdened by debt from student loans, this is debt incurred for uncompleted courses.

It would seem the smug announcement of the death of teaching by those hyping edtech, like Mark Twain’s famed obituary, appears to have been incredibly premature. 
That edtech departments are now facing the same ever increasing demands coupled with ever decreasing staffing, funding and support as academics is hardly surprising. In an age of corporatized university managements, the goal of extracting ever more work for ever less pay from an ever shrinking workforce is expectable. These are the kind of corporate values that like bloodthirsty vampires have drained the assets of highly productive corporate entities like Enron and offshored production stranding laid off American workers like General Motors, allin the pursuit of profit maximization.

The losers in all those “disruptions” were the workers. Even edtech workers in higher education who were more than happy to protect their own interests (if not to inflate their own egos) in serving as agents of disruption while furthering the interests of their corporate management are now discovering that corporate values do not include loyalty to their own workers. Like Amistad’s Cinqué returning to Africa, they are discovering departments decimated by the same managers who promised to protect their interests - but only so long as they coincided with those of management.

It is my nature…..

A parable which has found expression in cultures from ancient Greece’s Aesop’s Fables to Buddhist teachings to Native American wisdom tales involves a deadly scorpion and another animal the scorpion is trying to convince to take him across a river. The Aesop version is “The Scorpion and the Frog”:

A scorpion and a frog meet on the bank of a stream and the scorpion asks the frog to carry him across on its back. The frog asks, "How do I know you won't sting me?" The scorpion says, "Because if I do, I will die too."

The frog is satisfied, and they set out, but in midstream, the scorpion stings the frog. The frog feels the onset of paralysis and starts to sink, knowing they both will drown, but has just enough time to gasp "Why?"

Replies the scorpion: "It’s my nature..."

In a free market fundamentalist culture such as our own, it should not be surprising when institutions disrupted by corporate values turn on their own workers. It is, in fact, their nature.

The bottom line profit motivation of corporate universities begins with the defunding of higher education at the state level.  Less funding, less taxes. The corporate university responds by cutting non-administrative costs and downsizing, first in academic departments and then in staff. The institution seeks to recoup funding losses through ongoing tuition increases which are visible but also with less obvious increases in fees – now equal to or greater than tuition in many places - for everything from parking to the technology fees assessed for the online classes students may or may not have taken by choice.  Finally, the university sells its scholarly soul for the big bucks brought in by research “grants” from corporate interests and the governmental agencies they now dominate, all of which inevitably come with more than a few strings attached.

Another expression of corporate values comes from new spending priorities. Like corporations everywhere, a primary focus of corporate management spending in higher education has been the expansion of a highly paid managerial team even as salaries for workers have stagnated or actually been cut. This mirrors the growing wages gap between workers and management nationwide. While Americans estimate that the CEOs make about 30 times what the average worker brings in, in fact the ratio is 350 to 1 according to studies by the Harvard Business School.  

The president of the university where I worked made $630K last year, the 22d highest salary of university presidents in the country. The permanent lecturer my department hired last year with Ph.D. in Philosophy in hand, scholarly publications and teaching experience online and in-person was offered a mere $40K annually renewable salary, $8,000 less than the starting salary for the beginning teacher with a newly minted bachelor’s degree in hand at the elementary school down the street.

Other spending priorities at corporate universities include costly building projects, few of them involving classrooms. Most provide additional managerial offices as well as luxury dorms useful in marketing to out-of-state students with their out-of-state tuition moneys. The remaining priorities focus on an increasingly professionalized athletics program designed largely to entertain patrons other than the students who largely avoid these events. Their classes are cancelled and costly on-campus parking permits become void during weekday games. Meanwhile, the new coach at UCF will be paid $1.7 million annually, almost three times the salary of the president.

Is Resistance Futile?

The question that is raised in Joshua Kim’s blog essay is worth considering by all of us who value higher education: Is this the new normal? That corporate management has operated on corporate values of profit über alles, however soulless that may be, is not a surprise. It is, as the scorpion reminds us, its very nature.

But the question we citizens - whose taxes fund public institutions and whose children are their potential beneficiaries - must ask ourselves is whether these areour values. Will we passively buy into a hegemony that would impose these values as normal, expectable and inevitable without even questioning them? Must we, like those encountering the Borg from Star Trek, simply accept that that any resistance is futile, that we will be assimilated into a “new normal” that serves corporate interests regardless of their impact on anyone else?

One of the defense mechanisms that any status quo employs is the argument of inevitability. The assertion of a “new normal” suggests this is not only the way things are now but the only way they can be. But, if this truly is a new normal, it becomes obvious that if things have changed before to make the current status quo possible, they can certainly change again. The question is not whether the public can reject corporate values in higher education, it’s simply whether we are willing to insist that it does.

The context of Spielberg’s film was a chattel slavery being practiced throughout the world at the time of the events on the Amistad. Slavery was the norm. It was defended by appeals to G_d (its most fervent defenders made their cases from church pulpits), nature (Aristotle himself had seen slavery as a natural condition) and inevitability – this is the way things are, there’s nothing we can do about it.

But after an extended, bloody struggle, slavery was abolished. The religions that defended slavery repented. Abolition became the new normal. What is clear here is that in decision making about socially constructed institutions, the question is never one of capacity, whether human beings can change the directions their society has previously taken; rather, it is always one of volition: Do we have the will to make those changes.

I and many others are praying that the answer will be yes.

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)


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