Back in January, I met with Melinda Welsh of the Sacramento News & Review to talk about MOOCs, and this week’s issue includes a few quotes from our discussion in a feature story: “MOOCs: High-tech hype, or the future of education?“
Among other things, the article quotes me on the way public fascination with MOOCs easily distracts us from more fundamental challenges to higher education. What are we not talking about when we’re talking about MOOCs? We’re not talking about the working conditions of contingent faculty, or rising tuition and student debt, or the need to restore public funding to higher education.
Welsh and I also talked about the way boosters have often presented MOOCs as a techno-fix for the ills of higher education. But now the MOOC messaging has shifted from technology-as-savior to technology-as-sublime-mystery.
According to the gurus of innovation, the MOOC phenomena is simply being misunderstood. As Mark Zuckerberg’s character said in The Social Network: “We don’t even know what it is yet.”
Unfortunately, this new packaging is not much less deterministic and anti-democratic than the first. Whether MOOCs are essentially good or essentially unpredictable, the implicit message is that we don’t have political choices about how to respond — but of course we do, as Welsh makes clear in her discussion of faculty response to proposed California Senate Bill 520, which would have required public universities and colleges to give credit for privately run online courses.
The article rightly points out that MOOCs do have various benefits, and they may actually work best when not associated with universities at all: “some even suggest MOOCs will create a vast new ‘leisure learning’ market.”
But MOOCs also raise other important concerns, frequently and forcefully presented by Jonathan Rees:
Epistemic obsolescence. Why invest all that time and money — Welsh reports that a computing class produced by Udacity cost about $250,000 — when the content will be outdated in a couple years? Maybe it doesn’t matter so much for certain introductory topics, but most faculty continually update their courses to reflect new developments, both in their discipline and in society at large.
Faculty de-skilling and self-obsolescence. If students can watch lectures by the best super-professors in the world, do they really need highly trained but somewhat-less-super professors any more at all? If faculty record all their best lectures so that anyone can watch them by clicking a button, why would a university pay those faculty to give more lectures? Students can watch the lectures alone at home, and if someone still wants a little classroom interaction, a low-paid temp teaching assistant can lead discussion. Welcome to Wal-Mart U!
Time constraints. Watching an online lecture at home can be an excellent complement to assigned reading and other course materials, but there are only so many hours in a day. If forced to choose, should students watch a video or read a book? Maybe some of each, depending on the student, topic, and goals of the course. But when time is short, a 15-minute video easily seems more attractive than a 50-page reading assignment. The risk is that students no longer acquire the analytical and interpretive skills that come from careful reading of difficult texts.
These issues came together in a recent class of mine, when I played a few minutes of one of Michael Sandel’s lectures from his famous course on justice. Sandel is an engaging lecturer, in part because he often directly engages at least a few members of his huge audience in back-and-forth discussion. Nearly everyone remains silent, of course, so it’s nothing like a good seminar, but the verbal exchange is symbolically important, and even those who aren’t lucky enough to enjoy a few moments of friendly banter with the Sage on the Stage may feel virtually included.
But as I watched the video with my students, it struck me as incredibly sad. Why would we sit there and watch another professor discuss important issues with another set of students? So I jumped up and turned it off, told the students to watch it at home, but only after they had finished the assigned reading, and the students and I talked about the issues ourselves.
Maybe you’d like some food for thought, but you’ve already had lunch and it’s too early for dinner. Or maybe you’re looking for a midnight snack. You want something tasty but not filling, just a short chapter or two, a bookish treat.
You could try a bite from a bit of my book.
The culinary landscape of academic publishing is changing in all sorts of ways, and MIT Press recently expanded their menu with something called “BITS”: single-serving chapters of MIT Press titles.
A BIT doesn’t cost much ($2.99 to $4.99), and it’s readable on any screen (DRM-free). If after the BIT you want to buy the book, you get 40 percent off on the Press website.
The BIT of my book Science in Democracy includes chapters 3 and 8. The text is identical to the printed book, including footnotes, but without the original page numbers.
Chapter 3 is about the relation of democracy and expertise in eighteenth-century theories of political representation. Here’s an excerpt:
Commentators today usually portray political representation as necessary for coping with the size and complexity of modern states. The founders of representative government agreed, but they were also convinced that it offered a way of dealing with the perceived incompetence of unruly citizens. Scholars today echo this view when discussing the relation of science and democracy. They acknowledge that science incorporates both egalitarian and elitist elements (e.g., egalitarian norms of publicity and transparency on one hand, and merit-based restrictions on membership on the other). But when it comes to democracy, they equate democracy with its egalitarian elements (e.g., voting rights) and neglect its elitist elements (voting is a process for selecting representatives whom voters deem, in one respect or another, more qualified than others). Indeed, commentators generally equate calls for the “democratization” of science with efforts to increase the quantity rather than the quality of public engagement. This chapter shows that this populist view of democracy is embedded within the liberal theory of representative government. It also shows that this view of democracy stems from a time when most people believed that democracy necessarily led to majority tyranny. This historical legacy suggests that finding a place for science within representative democracy depends on rethinking the relationships among science, democracy, and representation.
Chapter 8 is about how science becomes political:
To say that science has been politicized implies that it was previously not political. And assuming that politicization is reversible, things that have become political can be depoliticized as well. But what does it mean to make something political? How does one know that a particular change or event qualifies as an instance of the larger phenomenon of politicization? . . . My aim in this chapter . . . is not to tell everyone what politics really is, nor to subvert practical efforts to shift received boundaries between science and politics. On the contrary: the purpose of asking how science becomes political is to facilitate such efforts by exploring their normative stakes and potential contribution to representative democracy.
That’s all for now. Go ahead, try it, you’ll like it.
It’s Valentine’s Day, and even though it’s a holiday no less commercialized than most, and stores are suddenly filled with flowers, champagne, and chocolates, we all know you can’t buy love. (Actually, the chocolate might help, or so early modern physicians believed, according to an op-ed on “Sex and Candy” in today’s paper.)
What about education? Many of us in the liberal arts tend to see education as inherently non-economic, as fundamentally opposed to economic ideas, values, and interests. The liberal arts have intrinsic value, we say, good in themselves and not (only) for their instrumental benefits. And even if liberal arts students actually have better economic prospects than most assume, I think there’s a tendency in the liberal arts to draw a sharp line between economic and intellectual concerns. Maybe that’s why so many faculty continue to have an ivory tower view of our profession, finding little time for the mundane work of participating in university politics, engaging the general public, or actively promoting public support of higher education.
To be sure, university life depends on intellectual curiosity, autonomy, community, and other values and activities that are easily undermined by commercial thinking. But it’s not a black-and-white issue, as critics of the commodification of academic work sometimes suggest. It’s possible to think in terms of what legal scholar Margaret Radin calls “incomplete commodification.” I wrote about this issue in an earlier post, and in a book chapter that I’ll excerpt here (citations removed):
When giving someone a gift, it is indeed “the thought that counts,” but expressing that thought by purchasing a gift with money need not denigrate the thought. Similarly, most people must work for pay, and yet most hope to have jobs they would enjoy doing for free. And anyone who takes pride in “a job well done,” does the job in a manner that is not fully captured by its market price. Rather than simply banning certain things from being sold, society might resist universal commodification by finding ways of protecting and promoting the non-market dimensions of things exchanged on the market.
Today the non-economic dimensions of higher education are especially threatened by a lack of economic resources. Deep cuts in public funding have led to skyrocketing tuition and student debt, increased reliance on contingent faculty, and reductions in faculty positions, course offerings, and library services, among other things. Many taxpayers seem unwilling to spend money to educate “somebody else’s children,” otherwise known as the future of our society.
Fifty years ago the Beatles released the film “A Hard Day’s Night,” which includes a scene of the band frolicking on the grass during the song “Can’t Buy Me Love.” The song is a joyous embrace of love over money. The scene ends with a grumpy man saying to them, “I suppose you realize this is private property!” George replies dryly, “Sorry we hurt your field, Mister.”
Just because something has economic value, such as a field, doesn’t mean it will be hurt by non-economic uses, such as frolicking. And just because university education depends on non-economic values doesn’t mean nobody has to pay for it. The question is who.
Happy Valentine’s Day!
This was the first week of the new semester at Sacramento State, and my courses seem to have gotten off to a good start. Unlike last semester, I didn’t have students sitting on the floor, telling me that they couldn’t find a spot in the classes they need to graduate. I don’t know to what extent that’s due to the recent modest budget increases for public higher education, but for now at least everyone has a chair.
That makes this a good time to consider the latest flurry of fretting over the employment prospects of liberal arts majors. Yesterday President Obama stoked the job market anxieties of art history majors. Such anxieties are pervasive, and many students these days decide to major in business, nursing, and other professional degree programs in part because they assume those degrees promise more income than a liberal arts degree. And that’s no surprise, given the messages conveyed by many administrators and faculty, as well as our culture as a whole. Especially in tough economic times, students constantly hear that they should choose a “practical” major.
There’s nothing wrong with figuring out how you’re going to pay the bills, but the assumption that liberal arts majors will end up on the streets has been repeatedly debunked, most recently in a report from the Association of American Colleges and Universities, How Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Fare in Employment. The report confirms other recent studies showing that liberal arts majors actually have higher long-term job earnings than those with professional degrees.
Median Annual Earnings by Age-Group and Undergraduate Major (2010-11)
Humanities and social science majors do best when they go on to graduate school, and if you only consider those who don’t get a graduate degree, humanities and social science majors are at the bottom of the income scale, but by less than most people assume:
Median earnings for graduates with only baccalaureate degrees (2010-11)
Employers consistently say they want to hire people who have a broad knowledge base and can work together to solve problems, debate, communicate and think critically . . . all skills that liberal arts programs aggressively, and perhaps uniquely, strive to teach.
And in the end, of course, as Jordan Weissmann argues, “Money Is a Terrible Way to Measure the Value of a College Major.” Students should expect much more from college than a high salary. Among other things, they should expect to learn how to think critically, write clearly, and speak publicly about issues that matter to them — regardless of their major.
All of this gives me one more reason to take a break and listen to some of the songs of Pete Seeger, who died this week at the age of 94. One of the best in this context is the 1962 Malvina Reynolds song “Little Boxes,” which Seeger made famous, and which my parents used to sing with my sister and I in the car whenever we drove past Daly City on the way to the beach. (Today people might know it from the opening segment of the television series “Weeds.”) Like most people, I thought it was just about suburban conformity, and the cheerful tune might have motivated Tom Lehrer to say (according to Christopher Hitchens) that it was “the most sanctimonious song ever written.” But listening to it again now, it seems broader than that, more chilling, even downright Orwellian:
And the people in the houses
All went to the university,
Where they were put in boxes
And they came out all the same.
Nowadays a lot more people go to college than when the song was written, and maybe some students see the pressure to conform less in the suburbs than in the universities.
Commentators have often described the current batch of twenty-somethings as narcissistic materialists, and the growing number of university students majoring in business may seem to confirm that. In the United States, more than 20 percent of college students now major in business, up from 13.7 percent in 1970, and more than twice the number of any other field. But an article in today’s New York Times, “Millenial Searchers,” cites a recent study that shows most young people today — so-called millennials — actually want something more than money:
the No. 1 factor that young adults ages 21 to 31 wanted in a successful career was a sense of meaning. Though their managers, according to the study, continue to think that millennials are primarily motivated by money, nearly three-quarters of the young adults surveyed said that “meaningful work was among the three most important factors defining career success.”
Of course, “meaning” doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone, but a sense of meaning generally involves the feeling that a person’s life has purpose and value for both oneself and others. “People who lead meaningful lives feel connected to others, to work, to a life purpose, and to the world itself.”
Unfortunately, the economy today rewards only certain kinds of meaningful work. In another thoughtful piece in today’s Times, “The Real Humanities Crisis,” Gary Gutting distinguishes among three sources of meaning: material goods, social connections, and cultural development.
Our economic system works well for those who find meaning in economic competition and the material rewards it brings. To a lesser but still significant extent, our system provides meaningful work in service professions (like health and social work) for those fulfilled by helping people in great need. But for those with humanistic and artistic life interests, our economic system has almost nothing to offer.
If you’re a young person who wants to get rich or help those in need, you can probably find a job. But if you want to be an artist, writer, philosopher, historian, or cultural critic — if you want to be part of the humanities — you have a long row to hoe. The extremely talented and very lucky can do well for themselves, but the vast majority of cultural workers find the economic deck stacked against them. Gutting writes,
We are rightly concerned about the plight of the economic middle class . . . But we have paid scant attention to the cultural middle class, those with strong humanist interests and abilities who can’t reach the very highest levels, which provide almost all the cultural rewards of meaningful work.
Many cultural workers struggle to get by with adjunct teaching appointments, and one promising avenue for reform appears in efforts to improve the working conditions of contingent faculty. As Gutting writes, “If adjuncts don’t meet the standards to be part of the regular faculty, they shouldn’t be hired. If they do, they should be treated the same.”
Another reform that Gutting mentions would be to give the humanities some of the public funding that currently goes to college and professional sports, which in the United States enjoy enormous government largesse.
The online journal Spontaneous Generations recently published an issue on “Economic Aspects of Science” that addresses many of these dilemmas. It includes a piece of mine on “Public University Funding and the Privatization of Politics.”
On Monday my class on Science, Technology, and Politics will host a public lecture by Miriam Zoll, award-winning author of Cracked Open: Liberty, Fertility and the Pursuit of High-Tech Babies.
The book is an engaging, intensely personal memoir of Zoll’s five-year odyssey of using various assisted reproductive technologies to try to have a baby. Beginning when she was forty, Zoll and her loving husband go through several cycles of in vitro fertilization (IVF). Three attempts fail completely and one ends with a miscarriage.
Their next step is egg donation, and they worry about the ethical issues it raises. Ads in campus newspapers at Ivy League colleges have offered up to $100,000 for eggs from blonde women with high SAT scores and musical talent. And egg donation is a physically taxing process with potential risks to the donor. But having become “fertility junkies,” Zoll and her husband work with a clinic to make laborious arrangements with two egg donors, both of whom turn out to be infertile.
In the end, they happily adopt a child. Zoll makes clear, however, that her odyssey has left a mark. Many women who go through failed fertility treatments, she reports, experience symptoms that meet the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Assisted reproductive technologies have helped millions of people. But in the United States they are largely unregulated, and fertility clinics often seem driven more by financial interests and technological optimism than genuine medical concern.
One of the book’s main messages is that many young people lack basic information about human fertility and the success rate of IVF techniques.
According to a 2012 survey of undergraduates in the United States, Zoll reports, about half intended to have their last child between the ages of 35 and 44, but over two-thirds thought that female fertility does not significantly decline until after age 40. And well over half overestimated the chances of a woman conceiving after one IVF treatment. According to the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology, the rate of live births for women age 35-37 is about 30 percent, and for women 41-42 it’s about 12 percent.
Zoll’s mission is not to demonize assisted reproductive technologies, but to foster realistic public discussion about them. As she proceeds though the “fertility casino,” she learns that such discussion isn’t easy.
I was discovering that many couples whose treatments had failed never wanted to talk about it — and who could blame them? There was a cultural taboo, reinforced by the clinics themselves, that said we shouldn’t talk about our infertility or our miscarriages or the inability of science to solve our reproductive health challenges. It was this absence of truth telling that made the success stories sensationalized in the media so dangerously misleading.
For more on these issues, also see Zoll’s recent opinion piece in the New York Times.
If you’re in Sacramento, Zoll will be giving a public lecture on Monday, October 14, 3:00 – 4:15 p.m. in Mariposa 1000 at Sacramento State.
And she is scheduled to speak at the Avid Reader bookstore in Davis on Sunday, October 13 at 4:00 PM.