The experiences of agricultural workers and of industrial workers have illustrated the futility of trying to resist advancements in automation. In 1790, 90% of the American workforce labored on farms. By 1900, the percentage had declined to 28%, and by 1990, it had declined to 2.6%. Likewise, employment in manufacturing in the U.S. peaked at 38.75% near the end of 1943, as armaments production escalated toward capacity during the Second World War. By mid-2009, the percentage had declined to 8.99%.
Contrary to the general public perception, in both agriculture and manufacturing, the declines in employment have occurred simultaneously with inverse increases in productivity. In short, American agriculture and manufacturing have largely maintained their shares of global markets, but they have become anything but the major job-creating sectors of the U.S. economy that they once were.
In higher education, the rapid development of online education–especially in the form of for-profit colleges and universities, non-profit competency-based (rather than credit-based) alternatives such as the Western Governors University, and the MOOCs now being developed by some of our most prestigious universities–has raised the issue of whether American higher education can survive, in any currently recognizable form, this literally “virtual” onslaught of innovations in electronic technologies.
The issue of whether faculty ought to resist this “automation” of higher education is already moot. Tenure-track faculty now constitute just 35% of the faculty employed nationwide, and full-time non-tenure-eligible faculty account for just another 18%. And at many institutions, the percentage of full-time faculty is much lower—at some technical and community colleges, even as low as the single digits. Faculty, in the traditional senses of the classification, are already on the verge of becoming anachronisms. Resisting or, worse, denying one of the major factors in our radically changed circumstances will serve only to hasten our demise.
So if resistance is futile and even self-destructive, then what are the alternatives for faculty besides despair?
I don’t have any easy answers, but I have a sense of where answers might be found. Ironically, although faculty have developed most of the instructional applications of electronic technologies, they have left the broader implementation of those applications to administrators, and administrators have increasingly become as much a class apart from faculty as corporate upper-management is from the average employee in large American and multi-national corporations.
Despite these broad parallels, faculty—and especially unionized faculty–still have some window of opportunity, I think, to reassert some control over the broader implementation of the instructional technologies that they are developing. Doing so will involve anticipating the impact of each innovation on full-time faculty budget lines and proposing appropriate shifts in faculty functions and responsibilities to preserve, if not expand, those lines.
Imagine that the industrial unions had had the foresight, the capacity, and the opportunity to focus on preserving livelihoods, rather than on the preservation of specific, existing positions within specific plants. When a technological innovation would clearly have caused the elimination of some current positions, the union might have anticipated the impact and looked for opportunities to shift employees to emerging, related industries created by other technological advancements. Given the declining percentage of positions available in manufacturing, some of those alternative positions would have had to have been in areas other than manufacturing, and some reductions in salaries and benefits would have been inevitable with those shifts. But the changes would have been, perhaps, less abrupt for individual union members, and the unions would have received much less of the blame for their member’s changed circumstances.
Some readers will complain that such practices would have turned unions into the equivalent of employment agencies. I would counter that having unions undertake those responsibilities would have been very preferable to the current situation, in which agencies providing temp-workers to firms have stepped into the void, often very exploitatively.
Very similarly, some will complain that a corollary shift in emphasis for faculty and faculty unions will amount to the faculty’s increasingly taking on administrative responsibilities. Perhaps. But the alternative is to be engaged in endless ineffectual griping about the havoc being wrought by misdirected administrative decision-making.
I will provide one concise and very narrow example of the approach that I am suggesting.
Where it exists at all, one of the most consistently beleaguered departments in Liberal Arts is typically Classics. Having had four years of Latin and three years of classical Greek in high school (I attended a Jesuit prep school, an advantage that looms ever larger to me as I age) and several more years of Latin at the graduate level, I am absolutely convinced of the value of that instruction in enhancing my sensitivity to and understanding of literary language, issues of rhetoric and style, and linguistic concepts.
So how might positions in Classics be preserved? One non-technological option would be for the faculty to “dumb down” the material—to create general education courses that survey the salient features of Greek and Roman culture (something like “Gladiatorial Combat and the Threat of Slave Rebellion in Classical Society,” with students “simulating” the experience of gladiatorial combat through video games). Another non-technological option might be for faculty to become more multi-disciplinary, to acquire at least Masters-level credentials in a second, more “popular” discipline, in order to offset the low, available demand for instruction in their primary discipline. But a third option might be for them to use technology to generate more demand for instruction in their primary discipline.
Consider this analogy. The growth of the World Wide Web has created great difficulties for newspapers in the U.S., though it has obversely fueled the demand for newspapers in many emerging economies—very notably in India. Likewise, the growth of the Web has undermined the financial model under which weekly and monthly general-news magazines have long prospered. But it has actually promoted the establishment of many specialized, limited circulation, “niche” magazines by allowing their publishers to find and to target potential readers. I recall reading an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, perhaps ten years ago, in which a communications professor at LaSalle who specializes in trends in the magazine industry pointed out that the development of the Web had allowed and sustained the development of three different magazines for ferret owners. I am guessing that at least one or two of those magazines has survived to this day. On the other hand, although Newsweek remains the second most read general- news magazine in the U.S., it now ranks 51st in U.S. issue sales—behind such titles as FamilyFun, Every Day with Rachel Ray, and Golf Digest. Very recently, Barry Diller created a sensation when he suggested that, because Newsweek’s online partner-site, The Daily Beast, has become increasingly profitable as the magazine itself has suffered deepening financial losses, it is clear that the magazine will, sooner rather than later, become an entirely electronic publication.
But let’s return to the proliferation ferret magazines. Why could the Web not be used similarly to identify students interested in learning Latin and/or Greek? Granted, some of those students might be gifted high school students, and, at the other end of the spectrum, some might be retirees who had studied the languages in high school or college or who have simply always wanted to study them. Teaching such students online might be pretty far removed from the “ideal”–an opportunity to teach a group of highly motivated undergraduates in a conventional classroom. But, for someone who has managed to earn a Ph.D. in Classics, it would certainly be a preferable alternative to the two that I have already described. Moreover, having a full-time position as a Classics professor would certainly be preferable to trying to survive on the per-course stipends received by adjunct faculty or to having no opportunities whatsoever to teach and pursue scholarship in the discipline.
Whether full-time or part-time, whether tenure-eligible or not, all faculty have been seriously “re-adjusting” their expectations over the last two to three decades—since the end of the “baby boom” enrollment, which coincided with the first deep and extended, post-World War II recession in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The options before us may all be unattractive, but I do not think that they are equally unattractive. We can either begin to reassert some greater control over the full context in which we are teaching and conducting research, even if that means assuming some traditional administrative or staff functions, or we will be replaced by the “professional staff” being trained by Pearson and other corporate “educational providers.” And that may occur sooner rather than later.