Redefining Ourselves to Save Ourselves

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.

4 thoughts on “Redefining Ourselves to Save Ourselves

  1. Once more, as you say, we educators have dropped the ball, ceding the initiative to administrators and to the private sector when we are the ones who should be making the decisions and implementing them. It’s time we start taking back control of the game.

  2. I cannot imagine any “serious” faculty member espousing the accommodationist stand described in this article. But we have less and less “serious” faculty members and more and more terrified careerists who fall for the “fear-mongering” strategies of corporatist administrators–and their cowardly colleagues.

    The proper ethical and political positions should be NOT to accept to “redefine” faculty roles in order to survive, but rather consolidate faculty roles, especially in shared governance, in order to preserve and improve on the educational values at our institutions. The model of educational institutions driven by educational and democratic social values requires the current definition of faculty roles; faculty roles need to be redefined when institutions of higher learning become economically driven (like most of our neoliberal social institutions are) and start to function following the for-profit corporatist model. By then, there will be no “faculty” left but a workforce in a competetive environment.

    Our only chance to “survive” is to protect and defend the non-for-profit and socially driven educational system–and not to adapt to the economically driven “reality.” I use “serious” to describe faculty as the Coen brothers used the word in “A Serious Man.”

    • I am actually arguing not that we accede to the corporatization of higher education but that we become smarter about how we attempt to resist it–that we become more proactive, rather than reactive, in determining how new technologies are incorporated into instruction and that we begin to consider ways in which technology can be used to protect, rather than eliminate, faculty positions.

      I am also not suggesting that this will be easy to do or that we will be able to avoid sometimes compromising what we are trying to accomplish. Everything is moving so rapidly that it is kind of like trying to keep your wristwatch dry while walking across a stream with a very fast current.

      I think, however, that too often this discussion has been framed as an either-or choice between being a Luddite or a sell-out. One can certainly argue that the increasing instructional use of electronic technologies is simply incompatible with the values of higher education and that any acceptance of their use is a compromise with the devil. But the time at which that argument could have had any meaningful effect is long gone.

      My piece is an attempt to re-open the discussion of the practical options available to us now. We need some strategies and tactics that begin to provide us, at least incrementally, with some leverage against corporatization.

      I will make a political analogy. One can argue that Clinton and Obama have compromised Democratic values in order to get elected and, conversely that candidates such as Mike Dukakis, Al Gore, and John Kerry lost their elections because they did not provide a distinct enough alternative to their Republican opponents. In victory and defeat, Progressives have been left to feel that everyone has been too willing to settle for “Republican-lite.” But where is the true Progressive who can now win a national election? Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown has an outstanding record as a Progressive and under “normal” circumstances ought to be a shoo-in to be re-elected, especially since his opponent is not a particularly strong candidate. But millions of dollars in outside money has a leveling effect in politics–and in higher ed.

      During the Democratic National Convention, the AFL-CIO held a very large rally in Philadelphia. Although President Obama has not been Labor’s strongest ally, union members do need to support him because as one person at the rally said, “For Labor, this election is a choice between a cerebral hemorrhage and a very slow bleed.”

      P.S. I am also a big fan of the Coen Brothers’ films, though my favorites are the darker crime films–Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, No Country for Old Men, and their first, Blood Simple. I know that The Big Lebowski and O Brother Where Art Thou have bigger followings, but Burn after Reading has really grown on me. I will admit that A Serious Man does not do much for me. And I recognize that that admission may leave me open to the retort, “No surprise there!”

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