faculty at work

This is one of those posts where I find myself at a strange intersection among several seemingly unrelated articles.

The first three clearly deal with academic life, while the last two address topics near and dear to faculty but without addressing academia.

The Rees, Scott, and Gilbert pieces each address aspects of the perceived and perhaps real changing role of faculty in curriculum. Formalized assessment asks faculty to articulate their teaching practices in fairly standardized ways and offer evidence that if not directly quantitative at least meets some established standards for evidence. It doesn’t necessarily change what you teach or even how you teach, but it does require you to communicate about your teaching in new ways. (And it might very well put pressure on you to change your teaching.) The Scott piece ties into this with the changing demographics and motives of students and increased institutional attention to matters of retention and time to degree. While most academics likely are in favor of more people getting a chance to go to college and being successful there, Scott fears these goals put undo pressure on the content of college curriculum (i.e. dumb it down). Clearly this is tied with assessment, which is partly how we discover such problems in the first place. It’s tough if you want your class to be about x, y, and z, but assessment demonstrates, students struggle with x, y, and z and probably need to focus on a, b, and c first.

Though Rees sets himself at a different problem, I see it as related. Rees warns faculty that flipping one’s classroom by putting lecture content online puts one at risk. As he writes:

When you outsource content provision to the Internet, you put yourself in competition with it—and it is very hard to compete with the Internet. After all, if you aren’t the best lecturer in the world, why shouldn’t your boss replace you with whoever is? And if you aren’t the one providing the content, why did you spend all those years in graduate school anyway? Teaching, you say? Well, administrators can pay graduate students or adjuncts a lot less to do your job. Pretty soon, there might even be a computer program that can do it.

It’s quite the pickle. Even if take Rees’ suggestion by heart, those superstar lectures are already out there on the web. If a faculty member’s ability as a teacher is no better than an adjunct’s or TA’s then why not replace him/her? How do we assert the value added by having an expert tenured faculty member as a teacher? That would take us back to assessment, I fear.

Like many things in universities, we’re living in a reenactment of 19th century life here. If information and expertise is in short supply, then you need to hire these faculty experts. If we measure expertise solely in terms of knowing things (e.g. I know more about rhetoric and composition, and digital rhetoric in particular, than my colleagues at UB) then I have to recognize that my knowledge of the field is partial, that there’s easy access to this knowledge online, and there are many folks who might do as good a job as I do with teaching undergraduate courses in these areas (and some who would be willing to work for adjunct pay).  I think this is the nature of much work these days, especially knowledge work. Our claims to expertise are always limited. There’s fairly easy access to information online which does diminish the value of the knowledge we embody. And there’s always someone somewhere who’s willing to do the work for less money.

It might seem like the whole thing should fall apart at the seams. The response of faculty, in part, has been to demonstrate how hard they work, how many hours they put in. I don’t mean to suggest that faculty are working harder now than they used to; I’m not sure either way. The Gilbert, Scott, and Rees articles would at least indicate that we are working harder in new areas that we do not value so much. Tim Wu explores this phenomenon more generally, finding it across white collar workplaces from Amazon to law firms. Wu considers that Americans might just have some moral aversion to too much leisure. However, he settles on the idea that technologies have increased our capacity to do work and so we’ve just risen (or sunken) to meet those demands. Now we really can work virtually every second of the waking day. Unfortunately Wu doesn’t have solution; neither do I. But assessment is certainly a by-product of this phenomenon.

The one piece of possibly good news comes from Steven Johnson, whose analysis reveals that the decline of the music industry (and related creative professions), predicted by the appearance of Napster and other web innovations, hasn’t happened. Maybe that’s a reason to be optimistic about faculty as well. It at least suggests that Rees’ worries may be misplaced. After all, faculty weren’t replaced by textbooks, so why would they be replaced by rich media textbooks (which is essentially what the content of a flipped classroom would be)? Today people spend less on recorded music but more on live music. Perhaps the analogy in academia is not performance but interaction. That is, the value of faculty, at least in terms of teaching, is in their interaction with students, with their ability to bring their expertise into conversation with students.

Meanwhile we might do a better job of recognizing the expansion of work that Wu describes.. work that ultimately adds no value for anyone. Assessment seems like an easy target. Wu describes how law firms combat one another with endless busy work as a legal strategy: i.e. burying one another in paperwork. Perhaps we play similar games of oneupmanship both among universities and across a campus. However, the challenge is to distinguish between these trends and changes in practices that might actually benefit us and our students. We probably do need to understand our roles as faculty differently.

  • stevendkrause

    Something else occurs to me in reading this. I haven’t read that Johnson essay yet, so maybe he talks about this/maybe he doesn’t, but as I understand it, a lot (most?) of the people who are successful in the music business nowadays are successful because of live performance. In other words, bands don’t make money like they used to just from their records alone– I’m thinking here of some really big bands way back when who rarely toured. Rather, musicians make money by going out there in person and entertaining people.

    It seems to me there is an analogy here to teaching. You can have textbooks, regular books, online textbooks, flipped classrooms, even video lectures, but there is still something of real value with the “live” and “embodied” exchange between an actual teacher and students. I think this exchange can work online and asynchronously, so I’m not going so far as to say it has to happen in “meat space.” But there’s still value in that exchange/performance. So in one sense, Socrates was right in the Phaedrus, ask a text a question and it won’t give you the direct answer you can get by asking the person. That’s where teaching and expertise still has value to me, even if the teacher is working right out of the textbook someone else wrote.

    • Yep, the performance thing is one of the main points Johnson raises. And I agree that the way this translates to academia (if it translates) is in thinking about the activities, the practices, of teaching and learning rather than the content that may or may not get “banked,” transferred, downloaded, etc. from faculty to students. Content is cheap and easy to come by if you aren’t picky. All the valuable content/knowledge, in terms of the broader market, may be proprietary and very expensive (think medical research) but that material is not at stake in undergraduate education, especially not in the humanities. Our value as faculty cannot lie in what we know alone. Expertise is necessary but not sufficient.