Bringing star proffies to the masses wasn’t the pot of gold that Coursera thought it was. Their millions and millions and bajillions of students, all of whom were simply waiting to listen to the Star Proffies yielded the company $200K in the first quarter of this year. Among the free content available to Cousera included Michael Sandel and other Harvard stars. One of those stars, Clayton Christensen, gleefullly pronounced that in 15 years, most universities that Aren’t Harvard would be bankrupt insects crushed under the feet of the New Educational Model of MOOCs, learning on the job and online.
Has he ever done online training for his job? Does he not know how boring and hideous those are? He needs to take USC’s sexual harassment training class online. It’s truly one of the most fearsomely dull experiences you can have outside of a waiting room at an autobody shop.
Well, instead, Coursera is going to want those insects to stay around because it recently announced that they are jettisoning their MOOC certification strategy to compete in the learning managment system (LMS) market instead. That’s right: they are taking on Blackboard. From a purely self-interested perspective, that’s awesome, not because I ever really worried about losing my job to the MOOC revolution, but because Blackboard sucks and it well could use some competition.
Coursera has simply never had a coherent plan to generate revenue. Oh sure, it had a bunch of ideas about how to do it, which were outlined in this leaked MOU with the University of Michigan, but few seem to have panned out. The only thing we’ve heard from Coursera is that their idea for charging people for certificates of completion netted $220,000 in Q1 of this year. Given that Coursera’s annual burn rate seems to be in the neighbourhood of $10M (that’s on top of their partners spending $50K/course to place it on the Coursera platform), this is peanuts. Allegedly, they were going to try to make money on a bunch of other things, like being scouts for businesses on the lookout for bright young talent, but there have been no announcements of revenue from these sources. Given how the tech news industry works, it’s a safe bet that means the figure is close to zero.
Now it’s entirely possible that one of other big MOOC companies, or a new one, will be able to figure out what Cousera’s management could not, or that their venture capital holders just weren’t patient enough to let them figure out.
But I do have to say: one of the reasons I’ve always wondered about the idea that MOOCs were magic and going to disrupt universities was just the simple problem that people who can not afford university educations may not have tons of disposable income to spend on MOOC products, either, and the reliance on numbers to make the $$$$ may miss the market by a lot because MOOCs are not the first idea that was supposed to be cashing in on the big global numbers that have failed to materialize. Bottom billion, any one? Undoubtedly an important group, but they’ve been devilishly hard to market to. Scanning through online life course sites and programs…these charge about $100 a week and up to belong to (not kidding). That’s expensive.
There are lots of people who are likely happy to download and watch lectures by Mike Sandel (he really is quite a good lecturer), but the number of people who want to commit to doing anything even remotely resembling work is much lower, and even lower than that are probably the number of people willing to pay for credit in this way. The number of people walking through the door at universities who are really college-ready strikes me as dwindling. The idea that they can just log in and flourish, even with online peer help, strikes me as silly. (They’ve had peer help all along; why is it magical just because it’s online?)
After months and months of listening to people crow about how I was going to be out of job (since when was that anything other than bad manners, btw?), I have to say my favorite writing about MOOCs came from New York Times freelancer A.J. Jacobs with Grading the MOOC university. This is a guy who doesn’t have a dog in the fight. He’s not a blowhard like Christensen reveling in his position in the university status hierarchy and kicking mud at the rest of us non-famous schmucks. He’s also not one of us non-famous schmucks just trying to do our jobs in a hostile world that keeps telling us how useless we are. He just took a few classes and wrote about them. Here’s a sample:
Consider my history study group, which met at a Brooklyn diner. Well, “met” might be a generous verb. I showed up, but no one else did. A few days later, my Twitter study-buddy also blew me off.
and what I’ve always suspected:
But MOOCs provided me with the thrill of relatively painless self-improvement and an easy introduction to heady topics. And just as important, they gave me relief from the guilt of watching “Swamp People.”
I think online content has a great deal to offer, and like Jacobs, I really enjoy watching online lectures and learning new things this way, too, and I”m not hostile to the notion we might be able to share content in new and exciting ways, and it would be wonderful if higher education became more accessible and more affordable.
But I am dubious that a recording of Mike Sandel replaces me entirely, for only a tiny part of my teaching job involves lectures, and I doubt very much that the care, decency, and experience I try to bring to my colleagues and students can be replaced by a Twitter buddy. Excuse me if that makes me a self-interested dinosaur unwilling to see the Revolution waiting to fall on poor, non-famous me.
“Students and the enormous revenue they bring in to our institution are a more valued commodity to us than faculty,” Dean James Hewitt said. “Although Rothberg is a distinguished, tenured professor with countless academic credentials and knowledge of 21 modern and ancient languages, there is absolutely no excuse for his boring Chad with his lectures. Chad must be entertained at all costs.”
So I’m more than a little bummed that USC turned down my request for a *really* small amount of money to support my book writing. It’s really hard when not even your employer believes in your project enough to give you a month to work on it. But…that’s kind of how work is. When you are a graduate student, it’s annoying that you have these committee members who are always saying “yeah, this project can work, but you are not doing it right yet” or “it’s getting there, but it needs more.” Don’t get me wrong–I get it–it’s annoying.
But when you are done, you are likely to face a world where nobody says “atta girl” but you and your personal support system. Nobody cares about this book I am writing but me–worse than that, one of my most supportive mentors actively seems to dislike the book. He had a book in his mind that he always associated with me, and he just plain doesn’t like the direction I am going. But it’s not his book, and it’s not his time. It’s mine. You just work on what you think you should work on.
So I have to say that it did my teeny tiny heart some good when Mary Beard, probably the most well-known classicist in the world at the moment (or at least neck-in-neck with Barry Strauss) shared her recent failure to receive funding, and referred us to a tale from classicist Edith Hall, for a way more important project than my little book:
I failed to get funding four years ago for a more European-facing version of this project from the European Research Council, whose referees (distinguished classical scholars) could not understand its ‘relevance’ to anything in which they were interested. I failed first time round with the AHRC, the British funding council, because one of the referees alleged that my style of communication had ‘a streak of vulgarity’ (which might be thought to be useful in a project about social class); s/he gave the proposal a 4 when the two other reviewers both gave it the top mark of 6. I went through the complaints procedure, which took four upsetting months, even ending up with a brush-off from the Parliamentary Ombudsman, who said that the AHRC had ‘followed their published procedures’.
Keep going. Yeah, as the de-motivational posters reinforce, you may be persisting in folly. But you won’t know until you are finished so you might as well finish.
Meanwhile, you may have my permission to meltdown a little at personal setbacks:
My colleague, Martin Krieger, has a new book out, called the Scholar’s Survival Guide: A Road Map for Students, Faculty, and Administrators. It’s available for pre-order over at Amazon, and he has a blog that supports and extends the book here.
Some writing inspiration from one of my favorite living authors, Fay Weldon discusses her inspiration from Camus over at the Atlantic.
So what is the point of beginning the long toil up the hill, pushing and straining sentences along, forcing characters into molds which never quite fit, dragging a chain-gang of second thoughts behind? Olympus will never be reached. Sisyphus is bound to slip. The rock will come tumbling down. Let the blank page stay blank.
But if we consider, like Camus, Sisyphus at the foot of his mountain, we can see that he is smiling. He is content in his task of defying the Gods, the journey more important than the goal.
Robert Caro came to give the Dennis and Brooks Holt Distinguished Lecture last night. That sponsored lecture allows USC to attract distinguished thinkers on politics and the media.
Caro was so charming in every way–an amazing story-teller, with a lovely New York boy accent–and I loved so much of what he said it’s hard to distill.
For one thing, I love how Caro manages to humanize Lyndon Johnson without romanticizing him. Caro has been able to demonstrate why LBJ is so important to the left–and how effective a political genius he was in accomplishing things for people–like rural Texans–that are normally not the beneficiaries of public policy. And just how ruthless he was in doing so.
The second thing I took away was his incredible patience. It doesn’t seem to bother him that, in his 80s now, he may or may not get to the end of his LBJ project before it’s time for him to exit. And he does seem to have another project in mind–but he refused to answer that question when asked because he’s superstitious. I love this–I really don’t like to discuss nascent work, either, which many people rather treat like a weakness. Well, if Robert Caro can do it, I can, too. I don’t like to talk away ideas before I write them.
In addition to his interest in new projects, he admitted last night that he reads Trollope, which made me squeal with delight. I love Trollope, but whenever I am reading these old, long meandering 19th century novels, there is a nagging person inside my head telling me that I am wasting my time, that nothing these novelists have to say matters to the world, and that, at middle-age, I only have so much reading time left. If a guy in his 80s can spend his free time reading Trollope, and his working time working for 8 years on a biography of roughly 3 months of a man’s life, then I can let time go lightly, too.
But if taxpayers aren’t really paying much into public education, why do they get to have much say at all?
There is much about this article in this Huffington Post article about Texas higher education that makes me question the current politics of public education. It’s the usual fare from the right: universities are too expensive, there’s too much time spent on research instead of teaching our kiddies to be engineers and business people, yada. Universities are anachronistic parasites, blah blah blah, and thus the university needs to cleaned up, made more efficient, and made more accountable to the taxpayer.
The point in that which makes me raise my eyebrow:
Thirty years ago, Texas taxpayers funded more than half the university budget. This year, the state contributes about 13 percent, or $295 million.
It sounds to me like the university is not the anachronism here. What is actually anachronistic here is disproportionate taxpayer oversight of institutions for which they are marginal sources of capital. Under these circumstances, is it any wonder that taxpayer priorities for higher education mean little in the institutions’ calculus? I hate to be rude about this, but in a state like Texas, $295 million could be made up from endowments in very short time. Perhaps it is time for UT to go private to protect itself from being political fodder for weak politicians like Perry.
Attention conservation notice: Don’t lecture women on their choices based on cheap shots and self-aggrandizing stories about your own experiences.
Two of my brilliant students, Eli Glazer and Alejandro Sanchez-Lopez, tweeted this post to my attention. It’s by Todd Pettigrew, in Macleans Higher Ed. Why do people write these things? Since Eli and Alejandro are two of my favorites, I’ll dissect it, even though it’s so flimsy it does not deserve the attention. There, Dr. Pettigrew, are some clicks for you. Enjoy.
First of all, the issue: women on the tenure track balancing career and family.
I am often hard on my colleagues who are good demanding things for themselves because of caregiving concerns, but who never ever think that their demands should be made generally of the institution, for all people working there, from the janitors to the provost. If I hear one more comment on “Can female professors/other privileged occupations have it all?” I am going to barf/start smacking people upside the head. For one thing, it suggests that work and children are “all” and that women who don’t have both are lacking in one or the other, and why don’t we all just back up and let women and their partners and their families decide what “all” is for them and try to help them attain their goals? That strikes me as cool.
And second, nobody is asking the women cleaning toilets if they can have it all. I’m happy to worry about the problems of women on the tenure track, but only so far that I worry about the problem of uncompensated caregiving work and its distribution between genders in general. People caring for terminally ill spouses and aging parents have caregiving work, too, and it takes time and energy and money, too, and they tend to get fewer workplace accommodations than parents of either gender do.
So I’m not automatically inclined to take up the cause of extending caregiving time and childcare benefits to parents on the tenure track, but I am inclined to do so for people in general. Kids are important to us all, just like caring for the sick or aged matters to us all. Period. People who need care (i.e., all of us, at some point) are part of society. They are ours–not just some women’s problem to deal with. Ours.
But my students, who have to deal with me picking on their lapses in reasoning all semester, are waiting to see a response to Pettigrew, and I am happy to oblige. Please never write stuff like this piece. If you do get a public forum for your ideas, please show humility, reason, and care. That’s your job as somebody who is trying to influence policy.
The first set of problems: 1) Pettigrew appears to have no idea what it’s like being a woman in male-dominated field in the academy; 2) he appears no have idea what things are like in science departments; 3) he probably has no clue what things are like at major research universities because he never appears to have been at one, except as a grad student. His willingness to speak to ‘academic women’ as a ‘progressive man’ begins from a position of basic ignorance about many things salient to the discussion. That is your first sign as a writer and a reasoner: if you must write about a topic that is way outside of your experience, go with humility first. Tread carefully. It’s not about political correctness. It’s about intellectual humility and the spirit of exploration. And not sounding like a tool.
Let’s break down the argument, point by point.
Lousy/Borderline unethical argumentation alert #1: Distorting the original argument for your own ends.
A recent article in University Affairs, for instance, reports on a study by Shelley Adamo who argues that women are underrepresented as biologists because they tend to be seeking jobs when they “are in their late 20s and early 30s and more likely to have a partner and young children. ‘That sort of handicaps them,’” according to Dr. Adamo.
First, as a married man I resent the claim that a husband or other life partner inevitably “handicaps” the career of a female academic. If your special someone doesn’t think your career is important, then find someone who does. And what about the life partners who support their academic spouses by paying the bills while their partner is burning the midnight oil?
How did “…that sort of handicaps them” turn into a claim that it “inevitably handicaps” anything?
That distorted framing–which is a form of audience manipulation–starts from the headline onward. “Academic women should stop blaming their children” is designed, pure and simple, as click-bait. The women in the original study are talking about the issues that arise for them in their roles working between career and children. If they blame anything, it’s the academy’s inflexibility, childcare provision scarcity, and a broad misunderstanding/denigration of the time and energy that caregiving takes. Nobody’s blaming the innocent widdle kiddies, although it helps Dr. Pettigrew construct a moral highground–for the children I speak!–atop a straw man–or straw child in this case.
Lousy argumentation alert #2–Personalizing something not about you. “I resent the idea…”
We should all be worried that he resents the idea…. Of course, he is distorting the ideas specifically so that he can resent something, but we should all be concerned about his feelings about something that was never said or even seriously implied rather than waste our time worrying about the issues/arguments/ideas concerning caregiving work.
Lousy argumentation alert #3–The Facile Contradiction
Next up: the assertion about the supportive partners. Sure, we all know supportive partners exist; I’m even fortunate enough to have one. Isn’t that clever of me?
But that is cheap argumentation 101: find a contradiction to a claim and then act like that contradiction proves something. But without evidence, we can’t tell if the contradiction reflects the prevailing trend (i.e. most people have supportive spouses) or whether this is a man-bites-dog contradiction (it happens, but it is not particularly illustrative of social life).
The contradiction may prove nothing for all we really know, but it does superficially reassure us that if a guy takes out the trash or holds down a job, women don’t need childcare or extra help attaining career success. See what I did there? Woo! I, too, can distort arguments and imply they are wrong, deeply wrong by contradicting something that was never claimed in the first place.
Of course partners can play a supportive role; relationships are mix of give and take. But even supportive spouses can add complications to the highly specialized, and often narrow, chances for academic careers and fieldwork. When you have more people to accommodate in your career move, fieldwork, and schedule, the accommodations become more constraining. It’s hard to drop your family and go do fieldwork in Indonesia for 6 months; it’s probably even harder to take them with you. Certainly people do it, and certainly it affects parents and scholars of both genders. That’s why we should grapple with the concerns that caregivers have in general, not just lecture women (or anybody) about choices.
Oh, and just get yourself a partner that supports what you do, why doncha? It’s all so easy. Make your whole life fit the academic world, lest ye or anybody start questioning academia or the way academic institutions treat people. If some partner of yours doesn’t immediately fall in line with your career or has needs of their own, ditch ‘em. Trade up.
Lousy argumentation alert #4: Remove the nuance from a set of ideas, then distort those ideas, for your own rhetorical convenience. This one is really a work of art.
As for children, there are, to some extent, biological realities that would put extra strain on any woman trying to get to the forefront of her field. Still, feminists have been hammering the point home for over a generation now: women control their own bodies and should be able to choose whether or not to have children. But if that’s the case, then women can’t blame children for lack of academic success. If it’s a choice, then women have the choice not to have children if they don’t like the implications for their careers.
Biological realities that would put extra strain? To some extent? I don’t know what he meant to convey by that, so let’s skip it. Then he goes on to hoisting feminists on their own petard of choice! Devastating!
Only, again–he’s taken a grossly unfair read of what many feminists have argued. Feminists in reality are a diverse bunch and hold a wide range of positions on the body and birth control, but since that doesn’t serve his argument, he just flattens out what those “feminists” say for his rhetorical convenience.
And talk abut distorting an argument for self-serving reasons. I’m pretty sure what those hammering (oh, rhymes with yammering) feminists did not mean that women need to be able to control their reproduction so that it suits institutions. Yes, by gum, those institutions are so darned swell, we should expect women to make their choices to fit those institutions–not expect those institutions to evolve in pro-social, pro-family ways that would help parents of both genders manage their work and family roles. THAT’S JUST CRAZY. Choose, women, choose. CHOOSE YOUR CHOICE, women; you may have only one role! Men, carry on as you do, not having to make these choices because there are no career implications for you. (Only there probably are if you aren’t a crap caregiver, no matter what your gender.) Aren’t men swell for not whining or blaming their children in this situation?
This, from “a progressive man”? Does his dictionary have a different meaning for the word “progressive” than mine? Is there an obscure definition where progressive means assuming that maintaining existing institutional practices and cultures matter more than social inclusion?
Lousy Argumentation alert #5: The just-so story about oneself used as evidence, with straight-up misogyny mixed in
But what gets me is the way Fullick slips children into the mix of things that just happen to unsuspecting candidates: “Personal events can intervene, such as the birth of a child.” By the time a woman reaches graduate school, I expect that she understands the various mechanisms around pregnancy. Forgive me, then, but the birth of a child does not intervene. If you choose to have a baby while a graduate student, that’s your choice.
First, the misogyny. Note how he implies single responsibility for pregnancy to women: “by the time a woman reaches graduate school, I expect that she understands the various mechanisms…” Women, this is all on you. Having a child is not a family thing, a decision made in family and social contexts. It’s you and you alone. Those of us who advocate for women’s rights to choose also understand that partners and families have a stake in those choices, btw. What entitlements that stake grants is contested, fine, but women are not baby factories with on and off switches just because they have choices.
He does have a point about the passive language in the original text, but he once again overblows the passivity and amplifies for his own self-interested ends to score some cheap points rather than actually making an argument.
Yes, graduate students of both genders do know where babies come from, but what does that prove, again? Just because you know where babies come from, and you can use birth control to set the timing does not mean you are free to dictate the exact, proper, conditions for when childbearing come together in your life. Waiting for a “good time to have children” strikes me as a luxury–some people have it, other people do not. I suspect parents try to do the best they can. I worked a demanding job before graduate school that precluded kids: if I had said “no kids until tenure” we would have started trying when I was 39. Risks for maternal and child health go up by a lot by that age; check the numbers. So then….that’s my choice had I wanted children in Pettigrew’s framing? All so no university ever has to be bothered with coming up with ideas and practices that help out workers who have children?
So that we can understand how the pros do the baby factory on/baby factory off, Dr. Pettigrew does give us an instructional, just-so story about his own prudence:
When I was a graduate student, my partner and I discussed it seriously and decided against it. No child intervened. And we didn’t get lucky. We decided.
Never mistake your preferences or your experiences for evidence in argumentation. Dr. Pettigrew does both here.
How is HIS personal experience illustrative of anything other than a willingness to argue from an N of 1? Good job making the choice that worked for you. We’re all so glad for you. I guess this means you’re absolved from accommodating people who make different choices than you? How does that work in a cosmopolitan community amongst ‘progressives’?
Finally, it’s clear from Dr. Pettigrew’s tone and his cv that he has no idea what the work expectations are for women in science or at major research universities. Resources for parents and kids are likely to vary substantially by university context, along with work expectations.
Pettigrew is an associate professor at Cape Breton University in Nova Scotia. He has no idea what a young parent starting out in biology or any other science at a place like USC or Columbia is up against. I’m sure he had high teaching expectations placed on him–but I have no way of judging whether that’s easier or harder than what we had to go through to get tenure at USC.
And neither does he. He’s just willing to presume he does my know my life, and the lives of women in the academy more generally. That’s the art of the mansplain.
My friend Jesse Richardson from Virginia Tech and one of my graduate students alerted me to the kerfuffle surrounding this piece from Susan Adams on Forbes, which caused a bit of a firestorm. The awesome quote:
Unless they teach summer school, they are off between May and September and they enjoy long breaks during the school year, including a month over Christmas and New Year’s and another chunk of time in the spring. Even when school is in session they don’t spend too many hours in the classroom. For tenure-track professors, there is some pressure to publish books and articles, but deadlines are few. Working conditions tend to be cozy and civilized and there are minimal travel demands, except perhaps a non-mandatory conference or two. As for compensation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for professors is $62,000, not a huge amount of money but enough to live on, especially in a university town.
Oh boy. Some of the ire directed at this piece is deserved, but some is not. First off, I think all jobs are stressful to some degree. Going up for tenure is a miserable process–it’s like having your performance evaluation last for five years. No, you aren’t picking lettuce in 100 degree heat, nor are you shooting screaming animals in the head at a meat-packing plant or risking getting sucked overboard while pulling in crab traps. If you like to teach and you like to write, being a professor is a wonderful job.
I also have to wonder about the entire set-up: why would being stressful versus not stressful itself be an indicator of quality of life? There are people out there bungee jumping. Surely the notion that one does better or more work when one is stressed is silly. Why should we want people who write and think and work with learners to be stressed in the first place?
Here’s the reason why everybody’s all up in Adams’ face and she’s getting some heat that perhaps is overwrought: Professors are just sick to death of people like her deciding they know how to do our jobs, and that those are jobs are cake. There is so much misinformation out there about what professors do, it’s hard to know where to start. The academy is a unique context. Incentives are different here than in Adams’ world. For instance, one thing that needs to get said right now to absolutely all writers of TV crime dramas:
No professor ever has committed murder so that he or she could become department chair.
Now, somebody might commit murder to AVOID becoming department chair, but that’s harder to fit in a 45 minute drama format.
Furthermore, all you people in private business: get over tenure.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, you live in the hard, cold world where people have to work or get fired. Um, yeah, right. That’s why we can all identify with why Wally in Dilbert is always in danger of getting fired…..wait. Yep. In my experience, it’s actually way easier to get rid of professors at tenure time, even though it’s a one-shot deal, than it is to get rid of incompetent staff at universities because the tenure process is a formal, if very high stakes, evaluation process with lots of oversight.
People from the private sector in conversation will carp at me about tenure and then, two sentences later, blather on about how their company put them up at the Ritz/paid for first class/gave them a fat bonus for their last junket–things professors seldom get, if ever. I get it: your perks are all *earned*, but mine are all unearned, and we all think we know what other people deserve to get and what they don’t. Only, like Adams writing in Forbes, most of us have no idea what other people do or how difficult it is.
Why this behavior is anything other than simple bad manners and hubris is a bit beyond me. We live in world of tremendous complexity. That’s why we let labor markets do their thing.
I’ve been reading a wonderful book called the Ajax Dilemma by Paul Woodruff. Ajax, if you recall, lost to the big cheater Odysseus a priceless set of armor, and then went on a rampage and killed himself. The Greeks thus lost a wonderful asset because they failed to reward him. Ajax represents the loyal rank and file worker; Odysseus the strategist who knows how to play the system. It’s really hard to know how to reward different types of performers in such a way that faith in social life and systems remains intact. I’m not far into the book yet, but I’m far enough along to know that assigning desert, like most professions, is much harder than it looks.