Wednesday, November 27, 2013
We’ve hit the age that every parent dreads: the age at which your kid’s math homework involves actually re-learning algebra.
I knew this day would come, but nothing really prepared me for it.
The Boy is smart, and wants to be an engineer when he grows up, so he’s in advanced math. And he’s mostly fine with it.
But this week he brought home...exponents.
So far, it isn’t too bad. Experience tells me, though, that it won’t be long before he gets to fractional and/or negative exponents, neither of which I really understood the last time I saw them, which was sometime during the Reagan administration.
They teach math differently now than they used to. Back in the day, I learned to “carry” and “borrow,” like God intended. Now, apparently, they “regroup.” It’s actually a smarter approach, once you figure out what the hell it is, but I admit being brought up short the first time I saw it. Still, though, arithmetic is arithmetic. Now we’re getting to the more abstract stuff.
My own history with math was odd. I cruised along quite comfortably until I hit geometry. I hit geometry in the same sense in which a watermelon dropped from a skyscraper hits the sidewalk. It wasn’t pretty. “Prove this is a rhombus.” I’m sorry, what? I’m hoping that proofs have gone the way of borrowing and carrying, but I suspect not.
I know, as a card-carrying college administrator, that I’m supposed to condemn math phobia wherever I see it. And there are fine and good reasons for that. I made it through my mandatory stats classes for poli sci in both undergrad and grad school, so it’s not like the sight of numbers gives me the vapors. But as a human being, rather than just a placeholder for an office, I have to admit a pretty glaring blind spot where “geometry” is supposed to be. I’m not proud of that, but it is what it is.
(On those 8th grade “vocational aptitude tests” they used to give, I always crashed and burned on “spatial reasoning.” I’ve long considered the ability to do complicated jigsaw puzzles a sort of magic. And let’s just say I give my phone’s GPS a pretty good workout.)
This is where the whole “first-generation” thing really hits home.
The Boy has parents who went through this stuff, and who can at least try to help him when he gets stuck. We can help him make the maddeningly difficult leap from “I know that” to “you mean, I use that here?” When he gets discouraged or confused, we’re there for him. I even took a crack, this week, at explaining that a period inside quotation marks at the end of a sentence does double duty. He was skeptical, but went with it. Nobody said English grammar makes sense.
This is how cultural capital gets transmitted. Well-meaning people, doing right by the people in their lives, reproduce privilege. The kids who don’t have parents at home who can help them through the rough patches in their homework are likelier to get lower grades and draw negative conclusions about what they’re doing. The kids who get help when they need it are likelier to make it through. Neither is a certainty, but the probabilities are real.
I don’t see withholding help as any sort of solution. Parents are supposed to help their kids. Wasting TB’s talent because others don’t have educated parents wouldn’t help anybody. That’s not the point. I didn’t go into education for a living only to withhold education from my own kids.
As he gets older, I’ll have to add some other lessons. Those will involve trying to figure out what happens when some people have the wind at their back, and others have the wind in their face. And what it means to try to live an ethical life in a stratified country.
We’ll give thanks this week for the very real blessings we have. As they get older, I’ll try to get them to ask just how those blessings got there in the first place.
Monday, November 25, 2013
Entrepreneurialism works differently in higher education.
In most professions, dissatisfied practitioners have the option of setting out on their own. They can hang the proverbial shingle, beat the bushes for business, and go their own way. Doctors can start medical practices, lawyers can start legal practices, and the like.
I don’t see many professors having that option.
Yes, high-powered researchers can take their labs with them from one university to another, or even to private industry, to some degree. But someone who decides that, say, the existing models of higher education don’t work the way they should would have a hell of a time setting up her own shop. At this point, the barriers to entry are largely prohibitive. Accreditation alone is a major one, but it’s far from the only one: the infrastructure of record-keeping, financial aid, student services, public safety, and compliance with all manner of regulations has to be present, in meaningful quantity, from the outset. The only obvious ways in are with investment capital -- which expects a return -- or with public funding, which is both scarce and increasingly controlling.
Sometimes I wonder if some of the morale issues on many campuses stem from a largely accurate sense that dissatisfied people have nowhere else to go. Research superstars are mobile, but a fiftyish English professor at a community college is unlikely to have that kind of pull on the market, or the capital to start a college of his own. The blogosphere is so focused on people trying to break into the full-time ranks -- and rightly so -- that it neglects the folks who are already there, but who wish they had other places to go.
It’s one of those background conditions that has been around for so long that we think it’s normal. But in most fields, it wouldn’t be.
In practice, most innovation has to occur in the context of institutions that already exist. It’s a different kind of challenge.
SNHU handled the challenge by forming a spinoff, complete with separate office space. That’s probably the cleanest way to do it, but it requires a level of operational autonomy that most publics simply don’t, and won’t, have. Instead, we need to foster internal entrepreneurialism.
That requires giving a great deal of conscious thought to the creation of the right internal climate. It requires a delicate blend of urgency, freedom, and patience. The urgency motivates. The freedom enables. And the patience enables the necessary tolerance for the inevitable bugs, failures, and obstacles.
Even then, success isn’t a given. But I like the chances a lot better. We may not have the option of hanging out shingles, but we do have the option of making a point of innovating from within.
Sunday, November 24, 2013
I’m not above crowdsourcing solutions to very practical campus issues.
Wise and worldly readers, I’m having a hard time cracking the “devices” question for OER. I’m hoping someone out there has a reasonably elegant solution, or set of solutions.
Here’s the context, and some parameters of useful solutions:
- Textbook costs have become a real stumbling block for many students. Especially in the sciences and certain social sciences, it’s not unusual for an introductory textbook to run two hundred dollars or more. For a student taking four or five classes, that adds up quickly. Since many of our students are struggling with daily expenses, they often try to get through the class without buying the book. That strategy usually ends in tears.
- Over the past couple of years, several providers of Open Educational Resources have come along -- often with foundation support -- to make alternatives either free or very inexpensive. Even better, since most of those alternatives are electronic and specifically designed with access in mind, most of them are ADAA compliant right out of the gate. That’s often not true for certain large, very successful textbook publishers I could name.
- On campus, we’ve used some grant funding to establish a working group of both full-time and adjunct faculty who receive stipends to investigate the possibilities of OER alternatives to commercial textbooks in their respective classes. The idea is to get some early adopters to do the legwork, and then to rely on viral transmission among faculty for the concept to spread. Between colleagues saying “look what I found!” and students saying “I’m broke, and how come my friend’s books are free?”, I’m hoping to see adoption of OER spread quickly. We aren’t even getting hung up on the question of lost bookstore revenues; the college leadership has decided, correctly, that doing right by the students is the most important thing. Eventually, if OER adoption hits critical mass, we may have to move to some sort of nominal fee for it, but we’re not there yet.
Here’s the tricky part.
Because most of the OER materials are electronic, they have to be read on devices. We’re taking a principled position that we aren’t going to go with any vendor-specific platform -- cough Apple cough -- because it’s important that students have many device options, and that at least some of the choices are inexpensive enough that we aren’t defeating the purpose. And of course, at least some of those devices need to be compatible with ADAA requirements.
Getting from “this would be a good idea” to “here’s how it’ll work” is proving a challenge. Obviously, some students will bring devices of their own already, and for them, it’s easy. Others won’t have an issue with buying whatever they want. But for the students who don’t show up with a tablet or laptop, and for whom every dollar counts, we need to make sure that any device we pick is robust enough to meet their needs, cheap enough to be a net money saver, and tied to a specific course so it’ll be eligible for financial aid coverage, much like a lab kit would be.
Wise and worldly readers, any thoughts on how to thread that needle?
In my perfect world, there would be an accessible format that would work on nearly any device, and students then could choose anything from the highest-end, most recent ipad to a refurbished version of last year’s kindle, and it would all be fine. But it’s hard to claim a requirement as loose as that for financial aid purposes.
Has anyone out there figured out the device question?
Thursday, November 21, 2013
This piece in Slate does a nice job of capturing the moral dilemma in which some adjunct faculty find themselves when they apply for full-time jobs, especially outside of academia. The rest of the world doesn’t necessarily observe the academic calendar, so someone looking for a position in industry may well be asked in March to start in April. The cultural taboo against abandoning classes mid-semester is strong, and reasonable from a student perspective.
I ran into a variation on that when I taught at DeVry. Back then, it ran three four-month “trimesters” per year, based on the fiscal year. That meant that the trimesters ran July-October, November-February, and March- June. (The November-February one was particularly awkward with Christmas break falling at midterm.) One year I got an interview offer in late November for a position that started in January. I turned it down, believing that it would be wrong to leave my students in the lurch.
Things worked out, as it happened, but the dilemma is real. And it’s another case in which the high road becomes a toll road.
Overheard in meeting this week: “Justice is not blonde” Well, no…
Several years ago, The Onion did a piece about America longing for another bubble to invest in. It was one of those “funny because it’s true” moments that The Onion does when it’s at its best.
Paul Krugman has finally caught up to The Onion. Apparently, an intuition that many of us have had for years is only starting to occur to policy elites. If you factor out the tech bubble of the late 90’s and the real estate bubble of the mid-aughts, the last several decades have been an extended period of stagnation. Stagnation has become the new normal, with occasional boom-bust bubbles coming along to add some excitement.
I didn’t know that wasn’t obvious. It certainly seems obvious. And it suggests that the low-conflict strategy of “growing your way out” of austere periods may only work for intermittent, short spells. The rest of the time, we may have to expect more conflict.
A couple of weeks ago, I took The Girl to a jazz concert on campus. The Girl takes piano lessons locally and is getting pretty good. She loves jazz piano, so I thought it would be a nice experience for her.
We both enjoyed the concert, and afterwards, I introduced her to the professor who had taught one of TG’s teachers when that teacher was a student.
TG immediately called the professor her “grand-teacher.”
It’s too good a term not to get popular. From now on, I shall refer to my teachers’ teachers as my grandteachers. Thanks, TG.
Wednesday, November 20, 2013
Sebastian Thrun’s remarkable surrender on MOOCs for the masses has pretty much consumed the higher ed interwebs this week, and for good reason. He has gone from confidently asserting that he will bury us to shrugging and muttering “never mind” in just two years. (Characteristically, Tressie McMillan Cottom delivers a devastating analysis.) Apparently, students with complicated lives are just too much trouble; the MOOC works best with economically elite, academically prepared students, just like traditional higher education.
Some of us have been making that point for years. In 2010, Anya Kamenetz published DIY U, in which she celebrated the emergent alternatives to traditional colleges as potentially empowering to the masses. The “edupunks” who took control of their own education would blaze the way to the new, glistening future. I took issue:
The alternative to eleemosynary institutions isn't a sudden epidemic of autodidacticism; it's for-profits. That's the direction in which we're actually moving. The for-profits have their strengths and their weaknesses, but at least they recognize that you can't scale up without infrastructure. For all the mistakes they make, they grasp the fundamental importance of institutions. They just build (or sometimes buy) their own. To the extent that "society" redirects resources away from institutions and towards individuals, it plays directly into the for-profit model. Kamenetz correctly notes that for-profits rely heavily on Federal financial aid, but somehow never connects these dots.
Eleemosynary institutions have real and serious flaws, but they exist to empower the weak. They are necessary to empower the weak. If you rend them asunder, you will expose the weak to the predations of the strong. This is so fundamental that I'm surprised it even needs to be brought up. If it weren't scandalously unethical, I'd propose an experiment: take two sets of kids who barely got through a weak school district. Send one set to the local community college, and tell the other set it's free to educate itself under digital bridges. Come back in, say, ten years, and compare the results on any scale you want. Then talk to me about "edupunks."
Kamenetz' framework rests on a mostly unacknowledged, but remarkably deep, set of privileges. If you had a strong high school background, and you have money and leisure, and you have social connections to smart people who are willing to spend time with you, and you can afford all kinds of technology, then you may be able to do something with this. (Astute readers will recognize the young Bill Gates and the young Steve Jobs in those descriptions.) But if we're honest, we have to recognize that most of the people who download TED talks don't do it as an alternative to college; they've already been to college. If you have a well-developed set of skills, you can avail yourself of all kinds of things. But in the absence of those skills, it's just information. And those skills come from somewhere.
If you're serious about education for the non-elite, you need institutions. The institutions need to be accountable, and open to creativity, and efficient, and changed in a host of ways that I spend most of my waking hours obsessing over and probably more that I've never even thought of. But you need them. Every serious social movement of the past two centuries has understood this. The internet has changed a lot of things, but it hasn't changed that. The rich kids may experience unbundling as liberation, and to some degree, it can be. But for the vast majority, the issue isn't that their individuality is being squelched by The Man and his distribution requirements. It's that without effective educational institutions from preschool on up, they will never get the chance to develop their skills in the first place.
In 2013 I’d replace “download” with “stream,” but otherwise, I stand by it.
The great danger at this point, now that the MOOC backlash is kicking into gear, is missing the positive possibilities that MOOCs and other innovations offer. I understand the impulse to wipe a collective brow and sigh with relief -- or, let’s face it, crack snarky jokes -- at Thrun’s discovery of what we on campuses have long known. But leaving it at that would be a mistake.
At their best, colleges are bundles of resources knit together by a shared mission. MOOCs, OER, and other new technology offer new resources to incorporate into the bundle. As I argued in January, professors can use MOOCs now much as they have used BOOKs over the years. Like books, MOOCs can perform some of the raw explication outside of class that allows for higher-order discussion and application in class. Instead of replacing classes, they can make classes better. That’s no small thing.
So farewell, Sebastian Thrun. You overshot, and failed, but you left behind a nifty resource that we can use in ways you never seriously considered.
Tuesday, November 19, 2013
Someday, someone is going to steal this idea and make history with it. Alas, I’m not in a position to do that myself. So I’ll put it out there and hope someone with means sees it.
Most jobs now are either severely part-time or entirely full-time. Generally, the part-time jobs pay far less, proportionately, than full-time jobs do. That’s particularly true if you go beyond dollars per hour and look at benefits. The distinction holds across industries, and people have been forced to make life choices based on the limited set of options that exists. The assumption is that you are either fully on board or you are just passing through.
Once in a while, though -- often through grant-funded programs -- we’re able to post a staff job with benefits that requires, say, thirty hours a week at a reduced but proportionate salary. It doesn’t happen a lot, but it happens. You know what happens when we post a job like that?
We get the strongest applicant pools EVER. We have hired unbelievable people that way.
It’s almost as if people’s preferences come in more than two flavors. Who knew?
The thirty-hour-a-week model, or thereabouts, appeals to a surprisingly huge set of well qualified people. Some of them are parents -- usually women, but not always -- who have children in school and want to be home when they’re home. Some of them are working on graduate degrees, and appreciate having the ability to both support themselves and get academic work done. Some of them have side projects, whether artistic or entrepreneurial. Whatever the reason, I’ve had some remarkable high performers in these roles tell me point-blank that they would not even have applied if it had been posted as full-time.
As a value proposition for an employer, this strikes me as a largely ignored opportunity. There’s a large, highly talented pool of people eager to work for lower-than-full salaries. As a manager, I can’t help but see this as a potential way to make real progress.
That’s not to say that all is sweetness and light. Equity around things like paid holidays, personal days, and snow days can get awkward. Scheduling meetings can be a challenge when people have different workweeks. During crunch times, sometimes you need more than a ¾ position. And the optics of someone leaving early on a regular basis, or not coming in on Fridays, can rub some people the wrong way. (“Optical Rubbing” would be a great name for a band, come to think of it.)
But those all strike me as minor, compared to the value proposition to the employer of a high performer happily and gratefully doing great work for a lower salary. And if it means that people are able to lead balanced and sustainable lives, all the better.
The major obstacle I can see to what seems otherwise like an obvious win is that it may make it harder to maintain the distinction between jobs with benefits and jobs without. In a more rational system -- cough single payer cough -- that wouldn’t matter so much. But in the system we have, it’s an issue.
I’m not sure that’s a fatal objection, though. Given the caliber of people eager for thirty-ish hour positions, the business case -- not to mention the “decent human being” case from recognizing the needs of, say, parents -- for more thirty-ish hour jobs seems strong.
Wise and worldly readers, what do you think? Is there some major obstacle I’m not seeing, or is this a potential growth area?
Monday, November 18, 2013
Which is more rigorous: a program with all required and prescribed classes, or a program with a host of electives?
The correct answer is that the question doesn’t make sense. It’s like asking whether red cars are faster than blue cars. Academic rigor and freedom of choice are unrelated. One can choose very easy classes, very difficult classes, or a mix. A program can require very easy classes, very hard classes, or a mix. And that’s before getting into non-objective definitions of rigor.
That should be common sense. But nearly every year I find myself arguing with people who believe that rigor is about control. It’s frustrating, because the underlying assumptions -- and therefore definitions -- are different, so we wind up talking past each other.
Any teacher, manager, or parent knows the tension of watching someone in your charge drop the ball. Do you intervene, or let them figure it out for themselves? Do you build a world in which balls are undroppable, or do you build your charge’s non-dropping skills?
Over time, you start to realize that much of the “rigor” has to fall on the teacher/manager/parent, in the form of self-control. You have to be willing to hold back on your own frustrations, at least sometimes, and trust that the universe is smarter than you are. You have to fight the easy temptation of control.
I was reminded of that in reading about the findings presented at the ASHE (Association for the Study of Higher Education) conference on states using performance funding for colleges. Simply put, the folks who have researched the issue have found no evidence that performance funding actually improves performance. The easy temptation of control -- through funding -- doesn’t achieve its stated objective.
I can envision several different responses. In descending order of likelihood:
- Methodological/definitional quibbling. What do we mean by “performance”? What do we mean by “improves”? What about this data, or that calculation, or…? This move is pretty much a given in any area of social science that addresses anything controversial.
- Doubling down. The problem isn’t that performance funding doesn’t work. The problem is that it hasn’t been tried! The right move, this position assumes, is to raise the stakes. (The article refers to this as performance funding 2.0). As long as the amounts of money involved are relatively small, the effects may be swamped by other things. But if you raise the stakes, you’ll get what you want. Of course, this same argument could be applied to nearly anything. Base funding on any one measure -- be it starting salaries, enrollment numbers, or test scores -- and you’ll eventually see movement towards it. As with any absolutism, the blind spots will become larger and more costly over time.
- Opportunistic redefinitions. This is a variation on the job ad that mentions that the ideal candidate will be a left-handed Libra named Eric.
- Actual rethinking.
Actual rethinking would involve entertaining the possibility that, say, imposing “performance funding” on institutions with high fixed costs isn’t likely to work as expected. It might involve wondering whether pitting public colleges against each other for shares of a stagnant pool of funding is likelier to result in collaborations or one-upsmanship. And it might recognize that the massive cost-shifting of the last several years -- in which students have become the majority funders of most community colleges through tuition, and the state a much smaller player -- amounts to a form of performance funding already. If anything, in this setting, what’s needed from the state is predictable support to allow colleges to address those fixed costs while using the variable revenues of tuition to address variable costs.
But I put that at the low end of the likelihood scale, because it would involve legislatures developing an appetite for self-control. Pounding the table and yelling “performance!” sounds like rigor, and it feels good in the moment, but it doesn’t work. Now we have the results to prove it.
As long as the majority of revenue comes from tuition and fees, we already have de facto performance funding. Basing the rest of the revenue on amplifying market trends will just buffet colleges all the more. At this point, legislatures need to realize that the incentives are already there, and quite powerfully. Instead, they need to trust that the universe is smarter than they are, and allow the folks on the ground the breathing room to actually perform.
Sunday, November 17, 2013
Yesterday, in the car:
The Girl: Daddy, when you were my age, did you play any organized sports?
Families in our area are so busy chauffeuring kids to this event or that one that it’s hard to believe that there was once a time when that wasn’t true.
Fall baseball for The Boy ended at the end of October, so we had a brief break that ended last week with the start of basketball. He also has music lessons, jazz band, and Lego League. TG has gymnastics, music lessons, “band jam,” and Lego League. (Band Jam is a weekly group rehearsal with other kids at the place where she takes music lessons. She’s the band’s keyboardist.) Lego League is in the home stretch, leading up to some all-day meets in December at which teams compete at putting robots through obstacle courses. Band Jam leads up to a concert in December, too. Baseball peaks in May and October; basketball peaks in February.
Every single one of those activities brings obligations to drive. Many of them involve two round trips, because the events themselves are too long to make it reasonable to stick around. That changes when basketball moves from practices to games, but we aren’t there yet. At least basketball games are indoors, and therefore climate controlled; that last Fall baseball game was brutally cold.
I’m just old enough to remember when parents could tell kids to “go play” and be done with it. (For that matter, I remember afternoon newspapers, and parents watching the six o’clock news after work. It was a different time.) it doesn’t work like that anymore. And an individual family can’t opt out, since if others don’t, there’s nobody for the kids to play with.
I consider myself lucky in that I get home at a reasonable hour most days. (The trick is going in absurdly early.) But practices usually start at five, which means getting the kids in the car before that. If TW worked the same hours I do, we couldn’t do it. Even now, on certain nights of the week, staying late requires a multi-stage planning process.
As the kids get older, their activities become more consuming. Teams start to travel from town to town, adding time. (For TB’s Fall baseball, we had games in towns 45 minutes away. We had to arrive an hour early for practice, followed by a two-hour game and a return drive. With afternoon games, that pretty much shoots the day.) When games fall on varying nights of the week, they cause a domino effect with other obligations. The game bumps the music lesson, which bumps the haircut, which has to be rescheduled for...let’s see...
Despite all of the obvious workforce changes of the last few decades, parents are still assumed and expected to be available on consistent evenings and weekends, in the windows of time built around traditional full-time work. The activities are built on the assumption that we all clock out at the same time, like Fred Flintstone. If parents have varying hours, heaven help them. If they have “afternoon” shifts, well, good luck. (Some get help from grandparents and extended family, but that’s only practical if they’re local.) Even with relatively traditional hours, I can’t imagine how single parents negotiate this stuff. It feels -- and to some degree, works -- like a screening mechanism. The parents who can’t negotiate the logistics have to see their kids left out, or have to cobble together precarious arrangements. The ones who can are just exhausted.
It doesn’t have to be this way. If the public schools had the capacity, they could absorb some of this into the after-school period. Suddenly, activities would make transportation easier, not harder. But by privatizing nearly everything, we’ve forced parents into either becoming amateur chauffeurs or keeping their kids out of anything enriching. Any individual activity can be rationalized, but the accumulation has become dysfunctional. The economies of scale -- whether in terms of money, time, or effort -- that could come from coordination are lost when it’s every family for itself.
The world in which it was normal to tell kids to “go play” is so thoroughly lost that The Girl simply couldn’t fathom that it had ever existed. But it did; I remember it. The workplace has left Fred Flintstone’s hours behind, but parents are expected more than ever to conform to them. This is what happens when we abandon the public sphere. I don’t miss the world of the Flintstones, but I wouldn’t mind seeing some public options again.
Thursday, November 14, 2013
Josh Boldt raised some eyebrows this week with his piece comparing the relationship between colleges and faculty to the relationship between cable companies and television networks. He framed the piece around the tiff between Time Warner and CBS in New York. In short, CBS wanted much higher fees from Time Warner for permission to rebroadcast its content. Time Warner balked, and the standoff went on long enough that Time Warner briefly took CBS off its feed.. But CBS wound up winning, since it had football, and there was enough viewer outcry that Time Warner had to cave.
Boldt reads the case to suggest that in the new economy, content providers -- whether networks or faculty -- actually have the upper hand, if they’re willing to use it. They just have to be willing to get tough on middlemen, whether cable providers or colleges.
It’s an appealing metaphor. It’s accessible, concrete, and flattering to his likely audience. But I don’t think he followed the logic all the way out, and that’s why I don’t buy it.
What tipped the balance in the CBS-Time Warner dispute was the viewers. They cared more about the loss of football than they did about higher retransmission fees, at least in the short term. Or at least the loud ones did. Since cable providers have monopolies in most of the areas they serve -- do NOT get me started on that -- customers don’t really have the option of choosing to go with someone else if they want cable. In most of the country, it’s the local provider or nothing. (Satellite helps somewhat, in some places, but not in apartment-heavy Manhattan.) So customers can’t really vote with their feet. And some content -- in this case football -- is unique; if you’re a Jets fan, you’re a Jets fan, and there’s just nothing to be done about that.
(Before I get the hate mail, let it be known that I was sentenced by the football gods to be a Bills fan, having grown up in Rochester. Bills fans suffer enough that we can say anything about any team at any time.)
I don’t know which part of that is supposed to apply to the faculty-college relationship. Most colleges don’t have local monopolies, at least in suburban and urban settings. And most faculty don’t have well-known, highly desired expertise that is entirely unique to them individually. Yes, there are exceptions at top-flight research universities, but I’m thinking of the average English or Psych professor. Some are better teachers than others, but the whole concept of the transfer of credit assumes a certain level of consistency. From the outside, non-experts (such as prospective students) can’t be expected to know which American history professor is a life-changer and which is merely competent. They rely on institutions to do that screening for them.
In other words, in the case of the Time Warner-CBS conflict, the issue was scarce and in-demand content bumping up against a monopoly provider. (The monopoly is starting to crack a bit with online options, but it’s still pretty powerful.) In the case of exploited adjunct faculty, the issue is a panoply of providers trying to reach consumers who don’t know how to distinguish one provider from another. In that context, the balance of power is very different. The role of the aggregator in that context is far more important.
I’d draw different lessons from the cable tv parallel.
First, as I mentioned in my book, the old “variety show” that pre-millenials remember -- Donny and Marie, Tony Orlando and Dawn, etc. -- only made sense in a context of three or four broadcast options. When channel options multiplied, the variety show became untenable. People who wanted comedy could find comedy, people who wanted music could find music, and so on. In a context of expanding educational options, similarly, I’d expect to see the “comprehensive” model come under increasing strain. Institutions outside of rural areas won’t be able to be all things to all people anymore; they’ll have to pick niches. I don’t go to Comedy Central to watch music, and I don’t go to ESPN to watch cooking shows. Comedy Central and ESPN thrive by having distinct identities. When the viewer has hundreds of options instead of three or four, providers survive by specializing.
Second, disintermediation doesn’t necessarily work to the benefit of the content creator. As I argued here last year, aggregators with market power still have to distribute at least some of their gains to providers just to keep the peace. When they lose that market power, the share-able surplus goes away, too. Compare the revenues that musicians got from record companies to the revenues they get from Pandora or Spotify to see what I mean.
Finally, and relatedly, even cable eventually bumps into price sensitivity. As the markups for programming go from “absurd” to “obscene,” other sorts of providers start to pop up. If I don’t feel like paying for Showtime -- which I don’t -- I can watch “The Big C” through Amazon video. Some go farther and drop cable altogether, getting by with a combination of digital rabbit ears and internet video. “Cord cutting” is still very much the exception, but a few years ago, the term didn’t even exist. Now the concept is out there, and some brave souls are trying it. As the options multiply -- whether Netflix, Hulu, or whatever -- I expect to see it gain momentum. Even with a (sort of) monopoly, there comes a point at which customers just don’t way to pay that much.
I think we’re at that point in much of higher education, especially at the non-elite private colleges. As options multiply and the entry-level job market remains tight, it’s getting harder to sell $50k tuition. Increased faculty bargaining leverage wouldn’t change that.
It’s easy to attack institutions for all of their very real imperfections. But it doesn’t follow that doing away with institutions will bring perfection. If professors have to hawk their pedagogical wares individually, I see a bifurcation emerging quickly: a few superstars will do very, very well for themselves, and the overwhelming majority will have to reduce their activity to a hobby. The idea of making a middle-class living as an academic will go the way of the record advance.
Cable companies aren’t in trouble because they’re too cruel to content providers. They’re in trouble because they’re hitting the limits of what people are willing to pay. I don’t blame Boldt -- at all -- for wanting to get more money into the hands of providers. But let’s not let frustration at the institution blind us to the very real economic constraints on the customers.