The Dispossessed Professors (Chronicle)

The Dispossessed Professors (Chronicle)

by Jonathan Rees

I hated The Grapes of Wrath the first time I read it. That was in high school. I think it was because the ending was so depressing.

The Oscar-winning movie made from the book gets around this problem, though, by writing an inspiring speech for Ma Joad (based on material from an inside chapter) that ends the film on a high note. With her family broken up and the rest of the Joad clan just hanging on, Ma (and the actress who played her, Jane Darwell) manages to convince the audience that even dispossessed workers like themselves would survive.

Could college faculty say the same if they were put in a similar situation? Plenty of pundits are convinced that higher education in general, and college professors in particular, are about to go the way of the dinosaur. What are we going to do if their predictions are even half true? Well, we’d better start writing our speeches now, because a lot of us may face the same problem that the Joads did very, very soon. Like all those migrants who were displaced by the tractor, we face the problem of being at least partially displaced by labor-saving technologies of all kinds.

I can already hear the cries of “Luddite!” ringing out from over the tops of a thousand computer screens across academia. In truth, I love technology. I love my computer—the Apple laptop I bring from home, not the PC in my office. I love the Internet because of all its wonderful historical resources. I love WordPress because it allows me to create a classroom web environment that reflects my own teaching style rather than commercial concerns. I love all these things because I can control them, at least to some extent.

The same cannot be said of most learning management systems, most MOOCs, or most of the algorithms that are beginning to take over the assessment of faculty job performance at universities around the world.

Why is this distinction so important? To understand that, it’s essential to recognize that the class divide in academia is growing with each passing year. If your interests are different than those of your administrators, then it becomes an extraordinarily important skill to be able to recognize whose interest any particular piece of technology is serving.

Both David Perry and Josh Boldt have written here at Vitae about why professors don’t like to think of themselves as a working class. That label, I would argue, is practically irrelevant now that many of us are being dispossessed of our old jobs, even if we remain employed in the same positions that we’ve served in for years.

If some of us surrender to these changes voluntarily, we will probably do so in order to save time. Teaching online lets us chat with students in our pajamas. MOOCs (or at least MOOC content) allow us to avoid repeating the same old lectures over and over again. Automated paper grading raises the prospect of never having to do the most labor-intensive part of our jobs. In an industrial setting, such developments are the very definition of progress. But teaching isn’t nearly as fun as it used to be when professors have to negotiate this technological minefield.

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