A red ant steps gingerly from a moss-covered rock onto the surrounding still water

How Long Will Your Class Remain Yours? Academic Freedom and Control of the Classroom

Written by
Reviewed by Daniel Lynds and Sarah Honeychurch
Red Ant” by Charlie Stinchcomb; CC BY

The late labor historian David Montgomery wrote famously about workers’ control in America during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. “At times the story involved little more than silent and opaque resistance to the demands and innovations of employers,” he suggested in 1979. “At other times, workers in skilled crafts adopted and fought to enforce collective work rules through which they regulated human relations on the job and wrestled with the chronic menace of unemployment.” When I first read those words, I was in graduate school. I never thought they’d actually apply to me. Now, I believe that the working class in academia at all levels of employment are beginning to move from the first set of times that Montgomery described to the second.

Administrative interference with faculty prerogatives across many different kinds of technology has made an attack on workers’ control in academia possible.  Universities which are willing to interfere with electronic communications, social media and even the faculty’s control over what standards should be applied to individual courses will likely seek to control the way that all courses are taught at their schools, whether those courses are delivered online or in person. Of course, no professor’s class is entirely theirs.  (Adjunct faculty are reminded of this fact almost daily.)  Nevertheless, limiting unwanted administrative interference by using technologies outside the direct control of our employers will at least help faculty maintain their traditional pedagogical prerogatives despite the onset of tremendous technological change.

My friend Tim McGettigan teaches sociology at the same university where I teach, Colorado State University — Pueblo. In 2013, when our administration announced budget cuts that might lead to hundreds of people losing their jobs, he planned a public protest before the meeting where those cuts would be announced. As part of his effort to drum up attendance for that protest, he sent an e-mail to the entire university which compared the administration’s actions to the Ludlow Massacre, a 1914 battle between miners and the Colorado National Guard that left seventeen workers and their family members dead. In response, the administration cut off Tim’s access to the Internet. In response to that, Tim sued the university for violating his civil rights. He also sued the university’s president, Lesley Di Mare, for defamation because he claims she compared him to the Columbine killers in a public statement published in Inside Higher Education.

But a lawsuit is hardly the only fallout from this dispute. Thanks to Tim (I suspect), CSU-Pueblo has a new e-mail policy now. It’s a long document, but the key phrase in the entire thing reads as follows: “The President must approve any mass email communication.” Failure to get that prior approval can potentially get you fired from your job, even if you’re a faculty member with tenure. When I showed our new e-mail policy to the staff at the American Association of University Professors, they pronounced it par for the course in academia today. Of course, e-mails at public universities are publicly available on the web. Our administration, like many others, has asserted control over the content of their faculty’s e-mail messages because they control the most convenient means of distribution.

Another professor who famously ran afoul of campus censors is Steven Salaita, once of Virginia Tech and still not quite of the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana (UIUC). The means of communications he chose for his opinions on the last Israeli/Palestinian conflict was Twitter, and the Board of Governors for the Illinois system failed to approve his contract as a result. This left him in employment limbo and he sued UIUC in order to retake the job that he believed was rightfully his and got a large settlement before the case came to trial.

Regardless of your opinion on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, anyone who believes in academic freedom should find UlUC’s actions chilling. Besides making it harder for anyone to move between jobs, Salaita was penalized economically for expressing political opinions. All faculty have political opinions, whether we express them in the classroom, on Twitter or at home. It’s just that some of those opinions are more popular than others, and not all of us choose to express them on Twitter. Because the medium that Salaita chose for his message was visible to anyone with a web connection, wealthy opponents of his position threatened the university where he thought he was going to be employed and the university responded. Had he simply whispered the same opinions to a colleague in the office down the hall, nothing would have happened to him.

A different threat to faculty prerogative comes from MOOCs.  No single individual can produce a filmed class for tens of thousands of people all by themselves.  As a result, people other than the professor whose name is on the course end up having a disproportionate impact on how MOOC faculty operate their classes — certainly much more than they might in ordinary face-to-face classes. For example, Karen Head, an assistant professor at Georgia Tech, diaried her MOOC teaching experience for the Chronicle of Higher Education. At one point she noted, “Even with our team of 19, we still needed several other people to provide support.” This kind of intervention would simply not be economical or feasible if the instruction wasn’t occurring online in front of tens of thousands of students. In ordinary face-to-face classes, an instructor can safely dismiss the advice of instructional designers and other consultants. When tens of thousands of dollars are need just to get your course off the ground, faculty have to give up some control almost by definition.

Professors who resist this kind of interference with their instructional prerogatives risk having their courses get outflanked by online equivalents. This has already happened at the University of Oklahoma where an online US history survey course that is co-branded with the History Channel offers the same credit available to people who take a similar course in Norman with living, breathing faculty members. Unfortunately, as Jennifer Davis, a tenured professor in the History Department there, reported in the comments of the Chronicle blog post linked to above which announced this program, “This course was created with zero input from our department. From the little information I have gleaned from press reports, it fails to meet the basic requirements for a general education course. There are no exams, very little reading, and a total [of] 6–10 pages in writing assignments.” Lose your students to these kinds of online programs, and your university may eventually have little use for you.

While administrators will likely argue that these kinds of online offerings benefit students, it’s really part of an ongoing labor struggle. As Mike Caulfield has suggested as part of a metaphor comparing curriculum to urban planning, “I think a lot of administrators are frankly relieved about this, as more and more education moves online, the idea is that we can bulldoze our stripmall exburban eyesore and replace it with something centrally managed and controlled. And courses will be delivered as these closed, feature complete products, designed by the experts — us, the instructional designers.” Through such changes, working as a professor will become a lot more like working at a factory and a lot less like working as a professor used to be. No matter how much faculty want to resist the fact that they are working class (in the sense that there is an academic bourgeoisie whose interests are aligned against them), the proof is ultimately in the pudding.

You can already see signs of this change in the design of popular learning management systems (or LMSs). An LMS not only mediates and records all interactions between teachers and students in both the online classes and face-to-face classes that utilize it, but it also represents a teaching worldview all by itself. As Jim Groom and Brian Lamb explain, “[B]efore we even begin to encounter the software itself, we privilege a mindset that views learning not as a life-affirming adventure but instead as a technological problem, one that requires a ‘system’ to ‘manage’ it. This mindset and its resulting values result in online architectures that prioritize user management, rigidly defined and restricted user roles, automated assessments, and hierarchical, topdown administration.”  Trying to control your own virtual classroom in this environment is like bringing a knife to a gunfight. You know you’re going to lose before the fighting starts, so why bother?

And if professors don’t control their own classrooms, it is worth considering whether their universities really need professors at all.

Despite the depressing picture that I’ve painted here, there is a way to turn this important class struggle into more of a fair fight. To quote my favorite movie of all time, when administrators tell professors that they have found the “Holy Grail” of education technologies, the professors should respond, “We’ve already got one!” In other words, for both pedagogical reasons and in the cause of self preservation faculty should preemptively adapt useful, low or no-cost education technologies which only they can control. This will also likely save on costs for students and the university alike.

This is not the place to name all of the programs that professors can use to create a virtual classroom free of administrative interference. That’s a paper all by itself. A few examples would be Google Groups for class discussion, WordPress for class writing and commentary, Digg Reader for reviewing that commentary or any other feed on the World Wide Web, Scalar or Omeka for creating web exhibits and Reclaim Hosting for hosting websites, blogs or content of all kinds in a format that students can take with them when they leave your class or leave your university entirely. Certainly, there are problems with running your class on tools (even free ones) created by for-profit enterprises, but having those companies dictate the way you teach is not one of them.  More importantly, by spreading your tools across different providers changes in one of them will likely not affect the way you teach the rest of your course.

Taken together, these kinds of programs demonstrate how the faculty-controlled virtual classroom can be a kind of buffet, where technologies of all kinds work together in order to meet the pedagogical goals of any particular professor. One example of this is the work Laura Gibbs, who teaches online for the University of Oklahoma.  However, the key takeaway here should be that every professor should adopt only those tools that best fit their style of teaching (perhaps including parts of the LMS if they meet a particular need).  Instead of a buffet, an administrative-controlled virtual classroom will mean eating the same meal every day, whether you happen to like it or not.

While unvaried, institutionalized technology consumption may be vastly inferior, administrators can depict it as better than an education which includes no technology at all. Preemptive technological adoption which can prevent this bland fare might make it possible to defend the exercise of raw administrative power in the interest of uniformity. While this nightmare scenario wouldn’t represent the limitless potential of the Internet at large, it would represent the incentive system inherent in the current practice of academic capitalism.

5 Responses

  1. Love ALL of this!! But do wonder about the for-profit tools (and I use basically all of the ones you list, and happily). Seems weird to me, as a prof at a public university, that I have to fear the direction that my public institution might be driving, and instead find liberation through the private market. Still wish public universities, in particular, could really invest in the open web, and see the way a commons-oriented model could be of mutual benefit to both the universities and the publics that we serve. I don’t really know what I am talking about, honestly. Just noting an odd disjunction in my own work, so driven by public ideals and so funded by private enterprise. Maybe that’s not a contradiction, but I wonder…

  2. Two things. First, if you write material for your courses, you can keep it on servers you pay for yourself. Costs perhaps $10-$20 per month. This might be a better option than, say, putting your own content on your school’s LMS.

    Second (many readers won’t like this), it’s easier to make a case for live faculty if they clearly add value to student learning. Is there much difference between watching video lectures online, and attending a 300-person lecture session?

    Much is known about how to help people learn. Faculty who implement learning research recommendations become more valuable to students, and (maybe) their universities. In truth, high quality learning does require faculty. High-touch, informed, engaged faculty. PowerPoint readers? Not so much.

    1. Jason Haynes

      It strikes me that your second comment says all there is that needs to be said. In the long run, if pre-packaged online courses can provide the same educational benefits as living breathing human beings, schools (not just post-secondary educational institutions) will turn to them. If living breathing teachers add value, schools (especially private institutions) will retain them. This seems much seems clear.

      As you say, faculty who base their pedagogy on research-backed methodology are more likely to retain their value as “laborers” for the institutions that employ them.

      I’m left wondering, though (and this is not a personal concern because I teach in a private secondary school), what impact the mechanization of teaching will have at the post-graduate level.

  3. Steve Greenlaw (@sgreenla)

    Lots to be concerned about here, but my question is how did the History Channel course get approved without input from the OU History Department Didn’t the university curriculum committee solicit a response?

    1. Steve, the OU-HistoryChannel project is part of a larger and even stranger project at OU which involves the creation of new LMS which is being used for the HistoryChannel course as well as for other “showcase” courses, very video-heavy, very much in Coursera/edX style, but with a very expensive platform being built by a local Oklahoma company. The company is NextThought; OU’s branded installation of the platform is called Janux. I’ve written about Janux a lot insofar as there is anything that emerges publicly for discussion; something specifically about the HistoryChannel course here:
      Online Courses and Marketing Fluff: What is an immersive history course?
      And on the way people are not willing to speak publicly about it:
      OU-HistoryChannel Inside Higher Ed article

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