MOOCs on the Loose: Why Does Research Matter?

This previous fall and winter in Moscow, I made myself the pledge that I’d splurge on taking myself to Starbucks (standard brewed coffee, no sugar, no milk, or an Americano, the same) if it meant that I’d sit down and devote a solid two hours or so to writing up my dissertation. Given the cramped dimensions of my host family’s apartment in Moscow, and the presence of two small children (myself not included) cooped up in said apartment, I probably needed little incentive to take every Sunday to break out, make the long trudge down one of Moscow’s gray boulevards, and sit down to a nice, hot, steaming cup of joe. Yet with an apparent mini-heat spell on our hands, your humble narrator finds himself this evening not among glamorous Muscovites at the Belorusskii Vokzal Starbucks but … wearing shorts and a tank top with a large bottle of water by my side, finally with some time on my hands to engage in some longer-form writing other than dissertation-related tasks.

That’s good, because there’s been a lot of interesting ink spilled on American higher education, MOOCs, and the finances of higher ed in recent weeks that I thought deserved a closer discussion. About a month ago, the National Association of Scholars, a right-leaning advocacy group that deplores the state of American academia since roughly 1968, published a report on what it sees as the politicization of higher education at Bowdoin College, a selective liberal arts college in Maine. Just about a week ago, Yakov Feygin, a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania and a fellow historian of the late Soviet Union, passed on a very useful Reuters piece on Pell Grants and the financial trickery that some colleges engage in with respect to recruiting lower-income students. And most recently, Nathan Heller has published a long piece in The New Yorker on online courses in higher education, and the future of higher education more broadly. All of these traverse a number of (by now) known themes: college is getting too expensive. Students may not be learning that much. Online courses have the potential to shake things up. But we don’t really seem to know how. Or maybe if.

There’s a lot there, but reading over some of the pieces – in particular those concerning MOOCs – I see a failure on the part of scholars, but perhaps especially humanists and historians, to communicate what it is we actually do, and why research (as opposed to, or in addition to teaching) matters.

The problem, as I see it, comes up when you hear the basic case made for a larger shift to online course material. There are, proponents say, some professors (or rather lecturers) who are better than others. Journalists love to bring up the example of Michael Sandel and his ‘Justice’ course at Harvard, but virtually every large university has courses and professors with such reputations, just as it has courses and professors … well, without them. So, proponents argue, why not turn the content of the best professors into the standard, mass lecture for an online-only course? There’s no point, one might argue, to musicians (especially bad musicians) forcing people to attend every single live performance they give, especially if it’s a known fact – and a recorded one! – that their 2006 lecture series on Plato, or monetary policy, was the best ever. Nor can one plausibly make the case for student interaction being meaningfully worse in an anonymous online course with Sandel in comparison to a 500-person lecture theatre. Students are already voting with their feet, proponents argue, skipping out on lecture courses where they can, so there’s no point in forcing them to go. Or to paying academics to speak to empty seats. More effective would be to implement MOOC lectures by the field’s superstars, and then have a qualified cadre of pure teachers. (The more thoughtful of these proposals usually go hand-in-hand with proposals to break apart graduate education into a shorter graduate program to train university teachers, and some form of ‘real PhD’ to train researchers.)

A lasting ambition: to get up on university lecture stages in rhinestone butterfly outfits?

The reaction from professors to all of this has been predictable. The economics of the proposal seem grim, after all. If professors who lack the charisma or sex appeal to get huge audiences well, don’t get huge audiences, their role is bound to be replaced by the online lecturers. That means a likely demotion to something like a glorified teaching assistant. With fewer and fewer well-trained professors (and more computer monitors) at universities around the country, students are likely to have less interest in pursuing a teaching career, and there is less of a need for top professors to train graduate students. The system and profession slowly collapse on themselves until (as with pop music today?) one is left with a field of a couple of mega-stars (Lady Gaga = Steven Pinker), some good more independent acts with a solid enough following to be commercially successful, and then a few indie bands trying to struggle their way to recognition. It’s a good thing that Victorian gender studies is as popular as pop mus — and therein lies the rub. Like a prescient turkey sensing something wrong around Halloween, philosophy professors at San Jose State University, in the Bay Area, announced that they would refuse to use MOOCs in their courses. Reads one part of the open letter:

[We fear] that two classes of universities will be created: one, well-funded colleges and universities in which privileged students get their own real professor; the other, financially stressed private and public universities in which students watch a bunch of videotaped lectures and interact, if indeed any interaction is available on their home campuses, with a professor that this model of education has turned into a glorified teaching assistant.

There’s definitely something to this line of argument, particularly when one looks at the data behind the Reuters article, suggesting that many colleges are using Pell Grants (federal financial aid provided to low-income students, administered through colleges, up to a maximum of about $5,600) not to supplement college institutional aid for students, but rather to shift their own financial resources towards providing often-murky ‘merit scholarships’ to wealthier students. There are some outliers: Amherst, Williams, and Pomona College all do pretty good in both admitting significant numbers of low-income students, and actually providing them with the resources they need to be able to attend the schools without ruining themselves. But the overall result is that even as more poor American students are getting admitted to schools, then being provided a comically low amount of aid (say, just Pell support) – in effect, being told that they are too poor to get an education in the United States of America. The kick in the ass that MOOCs threaten to add to this equation should be clear: outside of truly wealthy institutions (Harvard, Princeton), one worries about a world in which the plebs are effectively told to take a seat in the movie theater-cum-classroom at San Jose State, to watch videotaped lectures of a course that rich students at more élite schools get to attend in person. Given skepticism about the efficacy of online learning, not to mention some of the valid concerns that the NAS conservatives raise in their critique of Bowdoin – the idea of the American university as a community of ideas, where students get to know one another and debate ideas in classes, rather than turning on, tuning in, and (maybe) dropping out’ – one should grow apprehensive here. Rather than lowering costs, MOOCification, administered in conjunction with more austerity (read: the abandonment of public funding for education) might exacerbate class divides in America, rather than smooth them out.

Still, for me another argument or comment that has to be made with regards to MOOCs and online education gets back to the importance of research. Too often lost, I find, in the discussion of online education, is the question of where ‘content’ (to use the Silicon Valley-inflected term) for lecture courses comes from in the first place. To be clear, I’m talking about Economics 101, or European History, or Post-War American History here – not specialized seminars that even the most die-hard proponents of online education wouldn’t see fit to transform anyway. Part of the answer should seem obvious: one part of the basic education that should be granted to students in these courses are the facts – when Truman was elected, the relationship between unemployment and inflation, Keynesian economics, and so on. Probe more deeply, and one might answer that a good lecture course ought to include reading from top experts in the field. One might rely, then, not only on primary source collections, but also the best synthetic works on (for example) Russian or Soviet history when teaching a course on the subject.

Probe still more deeply, however, and problems begin to emerge, or at least facts that show how our current model of scholarship works, and why having a wide range of researchers producing work – even if a lot of it isn’t so great – is essential towards the formation of the much-touted super-lecturers that proponents of MOOCs love to roll out. Ask yourself: what are some of those big secondary works based on? If your image of historians (to take my own field) is one of strapping, adventurous researchers bravely navigating archives in mysterious and dangerous countries to find hidden secret documents, that’s only partly right – that’s more the kind of work that graduate students, post-docs, and younger academics have historically done, as opposed to the more established scholars writing synthetic works that can be used for courses for years to come. Those more synthetic works are based not usually on archival finds, but are themselves syntheses of the waves of scholarship that have deposited driftwood (and, if one’s lucky, a message in a bottle) over the last decade or so (varying field to field). Superprofessors like Sandel, or some of the teachers I’ve had at Princeton and Oxford, are in some ways the opposite of the Newton quotation: they might be giants themselves, with impressive talents for synthesis, creativity, or simply a hell of a lot more Sitzfleisch than the rest of us; but when it comes to being able to pull everything together for the great lecture or the great 200-page book that does everything and more in what most of us couldn’t pull off in 500, they stand on the shoulders of lots of pygmies. One of the illusions of the MOOC craze is that by stripping down the ‘lower’ rungs of academia (many of which, like San Jose State, are great schools, and which are now places that the average Princeton or Harvard History PhD would be absolutely thrilled to get a job at), the system can be made more efficient. But part of the problem is that the superstars only really thrive in an environment in which there’s dialogue between the center and periphery of the ecosystem. That’s even more vivid in my own work, where linguistically and intellectually intrepid American and European researchers often not only benefit, but need to benefit with more contact with Russian, and Central Asian scholars whose knowledge of both language and history far exceeds are, even as they work in more cash-strapped institutional environments.

An ethno-linguistic map of Central Asia: too much diversity and complexity for one super-star professor means that a rich dialogue both among American scholars, and with international scholars is crucial to getting our history right

It bears emphasizing that the dialogue I’m taking about results in changes of interpretation that have huge implications for how we teach history, even at the undergraduate level. One obvious example, the importance of the instruction of which I think hardly no one would doubt, has to do with the history of Germany, Eastern Europe, and the Holocaust. If one believes that the Second World War and the Holocaust was the most important event in twentieth century European history, and certainly among the most important events in Jewish history – and that it behooves us to examine the history of the Holocaust critically in order to understand the roots of genocide – then how we explain and narrate the history of the Holocaust matters greatly. Yet look back across the historiography of the subject for much of the last fifty years, and it’s remarkable how the emphasis and structure of our explanations has changed. For almost a decade after the event itself, it was hard to find any books on the Holocaust, let alone see it integrated into lecture courses and underscored as a key event in European and Jewish history. Explanations have centered around anti-Semitism, bureaucracy, or the destruction of the Jews as just one part of a mad drive to create a system of ‘totalitarian control.’ Scholars have debated the extent to which the Holocaust was pre-meditated, versus the extent to which it grew out of Nazi conquest of territories. Most recently, in the inaugural René Girard Lecture at Stanford, the Yale historian Timothy Snyder has argued that the Holocaust can be best understood (as I understand Snyder) in terms of the intersection of Hitler’s ‘territorial panic’ – the idea that Eastern Europe had to be conquered to secure limited food in a resource-limited pre-Green Revolution world – and the destruction of states in Eastern Europe, most vividly so in the zone of ‘double state destruction,’ the pale of territory in the western Soviet Union that Moscow had annexed when it destroyed the Polish state, before the Soviet state was destroyed again by the Nazis

It’s not my place to adjudicate between these different explanations. I only bring up the example to highlight how much scholarly debates – which require time and job security for scholars to produce the monographs and articles that fuel these debates – can affect our grand narratives, which in turn affect not only undergraduate lecture teaching but also our understanding of major historical events. Junking less established scholars – just the same people who need the support and space at institutions like San Jose State – in favor of video lectures from super-star professors wouldn’t only perpetuate the class differences that American higher education sometimes perpetuates; it would also risk ossifying historical knowledge (be it of Holocaust, or of slightly less momentous historical events that still merit examination) as something that has a best packaged version, while helping to accelerate the destruction of the institutions surrounding History Departments that foster a critical debate about historical events. The financial costs that students face today are unacceptable, but – after 30 years of rampant administrative bloat – it is unclear to me that historians gone bad, rather than bureaucratic bloat, is the problem, nor is it clear that ceding the field of debate to a ‘consensus’ determined not by peer review but largely by student demand would improve the quality or sophistication of instruction any.

Time to melt back into the crowds and get back to work in Moscow!

With some smaller bureaucratic housekeeping of my own done, and some papers for conferences handed in, it’s time to hit the ground running in Moscow, as I look forward to wrap up what I hope is my final push of archival research here. Off I go!

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