Sunday, May 3, 2015

Fast-food education

My good friend Bob, at an adult educators' conference in Universal City ( the Sheraton's full of Buddha and Schwarzenegger icons, a magnificently tacky monstrosity that sums up L.A.'s facade, he avers) stopped by for dinner last night. As he mentioned unionization and the SEIU last night, I was intrigued to find in my FB feed today this compatible article. Paul Rosenberg at Salon--a publication I often dismiss as either full of sex-teasing fluff or outrage over "privilege"-- does post educational coverage.

It's often the same message I repeat. "They Turned College into McDonalds" addresses what bugged me about this month's cover story in the Atlantic. Amanda Ripley reports at prolific length on Starbucks' underwriting of its workforce to earn online degrees from Arizona State University, but "The Upwardly Mobile Barista" never asks the following. 1) How does ASU handle 13,000 new students? 2) Who teaches them, and how are such instructors paid?  3)  Are these professors given cookie-cutter course platforms to "facilitate"? 4) What is the quality, if as acclaimed, one of the baristas can do most of her coursework via her iPhone? 5) Is this the kind of graduate we want?

Rakesh Kurana, dean of Harvard, contrasted a transformative from a transactional education to incoming freshmen last fall. How can the type of education marketed now to those far from the elite aim at the more traditional, idealistic, soul-giving accomplishment? I know my students seek a get-it-done, get-it-quick practical training with as few liberal arts courses as minimally required. However, in the inevitable caveat or qualifier, I do strive for fairer conditions for my students, who pay tuition not that different than for Ivy League schools, but who receive a degree by "blended" or online modes that relies on non-tenured faculty, many earning very little money to teach them.

Rosenberg does the math. He cites a lecturer at my undergrad alma mater in deep debt from grad school, who then was let go from his "contingent" position as "visiting faculty" two years on so he could not claim rights to sue for tenure-track. Many of us teach full-time without tenure, and most covering the rise to 3/4 of all professors as off-tenure seem to think it's merely part-timers effected.

Consider the profit earned here. The author quotes an instructor who "works for an online for-profit university," who then "provided more detail on the mismatch between student costs and teacher pay:
Considering that students pay $565 per course, and that there are approximately 20 students per class, adjuncts are paid approximately 4% of what the university takes in even though we execute the core requirements of the university. As an open enrollment university with 86% Title IV students, dedicated adjuncts must provide extensive, time-consuming feedback frequently up to 20 hours per week, which averages a wage of less than $10 per hour."
A colleague of mine did similar calculations. Ads and recruitment at a for-profit total far more (sometimes twice) the budget for instructional pay. I reckon it takes very few students to "pay off" the salary of the instructor (full-time or part-time), and the disparity works greatly in the institution's favor. Especially if online courses enroll three-dozen students, and charge the same fees as onsite. Having only twenty students, I and my colleagues would agree, would be a welcome change for us.

Some of you reading this may scoff. You may dismiss this as whining by the privileged. But many of us with Ph.D.'s have earned them slowly, working as we progressed, for in the U.S. humanities model rather than overseas, grants are few, and coursework supported by T.A.-ships stops around the same time that the dissertation stage arrives, so it is common to take a decade to complete one's doctorate.

During that time, rents must be paid, fees kept up for the advisory process, and you've got to eat and commute too. Debts accumulate and now, with the cuts in governmental aid for non-STEM degrees, the situation is dire. I know we knew what we were getting into, and this is one slight annoyance I have with some interviewed who act as if colleges owed them the cushy appointments once secured.

Still, this points to a dire downturn. If rates can always go up for students, and down for teachers, that portends a cruel reckoning for many in once-coveted positions. Many of us sought to leave humble backgrounds behind and achieve a grasp on the ladder to pull us up into the academic world. Now, we hold on to a lower rung. We find ourselves stuck, on a "contingent" perch due to our aspiration and our debt, unable to climb up. Those tenure-bound step on us, determined to never back down.

This may be a straitened predicament more find themselves locked into. Rosenberg again: "Covering the strike for Salon, Josh Eidelson made a number of key points. First, that far from being peripheral, fast food jobs represent a de facto employment paradigm for today’s America:
Fast food is becoming an ever-larger and more representative sector of the U.S. economy. “We should think of these jobs as the norm,” said Columbia University political scientist Dorian Warren, “because even when you look at the high-skilled, high-paying jobs, they’re even adopting the low-wage model” of management. That means erratic schedules, paltry benefits, and – so far – almost no unions. “These are the quintessential example of the kinds of jobs that we have now,” said Warren, “and of the kind of job that we can expect in the future for the next few decades.”
I wonder as we endure another presidential campaign who will champion workers against bosses? Robert Reich warns, in this economic nightmare we endure: "Under these circumstances, education is no panacea. Reversing the scourge of widening inequality requires reversing the upward distributions within the rules of the market, and giving workers the bargaining leverage they need to get a larger share of the gains from growth." Keep in mind as millionaires ask for your vote. May Day has passed, Haymarket is barely remembered, as labor shifts into cubicles and contingency. Those who dominate more of our nation's workforce may toil long beyond 9-5. Teachers as well as students might be tapping away at Starbucks, while their "associates" or "colleagues" sign on for their degrees.

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