The Sociology Source Manifesto – A Response

Nathan, over at the Sociology Source, has crafted a Manifesto regarding the state of technology and education and what he thinks we should strive and fight for, as sociology teachers:

“A spectre is haunting academia- the spectre of technology and teacher obsolescence. What does it mean for the future of teaching if faculty video record their lectures and post them online, if professors publish their teaching resources for anyone to copy and use, if teachers give away their classes for free? If, in the spirit of collaboration, professors give away all that they are paid to do, how will anyone else with a Ph.D. get work?

These are important questions, to be sure, but they are secondary to the questions that we should be focusing on. The question we should be asking is, why do any of these online resources jeopardize anyone’s job. That is, if the experiences students receive at your school could be easily replaced by a video recording or a website, I don’t think either of those are the source of your real problem. How have we gotten here? How can we ensure that our jobs will be safe in the future? And how can we leverage technology to make this all happen?”

Of course, we are all familiar with this. This is the Bill Gates model of education: find a teacher you think is good, videotape his/her lectures and make students watch them on their computer. That idea, in and of itself, is so obviously stupid that I wonder why it is not laughed out of town. One of the keys to good teaching is to be able to get an interactive dynamic that facilitates conversation and learning. How do you get that with remote students who might not be watching the taped lecture live?

There is though a very real danger of teacher replacement not necessarily by technology but by other teachers: precarized, non-tenured, part-time teachers. The combination of adjunctification of education with courses-in-a-can provided by corporate publishers is the real danger.

And the reality is, that is exactly the model of education pushed by for-profit institutions and many administrators in education and higher ed. It flows from a view of education that is NOT education, but skills-acquisition and job training, based on narrow certifications. In K-12, this model is promoted by the spread of standardized testing as mode of evaluation of students, teachers, as the criterion for funding and school ranking.

So, exactly, what technologies are we talking about here? The products provided by publishers are usually (at least in my field) incredibly mediocre and pedagogically useless. Of course, there is the ubiquitous Blackboard course management system, that is fully integrated with publishers products.

But as sociologists, we need to put these things in their structural context: which technology are available or mandatory for us to use are usually not our decisions, as teachers. These are administrative decisions. I would argue that these technologies are of limited use precisely because they were not designed by teachers. For instance, I use Blackboard, but only certain features: gradebook, announcements, and I attach my syllabus in there as well. I could do that with a lot of other tools, that either free or cheaper and more flexible however at the same time, Blackboard is integrated with our registration system, which updates adds and drops. But Blackboard is the standard that even my students expect. The rigidity in attitudes comes from both administrators and students themselves. I have already expressed regarding the so-called Digital Natives.

Also, using technological tools that administratively-controlled potentially permits greater administrative monitoring of teachers. If I were to use my own gradebook, my supervisors would be deprived of access and would probably hint more or less forcefully at my need to use the college’s system.

My point being that, far from being afraid of technology, many of us embrace it, but we are not the decision-makers as to which tools will be available to us.

On another point, Nathan states:

“Furthermore, what vocational skill are we developing in our students if we only use closed book exams? Very few professions provide us all of the information we would ever need or want to solve a problem and then at the very moment we need it most take it away from us and ask us to solve the problem from memory. After the creation of the Internet, an encyclopedic memory is rarely valued on the labor market anymore. Exams that can be graded by a computer are super convenient for professors, especially as class sizes balloon, but they are not without consequence.”

Fair enough, but I would argue that anything that makes one’s brain work is a good thing. I always think of our brains as muscles, the more you use them, the better they work. And being able to calculate without having to use a calculator or working through memorizing sociological concepts is a way of training one’s brain to use these concepts beyond the classroom.

And is education to be limited to vocational skills? That is certainly the approach of so-called education reformers, our current US Secretary of Education and President. But those of us who teach what are considered general education and liberal arts / social sciences are working towards the real meaning of education: critical thinking skills, a more educated and globally aware citizenry and just less ignorant people.

I especially happen to think that the sociological perspective and sociological reasoning are needed than ever, both on the micro and the macrosociological levels.

And more importantly, technology or not, what we must push back against is the idea that teaching is not a craft but something that anyone can do. I can flush the toilet, that does not make me a plumber. Most people have gone to school, that does not make them teachers.

However, I would argue that a large number of administrators do not see, and have no interest in seeing or developing, craftsmanship. That is why they are perfectly content with adjuncts and courses-in-a-can. There are no systemic rewards for those of us who strive for craftsmanship: doing good work for its own sake. There are rewards for high enrollment and retention, irrespective of how that is done. And as my sociologist of the semester, Richard Sennett, argues, the disdain for craftsmanship is a feature of our times.

That being said, except for coming up with our own technologies, and our own online higher ed model (neither are impossible), I am not sure how fighting the structure (and the common discourse where teachers are now officially Enemy Number 1) can be done. But truly, what Nathan is arguing for is for us to use technology to promote craftsmanship. I’m all for it, but again, I think we need our own model because what he proposes will not work in the current social structuring of education.

Also, I tend to be highly skeptical of business gurus who borrow, without much credit, sociological concepts to turn them into mantras and memes that only provide ideological cover for furthering precarization and individualization of labor… you know the kind, “Who moved my cheese?”, “the millionaire next door”, etc. So let us keep our critical thinking skills sharp here and not jump on a fashionable bandwagon.

3 thoughts on “The Sociology Source Manifesto – A Response

  1. I think there is no reason not to deliver information in the form of a lecture (videotaped or otherwise), if that works. And it’s OK to assess content uptake with standardized tests. But those only threaten teachers’ jobs if that is all we have to offer. We should look at technology tools as ways to free up our or class time to do other things for students, to enhance learning instead of replacing us. If we could be efficiently replaced with technology, that means we’re bad teachers, and you can’t blame universities for canning us to save money.

    • But see, that’s exactly my point. I would agree with you if the institutional and structural factors took that into account but as it stands, you don’t get brownie points for being creative and working constantly on your craft as opposed to teaching-by-numbers (and actually, in higher ed, we’re lucky, under NCLB or RTTT, teachers may be compelled to teach by numbers). And that is not because of big bad unions, but because of administrators.

      You can’t administratively and institutionally promote standardization and courses-in-a-can, and then turn around and say “see? anyone can do this? Let’s outsource to India or videotape one teacher and replace all the others.”

      And, as I’m sure you know, test scores have proved to not be reliable indicators of learning or academic prospects.

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