A Doom and Gloom Scenario for Professors

I’m too sick with flu to determine whether this weird article in Inside Higher Ed is some sort of a parody. So maybe my readers can help me figure it out. It is titled “Get Out While You Can” and presents a really apocalyptic scenario of tenured professors being fired in droves all over the country and being left jobless and broke. The author believes in the imminence of this scenario because of the tired old story about the crazy Peter Thiel who paid 20 kids to drop out of college. Apparently, without these very stupid students the entire system of higher education is doomed to collapse extremely soon.

Another bugbear discussed in the article is the scary online education that is going to administer itself without any input from actual professors. I wish the technology-hater who wrote the article provided some links to the places where online courses get generated and administered all on their own. This would save me a lot of time I’m about to spend trying to prepare my own online course. Remember those sci-fi novels from the fifties that kept scaring us about how soon robots and computers would replace real people? It must be the same computers that will run our online courses for us.

The other sign that the author is still hopelessly stuck in the fifties can be found in the following sentence:

If you think that students will always prefer live, human performances to online education, please ask yourself whether many 18-year-old boys would rather be taught by you or by something that came out of the technology used to create this. [Some video game excerpt is inserted here]

The good news is that, nowadays, not only are women allowed to attend college, they also get more degrees than men. Also, in spite of the author’s contempt towards 18-year-old males, many of them can recognize the value of a good education well enough.

According to the article, the only reason anybody goes to college is to avoid some imaginary stigma that attaches to you in case you don’t have a college degree. Remember, this is an educator writing. An educator who has obviously not talked to an actual student in decades. The conclusion by this author who is currently writing a book about the danger of smart people and smart technology is fit material for a standup routine:

Networking is the key to career management. Professors do much networking, but mostly with other professors. I suggest that professors network outside of academia with a goal of having a set of contacts we could use to acquire a nonacademic position. The best way to do this is to use Facebook and Linkedin to keep in touch with some of our former students, especially those who would make good bosses.

I was wriggling with laughter after the very first sentence. After the second one, I started to hiccup from laughter. When I finished reading the article, though, I paused and thought, “What if this very disturbed person is speaking in earnest? And if so, then how can anybody argue that this sort of professor is fit to be retained in his job?”

8 thoughts on “A Doom and Gloom Scenario for Professors

  1. Do you know who this guy is? What does he do?

    I have recently seen several doom-and-gloom articles about how the end of universities as we know them is near, with all our current advances in online education and distance learning and all. I am yet to see an article which puts forward any serious argument, and some of them even seem somewhat politically motivated (university administrator sucking up to the higher administration, for example).


  2. He’s an economics professor at Smith College, an elite and very expensive liberal arts college, the sort of place that the daughters of captains of industry attend. Believe me, his job would never be threatened, though he might have a salary cut.

    Universities will change. Some people with a natural flair for entrepreneurship will be able to succeed in new fields without getting a college degree. Many of those entrepreneurs will have taken the occasional college course or otherwise relied on access to college infrastructure (libraries, etc) but not bothered to get the degree. So what’s new?

    There is a role for “distance learning”, and I have a friend who both teaches and takes on-line courses (at Saint Louis University). The courses she takes are highly esoteric. Being local, she could take them in person, but the university realizes that the market for the highly esoteric courses is limited and the students likely to be continuing education students employed in a related field, and so the courses are primarily on-line. The courses my friend teaches are introductory biology and microbiology courses aimed at a night-school employed population of pre-nursing school adults and business school adults needing a “science for non-scientists” course for distribution requirements.


  3. I might add, the Smith professor appears to be one who believes that his students go to college “to obtain their Mrs. degree” (a 1950s-1960s expression) . In the upper class marriage market, there IS a stigma against women without a college education, and the women are expected to be the purveyors of culture in the marriage, encouraging and educating husbands in the appreciation of and patronage of elite live performances and arts (opera, ballet, classical music, fine arts).

    This professor also does not have much contact with 18 year old boys, as Smith is still an all-women’s college at the undergraduate level, I believe.


  4. In my university system several departments and programs have been eliminated over the last three years, and full professors (along with everyone else) dismissed. Then some have been invited back as instructors or adjuncts. This is not something that might happen, it is something which already has.


  5. I’m not a big fan of video taped lectures or correspondence coursework (despite having done both); they make it too easy to procrastinate (avoiding procrastination is actually harder than doing classwork). I’ve yet to have an online class, but probably will at some point. (I’m one of those people who, if there a job as a perpetual student, would be one; as it is, I take courses as I can afford them. It’s getting harder to do).

    I think that eliminating full/associate professors is going to lead to problems in the system. Adjuncts can be OK, but like all part timers they are not as accessible to students, and they often don’t stay long, so it’s hard to evaluate the quality of the instruction. It’s not so bad if it’s a one-off class (like an American History credit when you are majoring in engineering), but if it’s a class you have to build on for your degree, then you can be totally screwed. If the school isn’t turning out graduates who can perform, then the good students who can will go somewhere else. Not to mention the people who would have gone into university teaching will instead find something else to do that pays enough to live on or has enough job security to work for.


  6. I have been slowly working on an online master’s from a bricks & mortar US university. My experience is that most of the classes are just pap and the students are required to regurgitate the same pap. I recently discovered that everyone in the classes are getting “A”s if they are “checking all the boxes”, no matter how poor the quality of their online contributions. My wife worked for a while on an online graduate certificate at an Australian technical university, gave up due to lack of communication from the profs and is now enrolled in an online master’s program through a bricks & mortar US technical university. We also have undergrad & master’s degrees earned to old fashioned way, face to face. My wife has worked for the past 5 years in Iraq and Afghanistan, so face to face education is not possible. I live in a rural area with the rest of the family about 300 miles from most educational resources. Neither of us are favorably impressed with the quality of online education, but we have few other options and maintain some hopes for her current program since it is in an engineering field and most of the work is math.

    I don’t believe that most 18 year olds are mature enough to be successful in online courses. The people I know between the ages of 18 and 25 who have tried, have not been successful. So, I think that bricks & mortar universities will survive.

    The real threat that I see is the use of adjunct professors. Some classes can be effectively taught by adjunct profs, but many others cannot. While they may know their specific field quite well, most are very ignorant when it comes to pedagogy. Also adjunct profs work for less money and contribute less to the academic community than full time professionals. The university that I am most familiar with is using more and more adjunct profs. I complain to the president and the trustees, but I am not sure how effective those complaints are.


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