Sad Iron


UW Struggle: “Hit the Aqueducts, Pal!” Edition

aquaductMusical accompaniment courtesy of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass:

I’m not one for conspiracy theories, unless they are the two that snuggle close to my heart (Where are they hiding the dinosaurs? and Was Marlon Brando real?), but a curious thing happened over the weekend. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published an interview with Robin Vos that included two revealing quotes that were (insert rumble of thunder) later edited out by the deputy managing editor. Now, this editing happened because it’s, well, editing… or, somebody wanted Pluto demoted! Thanks Obama.

Although now deleted, the quotes are burned in my brain and I can paraphrase them with 100% accuracy, and as I said, they are revealing in a way that should give everyone, of any political affiliation, pause (if you care about education, that is). Let’s file the first as an Alanis Morissette “this might be ironic depending on whether or not you get irony” event.

Both comments have to do with regionalization—which the legislature, President Cross, and the Board of Regents are currently collaborating on while saying they are not—but let me start with the most humorous. In short, Speaker Vos wonders why campuses have to offer classes that are offered at other campuses (“access” and “demand” are apparently not applicable answers), and he tried to conjure an example that would sound obscure (think, “the ancient mating habits of ur-donkeys”): the result… do we need someone who teaches “ancient Italian history” at every campus? First, I’m unclear why our republican leadership would not let the market decide such questions: if the demand is there, we should employ ten such people on every campus, no? So I have one essential question for Speaker Vos, who got his start as the owner of RoJo’s popcorn (aside: is the cotton candy image family friendly?): do we really need popcorn at every movie theater? Couldn’t we just have it at one or two and let the rest of the people eat Sno-Caps and black licorice?  What’s with all of the concession duplication?

Why is this “ancient Italian history” comment important? Well, it shows a glaring lack of knowledge about real accomplishment, about the people who actually comprise the UW and do wonderful work. What do I mean? The UW System professor of the year is my colleague Greg Aldrete, who teaches…you can’t make this stuff up…ancient Italian history. (More accurately, Greg does amazing work all around in ancient history, and he’s a true treasure.) So there are two options here: either Speaker Vos doesn’t know or care who the UW Professor of the Year is (!), or he’s offended that the winner did not have a PhD in Units and Inventory. Greg Aldrete accepted his award at a Board of Regents meeting, and here is a link to his full remarks, which I strongly encourage you to read. Here is a section that stood out to me:

One of the original ideas behind the foundation of the university, when they were first created as institutions during the Middle Ages, was that exposing people to this sort of Humanistic education fundamentally transformed them, and actually made them better human beings and citizens.

As a historian working in an interdisciplinary humanities department, I have to confess that there is something a little bittersweet about the timing of this award. As you are all too well aware, we live in a moment when, across the nation, the value of a university education, and especially, the value of the humanities within that education, is being challenged.

You are the Board of Regents, and the future of the UW system is in your hands. In whatever ways this wonderful education system ends up being transformed or changed over the coming years and decades, I hope that we never lose sight of the original core function of the university, which was to be a place in which informed, thoughtful citizens are forged, and above all, as a place, where questions are asked.

So, if you agree that Michael Jackson was indeed Paul McCartney, we can see why such remarks from a lowly humanities professor might position them for an “obscurity” jab and identification as a trouble maker. And while Chancellor Blank does not have the courage to say it, I will: this is a coordinated attack on the university, starting with an attempted revision of the Wisconsin idea; thoughtful citizens who ask questions are not needed in our new corporate/CEO framework. This has been stated plainly—Chancellors should be CEOs. Search for truth? More like, shut up and get to work. This should deeply concern Wisconsinites of all political stripes. Are we not better than this? And let me be clear—this is not a “conservative” attack; true conservatives should be appalled at the current budget and decision making at all levels—it is a corporate attack that diminishes local interests, control, and expertise.

I would also ask this of our legislators: when trying to talk about what people in the UW do, what the value of that work is, is it too much to ask that you actually have evidence? (Tenured people don’t have to show up for work? A deliberate untruth. If I don’t go to work I get fired. Also, I love my work too much not to go.) We have thousands and thousands of real human beings who are available for interview and reference, who would love to detail their expertise and contribution for you; why not reach out instead of offering groundless, abstract criticism? We’re talking about real people. Instead, here’s what our state has to say to a globally recognized teacher and scholar: “Hit the aqueducts pal, and don’t let Cato the Elder kick you in the gluteus maximus on the way out!”

And now to the more revealing and disturbing quote. Building off the ancient Roman history comment, Vos said what I will paraphrase as follows: Why not have this teacher offer the class on one campus, and then put it online for other campuses to offer, allowing us to move resources into other areas of need?

That’s what he said, without ambiguity. This should frighten any conservative, libertarian, democrat, independent, and pro-Castro Wisconsinite who cares about education. Why? This illustrates, at the most fundamental levels, a complete disregard for knowledge about teaching and learning. This comment is so far away from education as having learning for its goal that I simply don’t know where to begin; it would be like me saying to a home builder, “Hurry up with pouring the foundation, and really, don’t be concerned about water drainage at all.” Put another way, this is wasteful. This is a fatal fissure in the foundation.

I have spent my entire career in the UW as a teacher of face-to-face, online, and hybrid courses—let me make the most obvious point: anyone who thinks teaching and learning is the same online as it is face-to-face is catastrophically wrong; if that person happens to reside in a position of influence, they can inflict serious harm on students, especially those who are not yet performing at a high level. “Let’s just put those courses online,” specifically to “save” resources, is educational malpractice.

Let me present a greatly abbreviated list:

  • Online education, on the level of pedagogy, requires even greater investment (think instructional design employees; CMS systems; tech support employees; teachers (more employees!) actually building, testing, and revising courses, etc). You don’t pursue online education so you can shift resources away from that teaching and learning to what you call other “high-need” areas; you pursue it because you are committed to shifting resources to that teaching and learning, precisely because it is a need. Put another way, a person who is incredibly influential on higher ed policy in Wisconsin sees online learning as an “easy” endeavor that requires less resources. Think about that. This is the environment he, and those aligned with him, want the majority of Wisconsin students to work in: only the elite on a designated campus will have access to the face-to-face portion of the instruction. Why do I get the feeling that Madison will be the home base for much of this?
  • Who is one expert that knows a lot about this? Cathy Davidson. She is an education pioneer, an advocate of sound pedagogy, and someone who is anything but “status quo.” I’ve had dinner with Cathy Davidson: she is as insightful and informed in the moment as she is in prepared venues. In her recent forays into online teaching and MOOCs, Davidson repeatedly came to the same conclusions: they are not less work, they are more work and require more labor/employees; they don’t require less resources, but more resources. Here are two of many choice quotes I could pull from Davidson’s work:

The Coursera website promises “a future where everyone has access to a world-class education that has so far been available to a select few.” Are my amateur lecture videos a “world-class education?” Not even close. You pay for an elite education because of the individual instruction and advising, the array of rich face-to-face experiences (with teachers and peers), conversations, labs, art exhibits, seminars, study abroad possibilities, extracurricular events, practical internships and engagement opportunities, and research experiences offered by an elite institution. Even though we strive to make our meta-MOOC as participatory as possible, a free online course can never offer all that a tuition-paying Duke student can take advantage of in the course of a semester.


…for teaching this six-week Duke-based course on “The History and Future of Higher Education,” I receive a stipend of $10,000 dollars, none of which will come into my own pocket. Literally.   A colleague who taught one last year received a $20,000 payment and used all of it on teaching assistants, technical assistants, and equipment.  Similary, I am using 100% of my 10K stipend to support the time of some of my HASTAC colleagues who are helping me mount this extremely complex enterprise, plus permissions for copyrighted material, some equipment, travel to film segments and conduct interviews, and many other costs, and I’m told Duke is paying for more support help this year than last (which is why I’m getting 50% less) but it’s still not a way any prof should be moonlighting.

Yes, let’s just put courses online—not to serve good pedagogy and our actual students, but to save resources. Look at Davidson’s words above, based on real experience. Or do you want to hear from a Wisconsin voice instead? Ask Jesse Stommel at UW Madison who just collaborated to build an online Shakespeare course; ask him about whether that was an easy, save-resources project. Again, anyone, of any party, who cares about education in Wisconsin should be concerned about the vision hinted at in Speaker Vos’ comment. Quality teaching and learning never happens on the cheap. Why are we giving up on investing in education?

  • Speaker Vos’ statement points to what many—conservatives and liberals alike—have feared. A plan for regionalization that creates (or further reinforces) a two-tiered public university system: we will have limited classroom access for a select group of students, and the rest of you? Ah, we’ll just throw it all online. Efficiencies! This is a moral disaster. This is class discrimination. This is dehumanizing.
  • I have seen many, many examples of terrible online teaching. There are times that I have been a terrible online teacher. Almost always, the reasons for this are consistent: a belief that classrooms can be replicated online, and that online teaching is somehow easier.
  • Built into this, of course, are plans to exploit low-paid adjunct labor instead of paying for tenure-track and tenure-level faculty. Why else do you write a law that makes it effortless to fire such people?
  • There are living human beings who do actual research on teaching and learning (The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning! Ho!). Some of them live and work in the UW System, though you wouldn’t know that, as legislators these days aren’t much for consulting with teachers about education (see K -12, like, forever). So, the next time you talk with a legislator, or someone who rabidly hates the UW for some reason, ask them to name one study they’ve read about teaching and learning. Ask them if it was peer reviewed. Okay, scratch that… still, studies are starting to clearly demonstrate that online learning, by itself, is often not as effective as hybrid and face-to-face environments, especially for students who need the most help. So, do we have no moral imperative? Do we only want to serve the elite? All forces indicate that no, we have no moral imperative. We’re simply giving up on education in the face of austerity, which strangles the imagination and offers no dreams or vision beyond, “cut, less, flexibility, efficiency, shutter this.” How bleak. Aren’t we embarrassed to aim so low and to court what is so easy?

Speaking of easy… There is a lot of talk about efficiency and wasting resources. Is it not the greatest waste of all to ignore your in-house experts? The UW system, filled with expertise and knowledge, is ignored as a resource by legislators and UW central admin alike. Why? Well, input is not needed when the completely inflexible, inefficient vision is already in place. We’ve completely turned away from each other. Isn’t that the point of the recent “reforms” to tenure and shared governance—to minimize input, and democracy, in the guise of “flexibility”? Vos himself aptly uses the word “dictate” in the MJS piece: “I have supported shared governance in an advisory role. But it has evolved to instead of offering advice, having the ability to decide and dictate.” What is there to say? If the role of other constituencies is merely advisory, then governance is not shared. And his solution to seeing constituencies “dictate”? Install a different dictator. Democracy is great for campaigning but not so much in actual practice. Then, it’s just too hard and inconvenient and inefficient.

This piece is already well beyond tl;dr. I’m out of words again, emotional, sad for the future. But I’ll offer this, again, to all Wisconsinites who I prefer to think of as my neighbors…

We are not going to succeed unless we first recognize the responsibility that rests on all of our shoulders, and then move that responsibility ahead of the chips that sit in their way.



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  1. Judy Martin June 15, 2015

    Thanks for your comments. More and more I recognize a fundamental disconnect in perspectives here – “facts”, especially unwanted ones, are irrelevant and, if uncomfortable, need to be suppressed. How can any university system operate under those conditions? Speaking of history, does anyone recognize echoes from the Middle Ages?

  2. Jim Perry June 15, 2015

    Why do we need to pay legislators to go to Madison, collect their per diem, clutter up the water holes around the Capitol, and pontificate? Can’t they just sit at home at a computer and pontificate away?

  3. Jason D'Acchioli June 14, 2015

    You’ve put to paper many of my thoughts far more eloquently than I ever could. Keep doing what you’re doing. The question is, how do we, as faculty, get this across to others in a more cogent way than is being done?


    • Dave Vanness June 15, 2015

      Part of me guesses they don’t care about the higher costs because they will go to the vendors who sell the software and servers to push this crap. Out of the hands of (liberal lefty teachers) and into the hands of good old American “job creators.” Sigh.

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