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The Professor as 21st Century Worker
So the respected New America foundation—taking its cue from former Princeton president William G. Bowen—is all about reconfiguring higher education along the lines of the 21st century high-tech, highly competitive global marketplace. What we have worldwide is a collapse of the various safety nets that compromise productivity. So gone or on the way out are unions, pensions, employee and employer loyalty, secure niche-career positions in corporations, and entitlements of all kinds. More and more employees are going to be independent contractors, developing and constantly updating flexible skills to fit the needs of employers. Not only should higher education mainly be about preparing students for this marketplace, our colleges and universities should be transformed to be part of that marketplace.
So the main goal of higher education should be about increasing the “labor productivity” of professors. Our colleges, as a result, could easily become much more efficient and affordable.
“Face-to-face instruction” is expensive, and so there should be less of it. That means “fewer faces on the faculty side.” We can expect that salaries of most professors will drop as the demand for them does. It’s not that there’s no benefit in the personal touch that comes with being taught by a real person. But the price in inefficiency is often too high. I can’t help but be reminded of the argument that’s been made over the last couple of generations against old-fashioned face-to-face or conversational psychiatry: It’s expensive, and the results are unreliable. The desired changes in mood, behavior, and even skill sets can be achieved efficiently in other ways. That argument might be offensive if your primary concern is the “soul” of the patient or student in some Socratic sense. But our more modest and more urgent goal is now to achieve the competencies required to flourish in the marketplace. Certainly Socrates or Freud had nothing much to teach about that.
We see throughout the marketplace the efficiencies that are achieved through the division of labor. For, say, Wal-Mart or the Olive Garden, the “mental labor” of developing a routine that maximizes customer services and profitability is done at some centralized location. Then the employees in the particular stores follow the script that’s been developed for them. Sure, they’re far from cogs in a machine, but productivity really does demand that their discretion be minimized. Why can’t the same be done in “routinizing aspects of the student learning experience and thus reducing the day-to-day discretion of individual professors.” We know the competencies students need to have, and we know the best way to lead them to acquire them. Why should we allow professors to choose against what the experts know about “best practices”? Give professors too much discretion and one result might be flashes of brilliance, but the more common result is the self-indulgence of time wasted. At Wal-mart, even managers are fired who unproductively deviate too far from the script, why not at colleges and universities?
Professors—much like inefficient medieval artisans or whatever—will continue to resist being held accountable for their productivity. They’ll appeal to tradition, not realizing, as Marx wrote, that capitalism rips the “halos” off the vain claims made for beautiful and useless pursuits. If you want money, you should have to work—and the proof that you worked is measurable results.
That means, of course, we shouldn’t make the mistake of reducing professors’ requirements for teaching productivity by their “research productivity.” That usually really means writing articles nobody reads and don’t really do anyone any measurable good. Nobody should be paying anyone to write more articles on Shakespeare, especially when you consider how bad—how ephemeral—most of them are. Allegedly cutting-edge Shakespeare breakthroughs don’t do anything to prepare students for the competitive lives they’ll have to lead.
Then there’s the tradition of “shared governance”—where faculty members have control over the curriculum and a big say in running the institution. What’s wrong with that model is that when it comes to the “mental labor” connected with maximizing efficiency and productivity, professors are typically pretty clueless. Their self-indulgence needs to be reined in by the experts, and the institution’s priorities and goals need to be set by those who really know what they’re doing. The truth is that colleges and universities increasingly think of instructors as workers just like any other, and they should be paid what the market will bear. That’s why colleges and universities are bypassing the lazy and overpaid tenured professors through the profligate use of adjuncts. “Governance is for the governors” is the model best suited for the division of labor directed by a cognitive elite “well suited to the digital world."
What about tenure? The best—meaning the most marketable—scholars don’t need it. Few faculty indeed use it “speak truth to administrative power”; the number is small enough and shrinking fast enough to make little practical difference. Professors routinely surrender “hard cash for job security.” And they end up being stuck at a particular institution for life, stuck with whatever capricious policy a particular administration imposes on them. Tenure gives faculty members less—not more—bargaining power. It keeps them from having the power of selling one's labor for what it’s really worth. So everywhere you look, the tenured faculty wallow in a kind of culture of grievance that’s personally demoralizing, as well as demoralizing for the institution.
And academic freedom? It’s way out of control. It makes no sense that professors be able to teach whatever they want whenever they want, satisfying their own curiosity and careerist ambitions instead of the real needs of students. And certainly professors shouldn’t be able to teach any way they want, without being held accountable to what students actually learn. Teaching method—like any other method—can be standardized, and academic freedom, to repeat, shouldn’t be used to justify willful deviation from best practices.
A piece of good news is that, through the right employment of the latest technology, higher education, like every other field of work, might be able to trim quite radically top-heavy administrations. Professors, working at will as independent contractors properly incentivized to deliver the most relevant skills and competencies to the greatest numbers of students, would at least be freed up from all the baloney that flows from administrators attending to concerns and amenities that have little to do with educational productivity—from all that “political correctness” to the shameful waste of time and money that is intercollegiate athletics.
The best or most savvy professors would make a lot more money, and they will have the satisfaction of knowing that what they’re doing is judged to be worth doing. Now it’s true their livelihoods will be a lot more contingent and vulnerable and more subject to market forces beyond their control. But why should they—and no one else—not have to adjust their priorities to the world in which we live?
There’s quite the vision here, and I readily get sucked in by the joy of figuring out all its details. A slight problem is it means the end of liberal education as higher education.
A man's skeleton, found facedown with his hands bound, was unearthed near an ancient ceremonial circle during a high speed rail excavation project.
- A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during an excavation outside of London.
- The discovery was made during a high speed rail project that has been a bonanza for archaeology, as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route.
- An ornate grave of a high status individual from the Roman period and an ancient ceremonial circle were also discovered during the excavations.
Foul play?<p>A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during a high speed rail excavation.</p><p>The positioning of the remains have led archaeologists to suspect that the man may have been a victim of an ancient murder or execution. Though any bindings have since decomposed, his hands were positioned together and pinned under his pelvis. There was also no sign of a grave or coffin. </p><p>"He seems to have had his hands tied, and he was face-down in the bottom of the ditch," <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">said archaeologist Rachel Wood</a>, who led the excavation. "There are not many ways that you end up that way."</p><p>Currently, archaeologists are examining the skeleton to uncover more information about the circumstances of the man's death. Fragments of pottery found in the ditch may offer some clues as to exactly when the man died. </p><p>"If he was struck across the head with a heavy object, you could find a mark of that on the back of the skull," Wood said to <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">Live Science</a>. "If he was stabbed, you could find blade marks on the ribs. So we're hoping to find something like that, to tell us how he died."</p>
Other discoveries at Wellwick Farm<p>The grim discovery was made at Wellwick Farm near Wendover. That is about 15 miles north-west of the outskirts of London, where <a href="https://www.hs2.org.uk/building-hs2/hs2-green-corridor/" target="_blank">a tunnel</a> is going to be built as part of a HS2 high-speed rail project due to open between London and several northern cities sometime after 2028. The infrastructure project has been something of a bonanza for archaeology as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route that are now being excavated before construction begins. </p><p>The farm sits less than a mile away from the ancient highway <a href="http://web.stanford.edu/group/texttechnologies/cgi-bin/stanfordnottingham/places/?icknield" target="_blank">Icknield Way</a> that runs along the tops of the Chiltern Hills. The route (now mostly trails) has been used since prehistoric times. Evidence at Wellwick Farm indicates that from the Neolithic to the Medieval eras, humans have occupied the region for more than 4,000 years, making it a rich area for archaeological finds. </p><p>Wood and her colleagues found some evidence of an ancient village occupied from the late Bronze Age (more than 3,000 years ago) until the Roman Empire's invasion of southern England about 2,000 years ago. At the site were the remains of animal pens, pits for disposing food, and a roundhouse — a standard British dwelling during the Bronze Age constructed with a circular plan made of stone or wood topped with a conical thatched roof.</p>
Ceremonial burial site<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NDgwNTIyMX0.I49n1-j8WVhKjIZS_wVWZissnk3W1583yYXB7qaGtN8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C82%2C0%2C83&height=700" id="44da7" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="46cfc8ca1c64fc404b32014542221275" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="top down view of coffin" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
A high status burial in a lead-lined coffin dating back to Roman times.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>While these ancient people moved away from Wellwick Farm before the Romans invaded, a large portion of the area was still used for ritual burials for high-status members of society, Wood told Live Science. The ceremonial burial site included a circular ditch (about 60 feet across) at the center, and was a bit of a distance away from the ditch where the (suspected) murder victim was uncovered. Additionally, archaeologists found an ornately detailed grave near the sacred burial site that dates back to the Roman period, hundreds of years later when the original Bronze Age burial site would have been overgrown.</p><p>The newer grave from the Roman period encapsulated an adult skeleton contained in a lead-lined coffin. It's likely that the outer coffin had been made of wood that rotted away. Since it was clearly an ornate burial, the occupant of the grave was probably a person of high status who could afford such a lavish burial. However, according to Wood, no treasures or tokens had been discovered. </p>
Sacred timber circle<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDAwOTQ4Mn0.eVJAUcD0uBUkVMFuMOPSgH8EssGkfLf_MjwUv0zGCI8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C149%2C0%2C149&height=700" id="9de6a" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ee66520d470b26f5c055eaef0b95ec06" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="An aerial view of the sacred circular monument." data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
An aerial view of the sacred circular monument.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>One of the most compelling archaeological discoveries at Wellwick Farm are the indications of a huge ceremonial circle once circumscribed by timber posts lying south of the Bronze Age burial site. Though the wooden posts have rotted away, signs of the post holes remain. It's thought to date from the Neolithic period to 5,000 years ago, according to Wood.</p><p>This circle would have had a diameter stretching 210 feet across and consisted of two rings of hundreds of posts. There would have been an entry gap to the south-west. Five posts in the very center of the circle aligned with that same gap, which, according to Wood, appeared to have been in the direction of the rising sun on the day of the midwinter solstice. </p><p>Similar Neolithic timber circles have been discovered around Great Britain, such as one near <a href="https://bigthink.com/culture-religion/stonehenge-sarsens" target="_blank">Stonehenge</a> that is considered to date back to around the same time. </p>
Research reveals a new evolutionary feature that separates humans from other primates.
- Researchers find a new feature of human evolution.
- Humans have evolved to use less water per day than other primates.
- The nose is one of the factors that allows humans to be water efficient.
A model of water turnover for humans and chimpanzees who have similar fat free mass and body water pools.
Credit: Current Biology
Being skeptical isn't just about being contrarian. It's about asking the right questions of ourselves and others to gain understanding.
- It's not always easy to tell the difference between objective truth and what we believe to be true. Separating facts from opinions, according to skeptic Michael Shermer, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, and others, requires research, self-reflection, and time.
- Recognizing your own biases and those of others, avoiding echo chambers, actively seeking out opposing voices, and asking smart, testable questions are a few of the ways that skepticism can be a useful tool for learning and growth.
- As Derren Brown points out, being "skeptical of skepticism" can also lead to interesting revelations and teach us new things about ourselves and our psychology.